What may seem like a land plagued by arid lifelessness where only wiry shrubs, starved animals and threatening cacti can survive, the Sonoran Desert is deceivingly plentiful in wild foods and flavors, many of which are making their way into the local craft brewing scene.
From prickly pear to mesquite, the wild flavors of the desert can accent beer in a novel and delicious way that is uniquely Arizonan.
One of the more popular desert brews in Southern Arizona is the Prickly Pear Wheat from Borderlands Brewing Company in Tucson. President of Borderlands, Mike Mallozzi, said the attraction to native ingredients comes from a growing desire to know exactly where your food and drink comes from.
“From a business point of view, a sense of place is necessary to be successful,” Mallozzi said. “You can’t replicate authenticity.”
With prickly pear from Cheri’s Desert Harvest, the team at Borderlands incorporate the crisp, almost melon-like flavor of the cactus fruit with the classic breadiness of a traditional wheat ale.
The taste for prickly pear has grown across the nation, as well. Breweries as far as Montana and Oregon are producing prickly pear beers in Arizona fashion.
Mallozzi also said another result of using native ingredients is a more sustainable product. The food doesn’t have to travel very far or before it’s added to your beer, Mallozzi said.
Aside from the beautiful flavors of the beer and the aspect of sustainability, Mallozzi said using native ingredients can help build a sense of community.
“I see breweries as community gathering places,” Mallozzi said. “They’re egalitarian, welcoming. And beer tends to make things easier, socially.”
Borderlands also has a porter called Noche Dulce that features vanilla sourced directly from the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.
Laura Cortelyou, tourism and hospitality manager for the Town of Marana and foraging enthusiast, said the wild foods of Arizona are vastly superior and abundant compared to anywhere else in the West, but utilizing them can sometimes be a challenge.
“They’re really hard,” Cortelyou said. “They’re not predictable, it’s not like you can have a garden that you can check on every day.”
Cortelyou said especially for restaurants, incorporating wild ingredients into a menu is a challenge because the things that you can eat are very seasonal; some can only be harvested for one or two months out of the year.
However, Cortelyou said breweries might be the perfect place for wild ingredients because their business relies on milling and fermentation, processes that stretch the life of the ingredients.
She said some of her favorite wild Sonoran foods include prickly pear, mesquite, nopales, barrel cactus fruit, tepary beans and hackberries.
Cortelyou said that there has been a renewed interest in the use of wild foods, nationally.
“With food trends, it’s always a matter of taste and taste is always changing,” Cortelyou said. “I hope that it becomes a permanent thing; we should always eat the foods that grow here naturally.”
Hank Rowe, brewhouse manager at Catalina Brewing Company in Marana and a third-generation Arizonan, said his interest in wild food has always been there. He said as a kid, he and his friends would spend their days riding their bikes through the desert.
“Our summer candy was mesquite pods; we would suck on them for the sweetness,” Rowe said. “It’s not that it (wild ingredients) will stick around, it’s always been here.”
Catalina Brewery offers a few brews that utilize native ingredients. One of their most popular beers and their flagship is the Mesquite Agave red ale. Rowe said mesquite is an ingredient that many breweries try to utilize and fail. But his lifetime of experience enjoying mesquite left him with the proper knowhow to treat the ingredient properly.
“We found a recipe where I took ground mesquite pods and what we found were really unique flavors,” Rowe said. “It just has the unique flavor of the Southwest.”
The touch of agave nectar in brew highlights the honey-like sweetness of the mesquite, resulting in a light refreshing ale.
Catalina Brewing also offers a brew called La Rosa, a prickly pear cream ale inspired by the rosy sunsets of the Catalina Mountains. It also has a seasonal winter beer called Mesquite Smoked Pecan Doppelbock that is made by smoking raw pecans with mesquite wood, providing a distinct nutty flavor.
In 2015, Tucson was named Unesco’s first World City of Gastronomy in North America for its 11,000-year history of cultivating native foods. The breweries in Southern Arizona are exemplifying the celebrated gastronomic legacy that is unique to the Sonoran Desert.
- List of beers with native ingredients in Southern Arizona
- Fire and Flavor spiced beer – Iron John’s Brewing Company
- Saison de Juhki Saison / Farmhouse Ale – Iron John’s
- Petey Mesquitey Porter – Iron John’s
- Father Saguaro Patersbier – Iron John’s
- Chiltepín Red – Button Brewhouse
- Prickly Pear Wheat – Borderlands Brewing Company
- Mesquite Agave – Catalina Brewing Company
- Mesquite Smoked Pecan – Catalina Brewing
- La Rosa – Catalina Brewing
- Vida Beer – Pueblo Vida Brewing Company
Chandler Donald is a reporter for the Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at email@example.com.
Click here for a word version of the story and high resolution images.