I grew up in northern Minnesota—not just “eating local,” but living off the land. We grew our own wheat for flour, purchased whole milk from a local farmer and made cheese and home-churned butter, raised chickens and even collected maple sap for making syrup. My older brothers would hunt and fish and sometimes I would wander into the woods to forage for wild fruits and berries. My family had a large vegetable garden and root cellar. We didn’t do all of this because it was trendy, we did it because, for us (a family of eight), it was practical.
Years later, while living in Phoenix, it was easy for my wife and me to maintain an herb and vegetable garden for much of the year. We had an orange tree, two lemon trees, a kumquat tree and a fruiting mulberry tree. We would trade fruit with our neighbors who had grapefruit and pomegranate trees. This was, again, very local and very practical.
In recent years, there has been an increasing shift toward buying local foods, growing foods at home and joining food and garden sharing programs. I’m glad to be a part of the local wine movement in Arizona, and it is exciting to see world-class wines being made from this land. However, some Arizona winemakers get their fruit from outside of the state—often California.
What I’ve noticed about these wines is that, even without the unique Arizona terroir, there is still local flavor. A distinctive taste is imparted by the personality and style of the winemaker. The very same fruit will express itself differently with each winemaker—and you can test this yourself—because Arizona wineries often cooperate, purchasing fruit from the same sources and sharing in the cost of transport.
What does all of this have to do with beer? While it is understandable that some would like all Arizona wine to be made with 100-percent locally grown fruit, nobody seems to expect a local beer to have many (or any) local ingredients. It is easier to grasp the idea that local beer is often more about the brewer than the ingredients. After all, Arizona doesn’t have abundant options for places to grow barley or for malting grain. It has been established that hops can be grown successfully in Arizona, but their commercial viability remains to be unseen. Some local craft brewers and home brewers find ways to express a taste of home, but this is often little more than a “seasoning” due to the difficulties in finding large quantities of locally grown barley and hops.
Perusing the recipes for most of my homebrews is like reading a world traveler’s itinerary. My malt, hops and yeast may come from Germany, Scotland, England, Canada, France or Belgium. Sometimes I’ll use hops from the Pacific Northwest, New Zealand or my own backyard. I often add local ingredients, but they are rarely the bulk of a recipe. My best homebrewed example of an Arizona-grown beer used 23 pounds of fresh prickly pear fruit along with Belgian malt and local wild yeast.
Questions come up when pondering the topic of local ingredients in Arizona beer. How local can an Arizona beer actually be? When does “local” become completely impractical? Arizona is unlikely to ever produce more than a small fraction of the ingredients used in its beers. It has even been pointed out that much of Arizona’s water (coming from the Colorado River) isn’t local.
As I mention in a previous article, the styles of Arizona beers seem to come from a variety of backgrounds, so perhaps it’s only natural that the ingredients continue to be sourced from far and wide. Though it may not often be practical, I’d like to see a few Arizona craft beers with 100-percent local ingredients.
Since White Sonora Wheat has been used in Arizona craft brews already, perhaps we will see wheat beers become the most practical and sustainable option. Some Arizona vineyards have strong and balanced wild yeasts that could work perfectly in a mildly spicy wheat beer. There is still some excellent groundwater in this state, so even the water could potentially be locally sourced.
Fruit beers and braggots are other local brews that could move into the spotlight. Sweet potatoes, squash and melons all have potential for creating unique Arizona flavors in beer with seasonal produce that is more accessible than local malt. Sure, these suggestions show no consideration for the Reinheitsgebot (the German Beer Purity Law), but this is the Wild West and all the Germans I’ve met out here seem to appreciate our “cowboy” shenanigans.