A Mesquite Saison From Arizona Wilderness Lassoes the Soul of Craft Beer

Desert Dweller: a saison flavored with mesquite.
Desert Dweller: a saison flavored with mesquite. Chris Malloy
Welcome to Liquid Lowdown, a column exploring the strange, beautiful world of local drinks. Each entry will spotlight one craft liquid made right here in metro Phoenix (or just beyond). Lowdowns will feature mostly beer, but we’ll also take detours into other alcoholic beverages. Snap open a can or thrum the cork from a bottleneck. Cheers. Let's get weird.

Liquid: Beer
Style: Arizona Saison
Name: Desert Dweller
ABV: 6.1 percent
Maker: Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company

So many craft beers no longer taste like beer. Blitzed with juice, loaded with lactose, more like smoothies or cake than fermented beverages made from wheat and water, many newfangled craft beers have wandered from beer’s origins. And that’s gravy. But sometimes, a tired soul blasted by 110-degree days craves a beer that tastes like beer.

Or, if you dig creative beer, one that pushes just a little at the edges of what beer can be.

Desert Dweller, an early July release from Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company, does just that.

The saison has been a Wilderness seasonal for a half-decade, though it has changed over the years. Its calling card is toasted mesquite pods, their essence imparted like hops.

Jonathan Buford, co-owner of Wilderness, says a mesquite tea from Tucson’s Exo Roast Co. inspired the beer. At first, Wilderness used any old mesquite pods. They weren't aware that landscapers plant non-native trees with less-tasty pods. Knowing this now, the brewers use pods from sweeter native mesquite trees out in the desert.
click to enlarge Jonathan Buford and Patrick Ware, owners of Wilderness, at Camp Coolship. - CHRIS MALLOY
Jonathan Buford and Patrick Ware, owners of Wilderness, at Camp Coolship.
Chris Malloy
The name Desert Dweller references the Tohono O’odham, known as the “desert people.” Long before sliced cheese and microwaves, mesquite was one of our region’s primary foods. Tohono O’odham stored mesquite in baskets for year-round use, pounded it into flour for no-bake bread, even fermented it into a beer-like drink.

Reader, look your window! Do you see a mesquite tree? I hope you do. If you do, it’s probably curled with yellow pods if you’re reading in July 2021. Mesquite is at the end of its season right now. Traditionally, the season ends when the first monsoon storm rips pods to newly wet earth, exposing them to bacteria and rendering them inedible (to humans).

This season, a big portion of the Wilderness team foraged pods. If you know Wilderness, you know that this brewery that honors its name, using cactus fruit and wild blackberries and spruce tips and even ambient yeast in drinks that capture wild spaces.

And yet, despite being flavored with toasted yellow mesquite pods, Desert Dweller keeps mostly true to the ancient spirit of Belgium’s saison.

“I think the Belgian brewers would freak out over this, because that’s exactly what saison is,” Buford says. “You’re taking ingredients that are available at the season, the saison, and allowing yeast to amplify its flavor.”

Historically brewed at cooler temperatures in barns, known for bone-deep refreshment and funk, popular on the American craft brew scene a decade ago, saisons have diminished in the States. They’ve yielded to the IPA family tree, central European staples like pilsner, and the bonkers pastry stouts and juice-bomb sours that inspired the screed in my first paragraph.
click to enlarge Desert Dweller costs $14 for a 4 pack. - CHRIS MALLY
Desert Dweller costs $14 for a 4 pack.
Chris Mally
Buford points to a cause of decline. “Saisons have fallen off the face of the earth,” he says. “Americans literally fucked it up by using the wrong yeasts, the wrong terms… and improper hopping levels."

Desert Dweller is gentle and wheaty and refreshing. It has some spicing that doesn't stray too far from the natural spicing of fresh grain, rye-like spicing known to anyone who has ever walked near a blowing wheat field or operated a grain husking machine.

This rounded, low-volume wheaty spicing melds with mesquite’s dusky notes and hike-through-the-desert earthy undercurrent. Both are minor. So, too, are enigmatic honey-adjacent notes imparted by mesquite that, despite overlapping with honey’s flavor, have zero of its sweetness.

All said, it channels the desert in a subtle, thoughtful, elusive way.

Best of all, you can taste the grain. You can taste its freshness, its lushness that recalls the open field. You can feel the heat of the alcohol, a warmth that resembles our land where the mesquite pods grow. This is a really solid brew. This is what craft beer should be.
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy