Beer: Picacho Pecan Pie Brown Ale Brewery: Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co. Style: Northern English Brown Ale ABV: 6.6 percent
One month ago, Gilbert's first craft brewery smelled incredible. Arizona Wilderness' brewmasters, Jonathan Buford and Patrick Ware, had almost finished the first step of their much-anticipated brown ale, but the addition of a few special ingredients remained. The first: six whole pecan pies, baked with love by a friend and brewery supporter, which were added directly to the mash. "The pie just dissolves when it hits the liquid in this beautiful, messy way," says Buford -- I imagine the two brewers laughing with glee as they watched the pies diffuse into the murk. The second and third: 50 pounds of dark brown sugar and three gallons of grade B maple syrup, added during the boil, which not only made the brewers' bubbling cauldron "the most sticky wort in the history of wort," but filled the brewhouse with the sticky-sweet aroma of pancakes.
Two weeks ago, Arizona Wilderness smelled even better. Five pounds of pecans, hand-cracked by the brewers and staff, were being pan-roasted before they would be added, along with 40 vanilla beans, to the still-fermenting brew. The brewers sat nearby, resting their tired hands and breathing in the nutty bouquet.
Talking with John Buford tonight, he still has the satisfied look of a man breathing in sweet aromas of success. "This is one of the proudest nights of my life, releasing this beer," Buford says. "It combines everything we're about. It's delicious, and it showcases Arizona."
How it does that, exactly, came as much of a surprise to Buford as it did to me. After finding inspiration in a friend's brilliant homemade pecan pie, Buford decided to look up some Arizona pecan companies while driving near Picacho Peak. He found, shockingly, that Arizona actually exports the second-highest number of pecans in the country, right behind Georgia. The main adjunct in Picacho Pecan Pie Brown Ale -- pounds and pounds of roasted pecans -- were grown right here in the state.
So, plenty of effort went into this brew. But at first sip, it's hard to see why Buford's so excited about it. Sure, a smooth nuttiness and roast character plays off the thin, medium-light body in a very drinkable way -- but overall, it's a very standard, forgettable brew. Buford recognizes the consternation in my face and tells me to give it a minute. "It's not the beer it should be at 39 degrees," he says. "The vanilla and pecans really come out as it warms up. At at 55 degrees, everything in this beer is out."
So I wait for my glass to warm -- and I advise you to do the same, for you will be rewarded. As the beer nears room temperature, the deep, sweet aromas of the season emerge. Maple syrup, unimpeded by American ale yeast, leads the way for other saccharine stuff like French vanilla and brown sugar. Mint, plum, alcohol and roasted pecan swirl in the background.
When cold, Picacho Pecan Pie's flavor is that of a straightforward brown ale: toasty and nutty. Even when warm, the roasty flavors of bread, pecans and mild coffee lead. It's after the swallow that things get interesting, with vanilla beans and pecan skins rising up to smooth out the beer's edges.
None of these flavors, however, are very powerful -- those looking for the sweet, intense flavors of a pecan pie should look elsewhere. No, this brew is about balance and drinkability with a subtle twist, which is how Wilderness' brewers tend to operate. Some of the most detail-oriented beer-makers I've ever met, these guys carefully think out every aspect of their product and control every part of the process that can be controlled. This includes the amount brewed -- Wilderness crafted just one 7-barrel batch of the pie-spiked brew, and when it's gone, it'll stay gone until next year. Get some while you can. They didn't hand-crack all those pecan shells for nothing.
Zach Fowle is a Certified Cicerone, an accredited guide to beer. He works at World of Beer in Tempe.