Brew Review

Liquid Lowdown: Phoenix's Wren House Brews a Beer Mimicking Horchata

Yellow Giraffe is a wheat wine and a "horchata rice wheat wine."
Yellow Giraffe is a wheat wine and a "horchata rice wheat wine." Chris Malloy
Welcome to Liquid Lowdown, a column that will explore 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. So snap open a can or thrum the cork from a bottleneck. Cheers. Let's get weird.

Liquid: Beer
Name: Yellow Giraffe
Style: Wheat Wine
ABV: 8 percent
Brewery: Wren House Brewing Company
Address: 2125 North 24th Street
Hours: Monday to Thursday noon to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to midnight; Sunday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Lowdown: Named for the two fake yard animals out the Wren House tap room's west window, Yellow Giraffe is an experimental beer. Though Wren can craft a solid pilsner or lager, "horchata rice wheat wine" falls into the far opposite end of the brewery's range: beers that push what beer can be.

In Wren House's four years, head brewer Preston Thoeny has created some madcap concoctions, including a series of beers modeled after pies and the rotating, vivid, fruit-juice-infused Las Frescas. Even so, Yellow Giraffe is a little different. “We didn’t really know what it was," Thoeny says. "It’s kind of its own thing.”

What Thoeny wanted to do with Yellow Giraffe was mimic horchata, the refreshing Mexican rice milk.

With this endpoint in mind, he sourced an unexpected beer ingredient: jasmine rice. He then filled his mash tank with a roughly equal combination of rice and wheat. “The main thing was the amount of rice we used — 50 percent rice,” he says. “Loads of vanilla. Just trying to get something more drinkable and fun for the summer.”

click to enlarge
Wren House's bar.
Chris Malloy
When fresh, horchata can taste even milkier than milk. To build sweetness and pastoral vibes, Thoeny added lactose (an adjunct often used in pastry stouts, like the Pecan Pie Thief). He also employed cassia bark, an ingredient like cinnamon.

Into your glass, Yellow Giraffe pours clean and golden. It’s more gin-clear and lucent than you would expect from a horchata relative. No clouds. Not even a rumor of clouds. Just bubbles straggling to the brim to burst, and a thin aroma of fall spices.

Yellow Giraffe’s alcohol content mostly hides behind its mild sweetness, spice, and faintly milky flavor and body. But some of it comes through as warmth. Arguably, the beer could use more counterbalancing of sugar, spice, and milky intensity, which would drive it nearer to horchata.

Yellow Giraffe achieves its goal and channels horchata, but as more of a whisper. A sip brings an echo of the lush rice milk, not the haymaker you may expect, especially if you've put your lips to anything from the Pie Series. Yellow Giraffe is an alluring brew: a wheat wine on the gentle end of the giant style, one crafted using the minimum wheat that wheat wine requires.

This beer has real potential, and Wren House plans to tweak the recipe for future versions. It won’t be a beer that’s always on the menu or in cans, but if you follow the brewery via social media you’ll be able to see when it is. Then you may stop by, or just track the brew’s evolution.

For the next batch, Thoeny hopes to dial up the spice, vanilla, and creaminess. “We were super happy with it, but the goal is to make it more horchata-tasting."

Endnotes: A prime time to sip Yellow Giraffe or any other Wren House beer will begin Monday, June 17, when the brewery's fourth anniversary bash kicks off a week of special releases and onsite food vendors. Some of the beer collaborations look pretty electric.
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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