Or, at least, citrus was bobbing in the beer. Baja Arizona brewers conspired, at the tail of March, to bring some zing into the Tucson beer world. The scene was Dragoon’s spacious taproom and brew house. The culprits were a dozen local brewers. The accomplices were a couple hundred thirsty Tucsonans.
Thunder Canyon featured their Citrus Maximus, a Sonoran Desert IPA “supersaturated with the zest of a variety of hand-harvested Sonoran Desert citrus.” I asked Steve Tracy why they used zest instead of juice. We were standing under the shadow of a stack of tens of thousands of soon-to-be-filled Dragoon IPA cans. The zest, Tracy explained, imparts the essential oils, adding aroma and flavor without watering down (or juicing down) the beer. Thunder Canyon scraped zest from tangelo, blood orange, pink grapefruit, and another secret citrus fruit that they wouldn’t name. “It’s secret!” Adam Marshal, Thunder Canyon’s brewer, told me when I asked him about the unnamed citrus. I pressed, but he wouldn’t divulge. I also asked the Thunder Canyon brewers if there were any well-known beers that used zest instead of juice (or, more commonly, concentrate) in beers. “Making zest on a large scale is difficult,” Tracy said. Thunder Canyon also added extra hops to their Citrus Maximus, and it was one of the best beers of the night.
Iskashitaa had on display, next to their increasingly diverse (and delicious) craft vinegars (you could practically drink the Juniper Vinegar from a glass), a wide variety of locally-picked citrus fruits, in descending order of magnitude: pomelo, grapefruit, tangelo, orange, lemon, and lime.
I asked two thirsty revelers, Randy Waterman and Al Harris, what they thought of the Public Brewhouse’s Lemon Poppy Citruslicious IPA. “Mm-mm-mmn,” Waterman said. What does it taste like? I asked. “Sweet,” Harris offered. “Like a liquid scone,” Waterman added. “Or a liquid Danish.”
Cody Van Haren, Public’s co-owner and brewer, said that there was a nice clean citrus note up front, and that it was plenty sweet for such a boozy beer. It was 7.7 percent ABV.
The Address at 1702 cooked up a Lee Street Shandy, a Pale Ale Shandy named after Alvin Kuenster’s (head brewer) street. (Kuenster harvested the oranges from his backyard.) I butted into a conversation Kuenster was having with Bob, who was visiting from Northwest England. Bob explained that a shandy is a light ale mixed with “ordinary everyday pub lemonade” and is typically only around 2 percent ABV. “The kids would drink Shandies,” Bob explained. “In high school [in England] you would do your homework at the pub,” putting back a couple shandies in an afternoon. The Address’s Pale Ale Shandy was a touch stronger, at around 6 percent ABV, with clean Simcoe hops and not oversweet orange juice. It was incredibly refreshing, nicely bitter, and just a touch sweet. Wonderfully, Kuenster plans to put a keg or two on tap at 1702.
Ten Fifty-Five brought their Grapefruit Pomegranate Leap, another Pale Ale. They had a secret, too, but after some sleuthing, I uncovered it. They added a touch of ginger to make the pomegranate pop. John Vyborny, Ten Fifty-Five’s co-owner and brewer, explained the difficulty of juicing a pomegranate (the fruits came from his grandmother’s yard). Their beer was a variation on their standard Leap Pale Ale.
Seis had parked their food truck out front, and inside people were leaning back and dumping nacho loads of cheese and salsa into their mouths, washing them down with beer.
Catalina offered their Orange Dream, which was described as “another recipe from our ‘Wheat Guy’, Eric Fairfield.” I found Fairfield, standing next to the keg, and asked him how he became the “Wheat Guy.” “I like wheat-based beers,” he said. Catalina sources their White Sonora Wheat from local BKW farms. Their Orange Dream is a home recipe that was having its first public debut at Baja Brews. Judging from the line (approximately 3 minutes) it was enjoying a good premiere.
Fairfield, a Tucson native, told me that the smell reminded him of driving down Orange Grove Road back in the 60’s, when there were still orange groves on it. Now, he explained, it’s the campus area that has that refreshing citrus smell to it.
Iron John’s impressed, as usual, with Smoke in the Orchard, a smoked apple strong ale—unique, cidery, smoky on the finish.
One of the stranger beers of the night was Dragoon’s Stronghold Session, brewed with both Orange and Chocolate. There was orange strong on the nose, but the beer was a little thin, I thought, to carry the chocolate flavor, though there was a pleasing hint of it. I asked Seth and Katie Gleason to take a sip for me, and tell me what they thought. They didn’t know about the added chocolate, but they were Dragoon regulars, and accomplished tasters. It reminded them of an old candy, “one of those candy chocolate oranges,” Katie said, not remembering the name, though they both recalled receiving the candies in their Christmas stockings.
Citrus, Christmas, secret ingredients, a dash of vinegar, and lots of beer—it all made for a good early Spring eve.
Stay tuned for more information about the sixth (and last!) Baja Brews tasting event in June!
Header image by Addie Mannan.