Mikkeller, Arizona Wilderness and Mexas Ranger: Denmark in the Desert

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Beer: Mexas Ranger
Brewery: Mikkeller
Style: Spiced Beer
ABV: 6.6 percent

You may have heard that Mikkeller, renowned Denmarkian gypsy brewer, is making his way to Arizona this week to cook up a beer in collaboration with the best new brewery in the world. Arizona Wilderness has been discussed at depth in this space before, but we've only very briefly touched on our Danish friend Mikkel, so you may be wondering: how can a brewer from a place so far away and so different from the American Southwest create a beer that maintains AZ Wilderness' dedication to using the ingredients and capturing the flavors of the region?

I have faith. Here's why.

First, Mikkel Borg Bjergsø does not, and never has, made beer in his own brewery -- unless you count his kitchen, where he and fellow co-founder, Kristian Klarup Keller, began their brewing experiments in 2003. The beers they crafted were just for personal consumption at first -- Bjergsø thought he could save some money by brewing beers similar to the ones he loved to drink instead of paying for them at a bar. But their American-inspired ales quickly brought them some acclaim in homebrewing contests, and the pair soon began brewing on a larger scale at the Danish brewery Ørbæk. Their big break came when the beer-judging website ratebeer.com declared Mikkeller's Beer Geek Breakfast, an oatmeal stout brewed with French-press coffee, was declared one of the world's top stouts (in this Mikkeller is not unlike our own Wilderness, which earned its recent fame after being named Best New Brewery in the World by ratebeer).

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Mikkel has fun with his fog machine
Though growth of the brand continued, Bjergsø never got a brewery of his own. Instead, he became the world's most popular "gypsy brewer." You may have seen this Mikkeller referred to in this way, or as a "phantom brewery" or "contract brewery." The meaning is the same: Bjergsø collaborates with other breweries or pays them to use their equipment to brew his beers. Most Mikkeller beverages are made at de Proef Brouwerij in Belgium, but he's collaborated with many of the world's top breweries, including Denmark's To Øl; Scotland's BrewDog; American breweries like AleSmith, Cigar City and Three Floyds; and his brother, Jeppe's brewery, the aptly named Evil Twin.

So, Bjergsø is familiar with brewing on others' equipment, in locales far from home. But that's only one reason to expect much from his collaboration with Arizona Wilderness. The other: he's already made a beer using Southwestern ingredients, and it kicks quite a bit of ass.

Mexas Ranger is a thick, pitch-black brew that looks more 12-percent ABV imperial stout than 6-percent porter. When poured into a glass, it boasts a dense layer of some of the darkest, longest-lasting foam I've ever seen. The aroma displays notes of molasses, tangy dark chocolate, sweet almonds and anise -- but it's in the flavor that Mexas Ranger's added ingredients are on full display.

The beer is based on another Mikkeller makes: Texas Ranger, a porter brewed with chipotle. In Mexas, the peppers are replaced with cocoa, chili, almond milk, black beans, avocado leaves and assorted spices. The result: a creamy, almost oily, full-bodied brew that boasts powerful chile heat alongside dark chocolate and licorice. This all occurs mid-palate; the swallow delivers nothing but black beans -- the mild, chalky flavor you find in many Mexican dishes. A green, herbal character I'll attribute to the avocado leaves (never had 'em) can be discerned as well. It's a brew with a lot going on, light in alcohol but heavy in flavor.

Bjergsø knows Southwestern ingredients and he knows how to combine his skills with those of the brewers he visits. Look for a tasty result of his collaborative June 2 brewday with Arizona Wilderness. We'll let you know when it's ready.

Zach Fowle is a BJCP-recognized beer judge and a Certified Cicerone. He works at World of Beer in Tempe.

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