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Finding Quality Brews in the Las Vegas Beer Desert

April 26, 2018

By Pat Evans, April 26, 2018

The reputation of Las Vegas beer goes hand-in-hand with the reputation of Las Vegas. The glitz and glamor of the Strip leads visitors, even the most seasoned and beer-loving ones, to believe little exists outside of the several miles of resorts. The casinos are dominated by cheap macro beer, often given out for free to bettors, and restaurants still largely focused on high-end wine and cocktails.

The relative dearth of local beer on the Strip, combined with a sprawling metropolis with more than two million people, makes local breweries feel few and far between. On top of those facts, and likely because of those facts, multiple publications have named Nevada among the worst beer scenes in the U.S. With that in mind, Las Vegas, and Nevada as a whole, has a much more robust beer scene than said publications would like you to believe.

“Each time one of those articles comes out, we just shake our head,” said David Pascual, the head brewer at Big Dog’s Brewing Co. “We have world-class beers here and people don’t seem to know that. Clearly it’s just hearsay or secondary sources and it does irk me. But it’s more of that fire to light under you. I like that underdog feel.”

In truth, the beer scene in Las Vegas is small but stellar, and primed to get better. Brewers in the city readily admit that Vegas is several years behind the leading U.S. beer markets, but the few brewers that call it home produce a wide array of excellent beer. Three of them took home Great American Beer Festival medals in 2017: Joseph James Brewing Co., PT’s Brewing Co. and Big Dog’s Brewing Company, which is where our story truly starts.

Big Dog’s Brewing Company

Big Dog’s Brewing Company

The oldest brewery in town, Big Dog’s can trace its heritage back to 1993, when the Holy Cow Casino and Brewery opened on South Las Vegas Boulevard. A move and a name change later, Big Dog’s is now far from the Strip, but remains an award-winning brewery.

In the 25 years of operation, the brewery has only had three head brewers, all of which have taken multiple awards at the Great American Beer Festival and World Beer Cup. The first, Dan Rogers, is now in Michigan at Griffin Claw Brewing Co. and the second, Dave Otto, is still in Las Vegas making beers at PT’s Brewing Co. Currently at the helm of the brewhouse at Big Dog’s is Pascual, who is well known for his Belgian-inspired beers, such as seDATEd, a Quad brewed with local dates, as well as Tripel Dog Dare.

Big Dog’s provides a Midwestern-inspired oasis in the middle of the desert, with a log cabin-like feel and a menu full of staples like bratwurst and Wisconsin cheese curds. An outstanding collection of IPAs is served alongside a year-round lineup dating back to the Holy Cow days, including the oft-awarded Red Hydrant Brown Ale and Tailwagger Wheat.

Tenaya Creek Brewery

Tenaya Creek Brewery

Along with Big Dog’s, Tenaya Creek Brewery dates back to the 1990s and has its own impressive cabinet of awards. Unlike Big Dog’s, it recently took its show from the relative outskirts of Las Vegas to downtown—where two other breweries, Hop Nuts and Banger, also call home—and shifted its model to offer a more traditional taproom model, focused on beer rather than gaming and food.

A long bar with lots of natural light, a refreshing change from most establishments in Las Vegas, highlights Tenaya Creek. The skinny taproom provides a cozy setting to belly up and chat with locals, without the annoyance of gaming screens dotting the bartop. Here, Tenaya Creek still brews up much of its standard lineup of beer, including Bonanza Brown, Tandem Double IPA, 702 Pale Ale and Craft Pilsner. Since its founding in 1999, Tenaya Creek has expanded its IPA offerings as well, including Gypsy Fade, Hop Ride and Monsoon.

Joseph James Brewing Co.

While it lacks a taproom, Joseph James Brewing is well known throughout the Las Vegas Valley thanks to its experimental brews and extensive barrel-aging program, which includes a collection of bottled wild and sour beers. Along with its specialty sours from the barrel program, the brewery releases four canned varieties of Berliner weisse as well: Passion Fruit and Guava, Lemongrass and Ginger, Peach and Blood Orange and Cranberry.

Although, if you’re staying around the Strip, you’ll most likely cross paths with Citra Rye Pale Ale. Perhaps the most known local beer, it’s available in stores, restaurants and bars across the city and for good reason: It’s a standout beer in a world where pale ales are increasingly forgotten. Joseph James also paid tribute to its truly local roots, following the October 1, 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas. The brewery led the way for a city-wide collaboration, brewing up the Vegas Strong Ale and donating 100 percent of the proceeds of the 20-barrel batch.

Crafthaus Brewery

Crafthaus Brewery

Before it opened in 2014, Crafthaus Brewery, as well as its founders Wyndee and Dave Forrest, were instrumental in changing local brewpub laws, allowing for a license without gaming. Not technically in Las Vegas, Crafthaus helped established the aptly-named “Booze District” in the city of Henderson, a short drive south of The Strip. Despite its home in an industrial park, a walk into Crafthaus can transport a customer into a relaxing world of beer, music and community. The taproom is bright and cheery, with lots of color and open sight lines, including windows into the brewhouse.

Crafthaus brews a standard lineup of beer, ranging from the blond ale to stout. Led by two Australian brewers, Steph Cope and Steve Brockman, Crafthaus also experiments with its lineup of IPAs, from the West Coast-style Resinate to a white IPA called SuperBloom and a Brett conditioned IPA named Man Bun. The brewery also made waves with Mojave, a “Southwest IPA” brewed with Amarillo and El Dorado hops.

Across the parking lot, Bad Beat Brewing opened its taproom, with a range of gaming-inspired brews such as Ante Up Amber, Bluffing Isn’t Weisse, Joker Anniversary Ale and a specialty series called Dealer’s Choice. In the same industrial park, Las Vegas Distillery produces a variety of spirits, while Grape Expectations makes wines. A third brewery will join the Booze District soon, as Astronomy Aleworks readies to open, and Lovelady Brewing is a few minutes crosstown.

Sin City Brewing

Sin City Brewing

Despite still being dominated by macro beers, the Strip has made massive strides in recent years with establishments offering a more diverse selection of beers, including several casinos that have attempted to break into the brewing industry since the 1990s. Monte Carlo Pub & Brewery, which stopped making beer in 2007, was once one of the highest volume brewpubs in the nation.

Today, the most visible brewery in Las Vegas is likely Sin City Brewing, which has four taprooms spread across properties on the Strip. Veteran Gordon Biersch brewer Richard Johnson started the brewery in hopes of creating a beer brand that tourists could latch onto.

Johnson’s goal was to embrace the easy-going atmosphere and constant flow of new customers to establish a successful business in the world’s foremost party destination. Walk off The Strip into the flagship Sin City taproom on the national retailer heavy Harmon Corner, and the bustle of the massive throngs of people is wiped away. The red, white and black color scheme still manages to remind customers they’re in Las Vegas, but in a quieter location with locally-brewed beer.

Sin City’s line of beers are far from innovative but solid none-the-less with excellent to-style presentations of classic beers, such as the brewery’s IPA, Amber, Weisse and Blonde—exactly what Johnson wants to offer as a reprieve for those who think they are stranded in a city with no beer.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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