Las Vegas craft brewing comes into its own | Crain's

Las Vegas craft brewing comes into its own

As home to one of the booziest cities in the country, Nevada seems a natural fit for craft breweries.

But the state sits near the bottom in the U.S. for overall beer consumption and per capita number of craft breweries, with only 37 independent businesses in the state, according to the Brewers Association.

That modest showing is largely due to the state’s dominant industry – gambling – and casinos’ traditional use of alcohol, especially complementary beverages, as a way to lure in and keep gamblers, says David Pascual, head brewer at Las Vegas's oldest brewery, Big Dog's Brewing Company.

"Casinos are not going to comp a $200 keg to people playing on the floor," he states.

Anthony Gibson, head brewer at Tenaya Creek, agrees the craft brewing industry has lagged until recently. He’s been a brewer in town since 1999 – ancient history by craft brewing standards – and says the scene has been evolving, however, slowly.

"A lot of people feel the beer industry in Las Vegas is dominated by the big guys because of the casinos,” Gibson says. “They're giving away the cheapest products they can to the people gambling on the casino floors."

Wyndee Forrest, owner of CraftHaus Brewery with her husband Dave, says the city’s major resorts tend to do business only with global beer brands, making it tough for smaller, independent craft breweries to gain a foothold.

But change is slowly bubbling up thanks mostly to consumer demand.

"Now national and international travelers go to a bar or restaurant and ask what they have that's local or new,” Forrest says. “They're the ones being vocal and they're driving the market on the Strip."

CraftHaus beers are now available at the majority of Strip properties in response to demand from both tourists and locals for Nevada craft beers.

And Beerhaus at the Park, MGM's Strip-side entertainment district built around T-Mobile Arena, has proven to be a local beer champion. With one tap dedicated to each local brewery and a constant crush of foot traffic from T-Mobile's concerts and Golden Knights games, Beerhaus is moving more local craft beer than any other bar in Las Vegas.

The demand is certainly there, and the Strip is finally paying attention. Off-Strip properties known as more "locals' casinos" are also following suit: Station Casinos proudly carries local craft beer at all 10 of their properties throughout the Valley.

Another issue for Vegas's nascent craft beer scene: lack of visibility, which translates into a perception that Vegas doesn’t have any craft breweries, at least not ones that are any good.

Some “people think we have no good beer here because they don't see it," Pascual explains.

Richard Lovelady, head brewer and owner of Lovelady Brewing in the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson, echoes that sentiment. Lovelady was head brewer at the Las Vegas Gordon Biersch for 20 years before opening Lovelady in 2015 and recalls that for most of that time, there were only eight or nine breweries in the Valley.

"Because there was a set number of breweries for so many years, the reputation got out there that Vegas beers aren't any good,” Lovelady says.

The perception persists from some even after several local brewers earned Great American Beer Festival medals.

In fact, Big Dog's, Joseph James, PT's Brewing Company, Chicago Brewing Company, and Tenaya Creek have all won medals at the GABF in the last five years alone, and every local brewer is quick to point that out.

Pascual says antiquated liquor laws in Las Vegas have also played a role in stunting the craft brewing industry's growth.

Until this year, Nevada brewpubs and taprooms were limited to a production cap of 15,000 barrels annually. Nevada is also a strict three-tier state, which means breweries can't self-distribute to bars, restaurants and retail stores, but instead must go through a distributor.

This year, however, the Nevada Craft Brewers Association and partner breweries were able to get legislation passed through the state Senate that could increase the production limit while still maintaining the three-tier system (which has more powerful supporters than the breweries do). 

And just a few years ago, Forrest was able to actually write the brewpub licensing for the city of Henderson. CraftHaus opened in 2014 but was four years in planning before that, during which time Forrest became a registered lobbyist for Henderson so she could get the laws governing microbreweries changed.

Prior to her efforts, a brewpub license cost $60,000, and brewpubs were also required to have gaming. The Forrests did not want gaming in their establishment, they say because they wanted a place for the community to socialize over quality craft beer, which doesn't necessarily happen when everyone is playing video poker. "You can't [have a ] community if there is nowhere to commune," Forrest says.

They also wanted a production brewery with a taproom but no kitchen – another thing that the laws then forbade. So, for months she lobbied. She wrote new brewpub licensing that allowed for non-gaming brewpubs to get licensed for just $10,000, and she was able to change the law to allow for production breweries to operate taprooms (without the food of brewpubs) and got the industrial area where CraftHaus is located re-zoned.

Forrest's efforts opened the door for Lovelady and Bad Beat Brewing to also open in Henderson, and then the city of Las Vegas followed suit and changed their microbrewery laws.

It is many of the brewers' hopes that Clark County and North Las Vegas will do the same, making the Las Vegas Valley a much friendlier place for independent breweries.

Right now, there are two more breweries on track to open in 2018, one in Downtown Las Vegas and another in Henderson. The brewers are excited about seeing more growth in the local brewing scene, viewing them with a "rising tide lifts all boats" mentality.

"We would all love to see more breweries here,” Gibson says. “It would be benefit to everybody and would help us all grow and get a stronger foothold -- not just in casinos but in local businesses as well.”

December 18, 2017 - 11:33am