Pouring Something Else on the Strip

The Southern Wine & Spirits Team — 1st row, left to right: Samuel Merritt, director of on-premise beer and cicerone; Russell Gardner, director of craft beer and cicerone; Carl Kanjor, beer sales manager; Clyde Burney, V.P. of beer and trade development; 2nd row, left to right: Kevin McCracken, senior V.P. and general manager of beer; David Bart, executive V.P. and general manager (photo credit: Danette Chappell, Las Vegas Food & Beverage Professional

Go to the Las Vegas Strip, among the casinos, nightclubs and lights, the luxury malls, fountains and steakhouses. Go there, thirsty in the desert heat, with whatever money remains, and these days you’ll also find craft beer, the drunken, bearded brother of the alcohol industry. Craft beer isn’t a main attraction in Las Vegas; maybe it never will be. It’s not ubiquitous, and it’s rarely comped to gamblers, unlike cheap rum & Coke, Johnnie Walker, Coors and Bud. But it’s a growing factor in this city, sprinkled with cicerones and other beer veterans who ensure its permanence.

It’s a period of transition, a period of discovery. Craft beer is available and abundant, like most consumer goods in the city, but the realization of its marketability and demand — in a city that thrives on its marketability and ability to fulfill any desire — has only just begun.

The craft beer scene in Las Vegas doesn’t compare to cities like San Diego or Portland, Ore., but that’s not because of a shortage in selection. From the bars and restaurants on the Strip, such as The Public House in The Venetian and the Todd English P.U.B., to locations off the Strip, such as Aces & Ales and Freakin’ Frog, tourists and locals can find any standard style along with casks, sours, anniversary beers and the rest. It’s a recently-established and still developing trove.

“It used to be that if you found a cool beer place at one of the mega resorts, it was very unusual,” said Bob Barnes, editorial director of The Las Vegas Food & Beverage Professional. “Now it’s the norm.”

Marking the city’s developing relationship with craft beer, Southern Wine & Spirits, a national distributor with a strong focus in the Southwest, announced on Tuesday the hirings of two cicerones: Russell Gardner, who worked at The Public House and brewed at Joseph James Brewing Company in Las Vegas, and Samuel Merritt, a former brand manager at Brooklyn Brewery. Gardner will serve as the director of craft beer. Merritt will be the director of on-premise beer.

“We want to make Vegas a beer destination, a beer city,” Gardner said. “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to be a beer city. We’re so close to San Diego, we’re so close to L.A.”

Gardner said that he’ll educate the Southern Wine staff and travel one-by-one to bar and restaurant clients. Training sessions could last as little as 30 minutes to one hour, he said, or if necessary, four to five hours for the less experienced. Part of the training will include assembling a balanced beer menu. Gardner said that he can drink stouts and porters any day, but most consumers aren’t the same. Even with their surging popularity, he advises against filling a list with only IPAs, for example.

While the majority of the Southern Wine portfolio includes well-known brands like Anchor Steam and New Belgium, Gardner said that his experience at The Public House proved to him that small, esoteric and local brands can also thrive on the Strip.

“I experienced that firsthand,” he said.

The overall demand for what is often called “better beer” is also increasing alongside the demand for esoteric and local, however. Argena Hunt, a beer specialist with Southern Wine, said that clients have practically begged her for Magic Hat No. 9, which the brewery calls the “not quite pale ale.” While the truest of craft beer nerds consider Magic Hat, along with Blue Moon, Shock Top and Leinenkugel’s, to be a crossover beer between domestic and heavier craft, the demand for a product like No. 9 symbolizes the current stage of Las Vegas with craft beer.

“Out here, we’re still behind in what the rest of the country is doing with craft beer,” Hunt said.

But it’s evolving.

Thanks to Sarah Johnson, the first and only female cicerone in Nevada and the director of food and beverage at Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino, gamblers can order a complimentary Lagunitas IPA as they pass their time on the casino floor. Paul Gatza, the director of the Brewers Association, said that he remembers ordering an Alaskan Amber at Bally’s and a Sierra Nevada at Wynn.

“Now bar owners are realizing that people aren’t going to the bar just to gamble any longer,” Hunt said. “They’re actually going to enjoy a good beer, and that they would be willing to pay for a good beer rather than just get a Bud Light or a Coors Light.”

However, these options haven’t yet spread to the majority of the casinos.

“On the Strip is usually the hardest place to find craft beer,” said Luis Tovar, a cicerone who founded Hooked on Hops, a website that promotes and covers craft beer in Las Vegas. “The casinos, nightclubs typically push liquors and cheap alcohols.”

Still, the progress has encouraged Tovar, who said that the city has undergone significant change in its selection over the past five years. He’s also encouraged by the growing cultural base off the Strip, with more pubs and restaurants thriving in a city that hasn’t always been known for raising and keeping families in town.

“Traditionally, Vegas is known as kind of a transient city,” Tovar said.

Despite the continuing growth of breweries such as Tenaya Creek, Big Dog Brewing Company and Joseph James, which just completed its second expansion by adding 180 barrels of new fermentation tanks — with the ability to add another 120 — Gatza said that Las Vegas’s beer scene has also been hampered by Nevada’s restrictive beer laws. In Nevada, breweries are forbidden from self-distributing and, according to Gatza, can’t produce more than 15,000 barrels per year. Gatza said that the Brewers Association would support the Nevada Brewers Guild if it opposed the barrel limit.

However, he said that this has prevented Las Vegas from turning one of its breweries into a regional, big-time distributor that could spread not just the wares of homegrown breweries, but also its ability to serve as a hub for the craft beer explorer.

“When people travel nowadays, they’re looking for local beers. Even people who are living in the area, they’re looking for locals beers too. Local is a major mainstream buying value now,” Gatza said. “By there not being [a large-scale brewery], I think that has been a drag on the development of craft beer in Las Vegas. But fortunately, they’re starting to pick it up in other ways.”

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