Food & Drink

Nevada Is the Most Underrated State for Craft Beer

There is an oasis of beer in the desert of America’s expansive west, and yet most have remained blissfully ignorant of its bountiful brews.

Bad Beat Brewing I Love NV | Bad Beat Brewing
Bad Beat Brewing I Love NV | Bad Beat Brewing

There is an oasis of beer in the desert of America’s expansive west, and yet most have remained blissfully ignorant of its bountiful brews.

Few know it and the detractors are many, but truth is truth: Nevada has a magnificent beer scene. Nevada gets ragged on far too much for pretty much everything. The state is beautiful, but there's a shadow cast over it by a few-mile stretch at the heart of the state’s largest city and a nationwide stigma stemming from the Silver State's long history of gambling and prostitution. And it's poisoned the perception of its beer. When naysayers think of beer in Nevada, it's fizzy, yellow, and handed out for free at a slot machine.

In reality, despite what the rest of the beer world believes, Nevada is home to incredible breweries. You just have to find them.

Want pioneering old-schoolers from the early days of the craft beer boom? Big Dog's Brewing and Great Basin have been making superb beer since the early '90s, when the trend became a movement. Obsessed with IPAs? Revision Brewing has some of the best in the nation, from old-school west coast offerings to haze bombs like the world-class Disco Ninja. Sours and barrel-aged experiments? IMBĪB Custom Brews is pushing boundaries in the most delicious ways possible. South of the Vegas Strip, there's a bustling Booze District soaked in craft beer. Reno's quickly coming into its own as a bona fide destination for beer lovers.

Yet all this tends to get drowned out. And that makes sense: This desolate state's two biggest cities are paragons of distraction. People come to Las Vegas for the Strip -- whether it’s to hit the slots or party at the clubs -- and Reno for the lake and slopes in Tahoe. Scenic beauty and flashing lights and the promise of free, cheap beer at the slots are wonderful distractions. You'd be forgiven for missing the good beer. Or forgetting about it after you actually had one.

Still, distractions aside, it’s an incredibly lazy to assume Nevada lacks any form of exceptional culture while other less flashy cities become beer cities simply because there’s no other reason to visit.

Nevada beer's got its true believers, and they go beyond the tables populated by beer nerds and into academia. University of Nevada, Las Vegas sociology professor Michael Borer is working on a book about Las Vegas’ beer scene titled Vegas Brews: Craft Beer and the Birth of a Local Scene.

"Locals in the craft beer scene... have used negativity to push the boundaries of taste across new and unexpected frontiers."

“Las Vegas, specifically, and Nevada in general, are at best overlooked and at worst looked down upon by many folks across the US,” Borer said. “Many in the so-called ‘creative class,’ including craft beer geeks, tend to double down on the city’s and state’s reputation as a cultural wasteland that’s run by desert cowboys and full of kitsch.

“Locals in the craft beer scene -- as well as others who have adopted the most positive entrepreneurial aspects of the Wild West mentality -- have used that negativity to push the boundaries of taste across new and unexpected frontiers. And they’ve done so while being constrained by the influence of Big Brands and the Big Casinos that dictate much of what happens in Nevada.”

Since it became a state, the remote and desolate nature of Nevada has led to it being a rich importer of global goods. The mining days were ripe with goods from far and wide. Today, there’s a robust selection of beer from across the country, yet very little of the beer brewed in Nevada has made its way outside the state lines: Nevada’s oldest brewery, Great Basin, is only found in three states. That means it's hard to convince people outside the state of the greatness pouring within… and once they actually set foot in Nevada, their senses are overwhelmed and distracted from the minute they get off a plane.

The Nevada beer scene and its surrounding community is strong. But it's hidden, isolated, and hard to find, leading folks who don't know any better blissfully ignorant and prone to disparaging the state's pours.

I should know. I was once a naysayer, listening to all the others who bashed the state and not leaving the Strip on my lone visit before moving to Vegas in 2017. I previously lived and breathed beer in one of the most celebrated (and vocal) brewing cities in America -- Grand Rapids, Michigan. A huge part of my writing life has been spent focusing on eating and drinking, and I was deeply entrenched in the West Michigan beer industry. I even wrote a book about Grand Rapids beer. So when my girlfriend got a gig with the Vegas Golden Knights, I feared what that meant for my beer-loving life to move to a place that many -- this site included -- claim is a wasteland for beer lovers.

In reality, Nevada's beer greatness revealed itself pretty quickly once I opened my eyes.

What really happens in Vegas

As I began exploring Las Vegas -- the real Las Vegas, the Valley that 2.2 million people call home and treat their lives like every other major city -- a subculture of beer began to emerge from the city I really only knew from the dark portrayals on CSI and Cops.

Beer in Vegas, and Nevada, is as deep in its roots as much of the rest of the country. Opened as the Holy Cow! in the early 1990s, Big Dog’s has had three head brewers, all of whom have led the brewery to a bundle of Great American Beer Festival and World Beer Cup medals. Its beer, from Red Hydrant Ale to Dirty Dog IPA and Red Wine Sour Stout, show a solid versatility of well-made, delightful beers. And it laid the groundwork for a craft movement that's slowly flowering.  

Joseph James Brewing has its sharp and spicy Citra Rye Pale Ale and Imperial Smoked Porter with Cocoa Nibs. Able Baker Brewing pours its Honey Dip Stout, filled with honey and vanilla, and its solid West Coast IPA Atomic Duck. Banger Brewing brews up experimental bangers like El Heffe Jalapeno Hefeweizen and Morning Joe coffee Kolsch.

The rest of the Las Vegas Valley's gems, like Lovelady Brewing, Hop Nuts, Tenaya Creek, Sin City Brewing, Chicago Brewing, and the city of Henderson’s Booze District neighborhood -- home to CraftHaus Brewery, Astronomy Ale Works, and Bad Beat Brewing --  represent a broad range of beer styles. And now, there’s even a professional athlete getting in on the scene, with Golden Knight Ryan Reaves launching his 7Five Brewing.

Few in Vegas’ beer industry are more supportive of the scene than David Pascual, the current uber-talented brewer at Big Dog’s, who a specializes in Belgian-style beers like the brewery’s Tripel Dog Dare. In an industry of incredibly nice people, it’d be hard to find a nicer and more welcoming ambassador than Pascual. Inevitably our conversation wound up talking about the lists and articles lambasting Nevada’s beer as second- or third-tier.

“It’s more of that fire to light under you,” he said. “I like that underdog feel.”

With fewer than 50 breweries in the state, Nevada reminds me of the Michigan industry I first dove into in the late 2000s. An industry still fighting to gain attention and to be taken seriously, and Vegas is the beating heart of the movement. Impassioned, gregarious folks like Pascual are not unique in Nevada. Everyone is friendly because if they aren’t, it jeopardizes that shared goal of elevating the entire state's status in beer.

Right now, the Las Vegas beer scene tracks the city. It strives to be taken seriously. There will always be an air of debauchery and sleaziness, but it’s making moves. The Golden Knights brought together a city following an unspeakable tragedy last year and made an incredible run to the Stanley Cup Final. This year, the team’s magic is still there for the city’s residents. The NFL’s Raiders are coming soon. There’s a serious food scene happening beyond the Strip where buffets, celebrity chefs and steaks have long ruled. And craft beer's been at the forefront of all of it. It's slowly becoming a constant.

The biggest little beer scene in the world

Reno is often thought of as a mini-Las Vegas, and its downtown does feel like what I assumed old Las Vegas felt like. The $5.99 steak dinners still make me chuckle. Northern Nevada, however, is becoming its own version of Silicon Valley and an enclave of creative industries.

As Reno’s economy diversifies, it further separates itself from Las Vegas’ sphere of influence and draws closer to the mountainous getaway it neighbors, Lake Tahoe and the Bay Area, while Las Vegas resembles where most of its new residents are coming from: Southern California.

I’m not sure why I doubted Reno even after I knew what Las Vegas offered. Reno is even better. It has the state’s beer pioneer in Tom Young and Great Basin Brewing Company, a venerable brewery opened in 1993 and churning out more than 15,000 annual barrels from a lineup full of incredibly well-brewed beers. Great Basin’s Cerveza Chilibeso was one of the first chili beers and won three GABF gold medals before retiring from competition. Ichthyosaur IPA is a classic IPA, with hops nicely balanced by a forward malt presence. And Outlaw Milk Stout’s creamy, roasty goodness is perfect for the Tahoe ski slopes.

As with Big Dog’s, medals don’t tell the full story, but to win more than 20 GABF and WBC medals consistently over 25 years does show some sort of serious quality. There’s certainly luck involved, but the consistency is impressive.

After more than 25 years in the business, Young hasn’t lost his passion or drive to be a great brewery or tout the original craft ethos. I’ve found that’s how most brewery owners who’ve lasted from before 2010 still are. They remember the hard days and building an industry, while some upstarts have a sense of entitlement that roughens their edges. He loves beer. More importantly, he loves Reno. His goal is to help the two love one another.

And Reno should love its beer. Along with Great Basin’s incredible lineup of beers spanning every style imaginable -- from gruit to hazy IPA -- other breweries are bringing a world's worth of style and innovation to the Biggest Little City in the World, creating a beer scene that's fast becoming a destination unto itself.

A relative newbie, Revision Brewing has burst on the scene quickly becoming the state’s most sought-after brewery, making waves across the beer industry with dozens of IPAs, from West Coast to hazy. IMBĪB Custom Brews makes killer sours while Pigeon Head focuses on lagers and Brasserie Saint James brews up killer Belgian-style beers. Lead Dog and The Depot are right next to each other, and both worthy a stop: Depot for its triple threat of beer, food, and spirits, and Lead Dog to sample the impressively diverse beers made by its young gun brewer and owner, who is in his early 20s.

Reno has become a presence at the last several major brewing competitions, too. At the 2018 World Beer Cup, Revision and Great Basin won two medals each. At GABF, Great Basin and IMBĪB took home hardware: not bad for a city with fewer than 15 breweries.

It’s not the insane brewery per capita destination Portland, Oregon -- or even Grand Rapids is -- but for the Biggest Little City in the World, it’s doing just fine. In fact, it just keeps getting better.

Pure gold in the Silver State

There’s not much population -- or beer -- in Nevada outside Reno/Tahoe and Las Vegas. But that’s OK: There’s plenty to be discovered in the two cities that have been hidden by the circumstances of their vice-ridden past. The cities are well-known by name to pretty much everyone, but they aren’t really known.

The historical perception of Nevada as a whole is understandable, but it’s changing. Gaming and big beer kept the craft beer at bay and hidden to virtually everyone. With little else in the state, there’s been no reason for people to believe there’s more to Nevada than what it’s already known for.

There are amazing landscapes and unique subcultures in each and every state in the Union, and it’s a shame to disregard them because of preconceived notions and reputations. There’s nothing like getting on the ground and peeling back the layers that shroud and hide a community’s true colors. And Nevada's running the full spectrum.

It’s strange, I come from a Michigan city once called a "backcountry flyover" in a major publication. Now I live in a place many seem astonished to find out has a population that doesn't consist of showgirls, card sharks, and magicians. After seeing the light, I get worked up when people bash Las Vegas and Nevada when three years ago it was among the places I thought I’d least want to live. I bashed it myself. I still find myself in disbelief when driving down the Strip, and I still shake my head walking through casino floors. But there’s so much more to this place than meets the eye. Or, more accurately, assaults the eye.

Get off the strip. Get off the slopes. Forget everything you know and grab a craft beer brewed in the Silver State. Talk to the people who make it. Don’t base your judgement on surface-level reports of cities and states lacking anything worthwhile. Nevada is a complex state marred by a divisive reputation of excess and desolation. But finding out what really sets the state apart, well, that just requires you to order a couple of beers.

When you walk into a Nevada brewery with disillusions about the quality gleaned from reading uninformed lists, it's easy to be impressed from the first sip of great beer. And a few rounds in, you'll probably find your perception of Nevada's beer gradually elevating from "weak" to "underrated" to "undeniably great." That's the power of discovering a vibrant beer scene hiding in plain sight under a neon sky.

Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, get Eatmail for more food coverage, and subscribe here for our YouTube channel to get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Pat Evans writes about pretty much everything from his home in Las Vegas, Nevada. Despite living cross-country, he still holds his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan close to his heart. Check out his books, Grand Rapids Beer and Nevada Beer. Follow him @patevans