Brewers, Start Your Engines!

Thanks to chef Doug Taylor, Las Vegas’ sudden bounty of produce now includes hops

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Doug Taylor’s blue hubbard squash ale doesn’t taste nearly as odd as it may sound. It’s dry and refreshing, with just a hint of something vegetal on the finish, a certain … squashiness. It has neither the cloying sweetness nor the artificial spice of a cheaply flavored autumn brew, but it doesn’t have a commercial beer’s polish, either. That’s because Taylor made it at home.

The executive pastry chef for B&B Ristorante, Carnevino and Otto, Taylor is also a home-brewer, a hobby he discovered one year ago with his brother Hunter and sister-in-law Savannah. And Taylor’s background in biology, chemistry and fermentation from years spent as a baker has equipped him to be a most formidable one.

“It’s the same basic principles as cooking: cleanliness and efficiency,” Taylor says. “I’m good at both of those things, so it worked out well.”

As a chef, Taylor also has a keen understanding of flavor profiles, especially how to get a flavor to come through at the desired time.

We enjoyed his squash ale—as well as his date-oatmeal stout and espresso double bock—from jelly jars at a picnic table in the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension Master Gardener Orchard at the northwest edge of town. That’s where Taylor told me the good news: The hops program he started here two years ago has paid off, and four varieties of hops are flourishing. Another lives under shade cloth to determine if year-round growing is possible.

As an adjunct UNCE professor since 2007, Taylor’s goal has been to get local chefs to use local produce. With his hops, the objective is ultimately to discover the best varieties and growing conditions for Las Vegas. But this is not the beginning of a business venture—not for Taylor anyway. Like everything else at the orchard, this is an experiment, the results of which will be shared with Las Vegas brewers to encourage them to either buy hops from UNCE or collaborate with a nearby farm. “I’m sure with their expertise, they can make it even better than what I’m doing in my kitchen,” he says with a laugh.

Of course, when one thinks of fresh-hopped beers, Portland, Ore., probably comes to mind. It makes sense that a vigorous creeper vine would thrive in that lush, verdant place also known as Beervana. But Las Vegas?

Absolutely, Taylor says, leading me to the back corner of UNCE’s three-acre farm, where four leafy teepees of climbing hop plants shimmer in the breeze. Taylor lifts up a handful of leaves and, sure enough, there are the bright green cones that add tangy bitterness to beer and give off such intoxicating aromas.

A few breweries have already shown interest in UNCE’s desert-bred hops. So far, cascade hops have been the most successful, and there’s hope that they will soon pop up at farmers markets and home-brewing stores. This niche item is something we probably wouldn’t have seen here five years ago, before the explosion of interest in produce with pedigrees, and before Las Vegas’ farmers market proliferation.

“There just wasn’t the awareness that things are actually growing here,” says Taylor, who helped establish the Bet on the Farm! market.

Taylor estimates that 80 percent of his produce comes from the 64 farms within 150 miles, and for his homebrews, Taylor employs coffee beans from Boulder City’s Colorado River Coffee Roasters, dates from Death Valley’s China Ranch Date Farm and botanicals from Bloomin’ Desert Herb Farm.

Although Taylor often cooks with beer, his experimental home-brewing really does take place at home. As he and his brewing companions have learned, making beer outside of a dedicated facility means sometimes having to improvise. Like the time he couldn’t get the temperature low enough to ferment his lager. It was winter, so Taylor suspended the carboy in his pool, essentially converting it into one giant kegerator.

“That’s part of the fun of it,” he says. “When things are extreme, it pushes you to the point of being creative.”

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