Nevada’s only beer sommelier talks about his first bottle, the growing craft-beer market and how you can become a better drinker

The first beer Russell Gardner ever had was a Newcastle. He was 15, he admits with a little hesitation. His brother had surprised him, saying, “Come on. We’re going out tonight.” They headed to the Crown & Anchor Pub and Double Down Saloon. Gardner blended in with the gang of his brother’s regular drinking buddies and wasn’t carded.

“I ordered a Newcastle because that’s what my brother was drinking,” Gardner says. “I really don’t remember what I thought about it. I was just excited to be there with him, watching bands.”

Food Pairings

Russell Gardner finds food pairings with beer to be “so much more enjoyable” than those with wine. And they can “complement a dish even better than wine. With wine you’re really pretty limited in your choices—white wine with fish, most sommeliers accept that. You can’t go by that rule with beer. You could have a jet-black beer that’s light and won’t work with steak.” Here he offers a beer-pairing sampler:

Classic: “Blue cheese and IPA. A bright, hoppy beer will cut through the creaminess of the cheese and bring out some fun, spicy flavors.”

Seafood: “I love a good pilsner or double pilsner with seafood or [an] oyster platter. Pilsners have a mineral taste with the hops that will bring out the salt and the specific taste of the sea or bay that those oysters came from.”

Dessert: “So few people think to have beer with dessert, but you can really, really shine with a dessert pairing. Our raspberry coconut tart with the Tenaya Creek barley wine is phenomenal. You wouldn’t think a big, rich, hoppy barley wine would work, but the interaction changes the beer, and it changes the dessert.”

Now 30, Gardner is a manager at Public House gastropub in the Venetian, and Nevada’s only certified cicerone (pronounced “SISS-uh-rohn”). That’s basically a beer sommelier, and the designation from the Craft Beer Institute isn’t easy to achieve. He took courses through the University of California, Davis to develop his sensory-analysis skills, and studied the craft on his own before taking a written exam, a tasting exam and completing a verbal demonstration.

But the beer bug didn’t bite Gardner with that first Newcastle. It set in seven years ago when a friend started home-brewing. That led to a job at Joseph James Brewery, first cleaning tanks and eventually brewing. Gardner still brews there under his own small-batch label, Backyard Brewing Co.

We sat down with Gardner over a pint to learn more about his profession.

Beer vs. wine tasting: “At the risk of offending sommeliers, I think being a cicerone is much more complicated. Sommeliers focus on the specific grape, the soil and what happened when the grapes were growing that year. Beer has so many more ingredients. You have hundreds if not thousands of different kinds of hops and malts. The water you use affects the taste. The temperature you ferment it at changes things. And now brewers are starting to go crazy with barrel-aging processes to bring out different flavors.”

The cicerone process: “It’s just like interacting with a sommelier. To figure out what customers might like, I start by asking what they like in their wine and then transfer that into beer. What’s fun about having a lot of draft beers on tap is I can bring over a few tastes to really narrow it down. [Public House has 24 beers on tap and another 200 choices in bottles.] I haven’t had anyone leave yet without finding something they like.”

Trends: “Brewers are creating more sessionable beers, [meaning] with lower alcohol content, in the 3 to 4 percent range. I like that, because it lets you sit back and drink all night. That makes it not about getting drunk, but about enjoying the drink and the people you’re with.”

Beer flights: “I can really take people for a ride in three or four beers. With wine, you stay tighter—maybe go from a riesling to a chardonnay. That’s like the kiddie coaster compared to a mega coaster I can take people on.”

Glassware: “It makes a bigger difference with beer than with wine. The best all-purpose glass is the tulip glass. The bulbous part holds in the flavors, while the narrowing toward the top supports the head.”

Cask ales: “I am really excited to have [had] the Firestone Parabola cask ale. It’s a super rare, big barrel-aged imperial stout, and we [were] the only place in town with it. The thing I love about cask ales is that you’re getting the beer exactly as the brewer wanted you to have it.”

In other bars: “If I go out and they don’t have a good beer selection, I order water. I don’t really drink cocktails, but I do enjoy scotch. Of course, if a place doesn’t have a good beer selection, they’re not going to have good scotch either …”

About The ’stache: “It is something of a conversation starter, and it fits the saying, ‘Never trust a brewer without a beard.’ I don’t know why we all have facial hair. Maybe it’s because brewing is a pretty solitary and grubby job.”

Having a Bud: “I did have a Bud when I hiked the Grand Canyon. At the bottom you had your choice of Bud or Bud Light. I wanted that experience of just enjoying a beer with my buddies, and I did enjoy it. Of course, when we got back to the top, I ordered a big stout.

“But you’ve got to hand it to Budweiser. The product they make is fantastic for what they’re doing. That they can do it so consistently across 20 breweries in the U.S. alone is amazing. Beer is so much more fragile than wine. Any flaw in the brewing process or in shipping, and people will notice.”

Favorite beer countries: “The U.K., because of the history of brewing there, and I’m a big fan of English-style ales. But really, there are so many great breweries in the U.S. right now that I’d argue we’re the best beer country in the world.”

Accessibility: “The craft-beer market in Las Vegas is growing quickly, but we’re behind the rest of the country. Part of that is access. Because of shipping issues in controlling quality, beer is very regional. And state law requires beer to be brought in by a Nevada wholesaler. Those wholesalers look for volume out of their providers. They don’t like it when a small brewer, who is already maxed out on production, says they can only give you 50 cases.

“But demand is starting to change that. Over the last two years, a lot of good things have been happening here. Tenaya Creek and Big Dog’s [breweries] started bottling. Joseph James started canning. Aces & Ales has done a lot to build the beer culture.” Check out more local brewer updates.

To be a better beer drinker: “Set aside your preconceptions. For example, most people think a dark beer will be chewy and heavy and bitter. Actually, dark is less bitter; Guinness is one of the lightest on the market. If you close your eyes and take a sip, it actually tastes like water.”

Affordable risk: “Beer is much more approachable than wine, and you can afford to take risks with it. You give an inexperienced drinker a $6 wine and a $100 wine, and most aren’t going to taste the difference without someone asking, ‘Now do you taste the plum and tobacco?’ Whereas with beer, they can taste the difference immediately between Miller Light and the Tilted Smile imperial pilsner, and the price difference is just $3 to $10.”

In the fridge at home: “I actually have four beer fridges and five taps. I have so much in there I couldn’t begin to tell you.”

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