When a brewer invites you to a brew day, you just go. You will almost certainly drink well (seasonals, hush-hush project beers, personal bottles), and you might even eat well. Such was the case on March 22, when I got to spend time with a number of local brewers at Henderson’s Joseph James Brewing Co. There I witnessed the first-ever collaborative brewing effort by some of the founding members of the Nevada Craft Brewers Association (NCBA), including Joseph James, Big Dog’s Brewing Co., Tenaya Creek Brewery, Triple 7 Microbrewery, Chicago Brewing Co. and Pints in Laughlin.
Blue-gray clouds puffed from a smoker in the parking lot where Big Dog’s brewmaster Dave Otto had been tending a brisket since early morning. Mash-in began at 9 a.m. for the 20 barrels (about 600 gallons) of Pyrite Pale Ale, a bold extra-pale ale flavored and dry-hopped for aroma with Simcoe and Amarillo hops that will serve as the official brew of the Great Vegas Festival of Beer on April 27 in Sunset Park.
Although physical labor factors into the brewing process, there is also a lot of waiting—plenty of time to drink, enjoy Otto’s brisket and talk beer with festival founder Brian Chapin of Motley Brews and Joseph James founder and director of operations Matt Lisowski. And right now, there is a lot to talk about.
The newly formed organization is an extension of the Brewers Association, the official nonprofit craft beer advocate in the United States. Members of the NCBA pooled their resources to make this beer. “It’s like that in almost any brewing community,” says Anthony Gibson, head brewer of Tenaya Creek. “We’re united by a common goal.” Following the festival debut, every pint of Pyrite sold around town will help the association purchase ingredients, equipment to share and, most importantly, support legislative efforts that will make it easier for new brewers to enter the market. Las Vegas is still far from having the sort of robust brewing community found in Denver, Portland or San Diego, but it has in these brewing professionals the means to get there.
“There is no competition, there is only cooperation,” says Lisowski, definitively. This sentiment was echoed throughout the day as brewers, including new Joseph James’ head brewer Matt Marino, took turns checking on the wort, throwing in hops and mucking out the mash tun.
Like beer itself, many breweries have humble beginnings. Fox Brewing, as Joseph James was originally called, debuted in 2007 with a single case of soda hand-delivered to Whole Foods while Lisowski and his father waited for alcohol permits. Joseph James Brewing Co., named for the second youngest of Lisowski’s eight brothers and sisters, officially launched in 2008 as Southern Nevada’s only production brewery, open to the public once a month for tours (follow @FoxBrews on Twitter for announcements). Since then, Lisowski and his team have been putting out a solid portfolio of year-round, seasonal and experimental brews that has reached 19 states. Highlights include Fox Tail Pale Ale, the world’s first gluten-free beer in a can (in my opinion, the best on the market), the cultish Baby J’s German Chocolate Cake Stout created by Joseph James brewer Kyle Weniger and Tenaya Creek’s Alex Graham (formerly of Joseph James) and a bourbon-barrel-aged beer program.
2013 is a pivotal year for Joseph James Brewing Co., which will complete an expansion in mid-May that increases capacity by 75 percent. Spearheaded by Weniger, Citra Rye Pale Ale, a spectacular new beer built around highly prized Citra hops, is rolling out now and is poised for great success. More Joseph James beers will migrate to cans—including more gluten-free varieties—which is better overall for both the beer and the earth. And over in the new 15,000-square-foot brewery extension, rows of used Maker’s Mark and Four Roses barrels harbor the next batch of bourbon-barrel-aged anniversary ale. The air there is thick with sweet anticipation—literally.
Helping to usher in this new era is David Dean of Denver-based Western-wear company Miller International, who has been the brewery’s president and CEO since September 2012. “We always make the joke that Mr. Dean shares with us his passion, his vision, and also his money,” Lisowski says. Like so many things, it often does come down to money. Beer is made from grains, yeast, hops and water—at least three of those are commodities.
“Most brewers, especially of our size, do not have access to certain ingredients—a big one is hops,” Lisowski says. A worldwide hop shortage in 2008 gave way to a futures market and breweries contracting hops in advance, “normally for only about a year; we contract out five years now.” Lisowski contracted for those Citra hops two years ago. “Being here, though, is the most wonderful opportunity in the world,” he says. “You get to see this industry grow and blossom before your eyes.”
Even with all this growth and change, some things will stay the same: In honor of Joseph James Lisowski, who has Asperger’s syndrome, 10 cents of every gallon of Joseph James beer or soda sold goes to the National Foundation for Autism, and not only in April, National Autism Awareness Month. Somehow that just makes the beer taste better.