Local Craft Breweries Criticized for “Lack of Ambition”

The Las Vegas craft-brewing scene deserves much more credit than it gets


In its recent state-by-state rundown of America’s best craft breweries, Thrillist.com takes a swipe at the Las Vegas beer scene in the same breath that it names Tenaya Creek Brewery the best in our state: “Many of the breweries in Nevada have a serious lack of ambition,” Denver’s Lee Breslouer writes, “as they seem happy to own a taproom/casino (seriously, they exist) and not bother to bottle and get their beer out into the world in any way.”

As a supporter of our brewing community, I was disappointed by the flip dismissal—if not denial—of what’s going on here. I mean, it’s one thing to say it was tough to choose a winner because Las Vegas brewers are so fiercely trying to get a foothold in the industry. It’s another to say it was tough to find a winner at all.

In the piece, Breslouer seems genuinely impressed that Tenaya Creek would have the wherewithal to bottle its brews, which it does, distributing in four states plus British Columbia and Alberta. But it’s not alone. Big Dog’s Brewing Co. is poised to make a move on Arizona in 2014. And Henderson’s recently expanded Joseph James Brewing Co. distributes in 15 states and is about to add New York and Colorado. And it does so with neither a taproom nor a casino. “While we are truly grateful to be honored as the best brewery in the state, we completely disagree with the statement suggesting Nevada’s lack of ambition by breweries,” says Alex Graham, “Beer Mercenary” (sales) for Tenaya Creek. “The current Nevada breweries are a tight-knit family that is working hard at changing legislation, educating the public and making Nevada a more craft beer friendly state. With negative press put out against the state, it only hurts our community.”

“Frankly, I’ve never measured the success or inclination of a brewery/brewpub by whether or not they package their product,” says Brian Chapin, founder of Motley Brews, which introduced the Great Vegas Festival of Beer and the Downtown Brewfest. State law actually prohibits breweries and brewpubs from making more than 15,000 barrels per year, he says, so much of a brewery’s capacity is tied up in serving Nevada. “Nevada breweries might not be known as worldwide powerhouses yet when it comes to volume, but to say they lack ambition is using metrics that hardly measure their true worth.”

Another company born out of ambition, Smashburger launched its partnership with Joseph James on October 2 with a hyper-local pairing menu that asks diners at its eight Southern Nevada outlets to try any of six of Joseph James’ canned and bottled brews to go with its “smashed” patties and sandwiches. The chain’s founder, Tom Ryan, is a huge proponent of craft beer, and has already taken the step he calls localization in 12 other markets. “America is quickly adopting a more European approach to the aesthetics of food, and craft brewers are at the center of that … creating beers for the next generation—diversity, uniqueness, pure joy of innovation—and Joseph James is right there with the best of them,” says Ryan, whose favorite pairing is the truffle mushroom Swiss burger with Joseph James’ Red Fox Russian Imperial Stout.

But Ryan admits he didn’t find many Las Vegas brewers who could meet his company’s criteria that the beer be in bottles or cans. Emerging breweries such as Downtown’s Banger Brewing Co. (opening in fall) will likely spend all of 2014 just meeting their own draft needs; bottling/canning is a few phases away.

Thrillist’s criticism is typical of young/new beer drinkers, who are easily impressed and feel entitled to exclusive “bespoke” experiences, but who want them delivered to their door like Netflix. This is where the murky, volume-based definition of craft beer suffers from its own coolness: If it’s too easy to get, its value diminishes. But without distribution, even a legendary beer is like the proverbial tree in the forest. Small brewers are deemed sellouts if they put themselves out there, and irrelevant if they don’t.

And then there are the burgeoning beer scenes like ours, which—to everyone’s shame—receive criticism for participation at any level. Hey, haters: Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will the next legendary brewery. But we’re working on it.