Mashing in With a Brewmaster

Brewing beer: If you think it’s so easy, why not do it yourself? Actually, making beer is easy, and you absolutely can do it yourself. But making good beer is a different matter entirely.

Big Dog’s brewmaster Dave Otto. | Photo by Jon Estrada

Big Dog’s brewmaster Dave Otto. | Photo by Jon Estrada

Big Dog’s Brewing Co. head brewer Dave Otto says he has brewed more than 1,000 batches for the city’s oldest brewing company since April 1997, when he was hired as assistant brewmaster at Holy Cow Brewing Co., which once occupied the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Sahara Avenue. Not two years later, Otto was made brewmaster. In 2003, the company moved operations out to North Rancho Boulevard, and changed its name to Big Dog’s Brewing Co. to honor its late founder, Tom “Big Dog” Wiesner.

Otto is proudest of two World Beer Cup gold awards in 2006 and 2010 for his Red Hydrant English Brown Ale. But before he went pro, Otto was an avid homebrewer, converted by a good bottle of Anchor Steam and an eye-opening early brewing attempt. “Brewing’s a process, a six- to eight-hour process. It’s easy if you know what you’re doing and have all the tools available to you. But if you don’t, it can be very daunting—it’s not going to turn out well.”

Otto recommends aspiring brewers start their knowledge quest at a homebrew shop (see Page 29) and attend the monthly meetings of the Southern Nevada Ale Fermenters Union at Aces & Ales (3740 S. Nellis Blvd.). And then? Just brew it. There’s a first time for everything. For Otto, his first homebrewed batch was the hook “when I could see the fermentation. I was fascinated by it. I’m still fascinated.”

Fall is a busy time for Big Dog’s, which just released its Ol’ Jack Pumpkin Ale and is gearing up for Dogtoberfest on October 11. Otto also has plans for a Sled Dog Imperial Stout batch that will spend 100 days in Heaven Hill bourbon barrels. That won’t be released until winter. In the meantime the day-to-day brewery operations and year-round portfolio must also be maintained. Otto recently invited Vegas Seven to stop by the Big Dog’s brewery to capture the makings of a batch of Dirty Dog IPA, one of the brand’s biggest sellers and a two-time finalist in Brewing News’ National IPA Championship.

Photos by Jon Estrada


The two-row pale malt that forms the base of most Big Dog’s brews comes from the silo in front of the Draft House building. Character malts, such as chocolate and Munich, add layers of roastiness, biscuit and caramel notes. Otto brings those in on a forklift in 55-pound bags.

big_dogs_brewing_company_by_jon_estrada_02_WEBVienna malt gives Dirty Dog its light toastiness and delicate orange hue.

big_dogs_brewing_company_by_jon_estrada_03_WEBCaramel malt imparts a reddish amber color, as well as caramel notes on both the nose and palate. “For an IPA, you just want a little hint of caramel malt,” Otto says. “So we only use a little bit, about 5 percent of the grist.”


All grains have to be milled to crack their outer shells and expose the starchy material inside.

big_dogs_brewing_company_by_jon_estrada_06_WEBDuring mash in, Otto combines malt with hot water to convert the starches into fermentable sugars, and stirs it by hand to prevent seizing.


Temperature is vital. For his IPA, Otto wants to reach exactly 148 degrees within a certain window of about 15-30 minutes. “You only really have one chance to hit it. If you miss it, by the time you have everything combined, it’s too late.” In other words, you’ve made oatmeal. “It’s totally by feel.”


After mashing, the wort (hot water with the grain sugars) is drained from the mash tun into the grant, then transferred to the 15-barrel kettle in a process called lautering.


The kettle boils for 75 minutes to sterilize the wort, coagulate the proteins (trub) and extract hop oils and resins. The kettle boils off any undesirable aromas that come from the wort.


For Dirty Dog IPA, Otto chooses Columbus hop pellets for their heady floral aroma, as well as Summit, Cascade and Centennial. Hops are added during the boil in six stages. After the boil, Otto cuts the fire, whirlpools the wort in the kettle, cools it to 70 degrees and moves it to the fermenters.


Next he pitches in the yeast slurry that will feed on the sugary wort and produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. His choice of yeast strain varies by the style of beer being made, but California ale yeast is the most typical. The Dirty Dog IPA stays in the fermenter for about three weeks and then gets one more dose of hops (a blend of dried Columbus, Summit and Cascade for a fresh, dry-hop aroma).


After four days, the beer is transferred to 15-barrel bright tanks, where it is carbonated and clarified, then drawn off into kegs for the best part of all: drinking.

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