Photo by Anthony Mair
In summer, a young man’s fancy turns to beer. So does mine. Then again, my fancy is pretty much always turned to beer, so the season is irrelevant.
Nonetheless, I accepted the assignment to visit every brewpub in the Valley, and one that isn’t, to sample the lighter, more refreshing, summer-appropriate brews: wheats, lagers, light ales, etc. I snuck in a few IPAs while no one was looking because I’m a fan of the style, so I’ll justify its inclusion in the mix by saying that hops cool the palate. Yeah, that’s it.
Why brewpubs? Because like milk, beer spoils. It doesn’t get all clotty and gross, but it does develop off flavors and lose its more subtle tastes. American pilsners—your Budweisers, Millers, Pabsts, etc.—are brewed and bottled in vast beer factories somewhere else. They are made to endure bottling, shipping and sometimes even—gasp!—long, unrefrigerated sits on store shelves. This kind of beer is, to put it bluntly, crap. Try drinking one warm if you don’t believe it.
Brewpubs shorten the supply line; it’s made in the back, served in the front. That means it’s fresh. And going through the trouble of making your own is a pretty solid indicator that someone at the establishment cares. At a good brewpub, you can taste the love. Hippies can also feel good about brewpubs because they’re serving something made here. Think globally, drink locally.
As it turns out, Las Vegas has a lot of locally produced beer to be proud of. Join me for a summer-beer tasting tour. You’re driving.
Barley’s Casino & Brewing Co. This is a casino that takes its brewing seriously, and I appreciate that. I also appreciate the off-Strip location. Barley’s Boulder Gold Hefeweizen presented competently with a medium body, crisp mouthfeel and some interesting orange and banana notes. Mine was a little too flat, however. The Blue Diamond Beer, a lager, was crisp, cold and refreshing, but a metallic taste had me scratching my head trying to pin it down. The Red Rock Lager suffered no such problem, and it won my loyalty with a medium body and a nice hoppy aroma that didn’t quite carry through to the taste. 4500 E. Sunset Road; 458-2739; WildFireGaming.com/barleys.
Big Dog’s Brewing Company. The Holy Cow! Original Pale Ale landed in front of me with a good half-inch head and rich amber color, and proved to be malty and just a bit on the hoppy side with slight spice notes showing through. Highly drinkable. The Dirty Dog IPA was hoppy as expected, but also exceptionally crisp, had a great head and a killer body—not too fat, not too thin. It was served at the perfect temperature and tasted very fresh, as did all the Big Dog beers. There’s not a bad choice on the menu, except perhaps for the Leglifter Light, which I didn’t try because the bartender compared it to Miller. Pass. 4543 N. Rancho Drive, 940-2739; Big Dog’s Café and Casino, 6390 W. Sahara Ave., 876-3647; Big Dog’s Bar and Grill, 1511 N. Nellis Blvd., 459-1099; BigDogsBrews.com.
Boulder Dam Brewing Co. Big ups for the beer garden patio setting, but I was underwhelmed by some of the brews. The Hell’s Hole Hefeweizen arrived at the table with a beautiful, lacy head and a thick orange slice, but proved to be on the thin-bodied side and lacking in fruit notes. It was nice and cloudy, though, as a good hefe should be. The High Scaler IPA tasted like a starter IPA because it lacked any real hoppy bite. There’s a little spice to it on the front of the tongue, but not much else. The real find here was the Funky Monkey Pilsner, a medium-bodied seasonal brew that was nicely, but not excessively, hopped. Beer should taste like something, and this one did. 453 Nevada Way, Boulder City; 243-2739; BoulderDamBrewing.com.
BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse. I started my tour of this chain brewpub with a Piranha Pale Ale because the description warned that it’s for “hopheads only.” Our relationship started off well, but faded as quickly as the hops in this light-bodied, dry-hopped beer. The Harvest Hefeweizen came out looking too clear and pale for my admittedly picky tastebuds, but it was refreshing. I also sampled a Brewhouse Blonde, which reminded me of Miller Light with a little more body. As with all BJ’s beers, the Brewhouse Blonde lacked the boldness that makes a beer memorable. Choose it only if you don’t really like beer. Various locations; BJsBrewhouse.com.
Chicago Brewing Company. The All Nighter is a light ale brewed for cold storage, so right away you know it’s designed to combat the Las Vegas summer climate. It’s crisp and refreshing, but not much more than a standard American pils with a little more body and a hint of hops. Why not drink something with a little more punch? The Weizenheimer fits the bill with a nice balance of fruit notes and enough body to keep your mouth awake. It’s one of the best hefes in town. If you want to ramp it up a bit more, I suggest—as I always do—trying the IPA, which in this case is boldly hoppy with some surprising fruit undertones. 2201 S. Fort Apache Road, 254-3333; also in the Four Queens.
Ellis Island Casino & Brewery. Take note of the name: this is a casino first, a brewpub second. And there’s nothing here to excite beer geeks, with the possible exception of the prices, which were so cheap I had to ask twice—$1.75 for a 22-ounce beer? Perhaps I will have another! The weiss was thin, indistinctive and had an off aftertaste, but on the plus side it sported a nice lacy head. And it was cheap. The pale ale … well frankly, I don’t remember the pale ale. Did I mention it was cheap? 4178 Koval Lane; 733-8901; EllisIslandCasino.com.
Gordon Biersch Brewery and Restaurant. Another brewpub chain, but this one has roots that reach way back to 1988, making it the grandpappy of brewpub chains. And Gordon pours some pretty fine beers. The Czech Pilsner didn’t light my fire, but I have a weird relationship with this style of beer since a particularly delicious glass of draft Pilsner Urquell lodged itself in my brain 20 years ago. Nothing has ever equaled it, and nothing ever will because that’s the nature of memory. But Gordon’s Czech Pils is no slouch—it’s crisp, medium-bodied and the Saaz hops are on display—so those not saddled with my past may enjoy it. I also tried their Märzen, a smooth, malty, slighty sweet style that in the hands of a lesser brewer can be cloying. I don’t like it as a summer drink, but this one is very well done. As for the Golden Export, their lightest offering, don’t waste your blood alcohol level on it when there are better options on tap. 750 S. Rampart Blvd., Suite 16, 487-6463; 3987 Paradise Road, 312-5247.
Sin City Brewing Co. From the “Only in Vegas” files comes this pleasant surprise: Really good beer in a shopping mall. And that’s cool. The “bar” at the Miracle Mile outlet is just a couple taps, a few seats and some retail space. But do not judge this book by its cover. The Sin City Weiss, an unfiltered wheat with a nice clove aroma, solid citrus tones and spot-on carbonation, is as close to perfect hot weather beer as you’ll find in Las Vegas. But it was their seasonal Czech Pils that almost stole my heart. (See above.) A plastic cup of this glass of this crisp, hoppy, refreshing brew will improve any shopping trip markedly. In the Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood, in the Grand Canal Shoppes at the Venetian, in the Flamingo, 809-4939, sincitybeer.com.
Tenaya Creek Brewery. This is brewery with a small pub attached, so the focus is on the beer. And when it comes to beer, these folks don’t screw around. With its light body and lack of fruit notes, Tenaya’s hefeweizen didn’t particularly impress, but the Gold Medal Pilsner was mildly hopped and assertively malted, making it one of the Valley’s best summer beers. And then there was the Hop Ride IPA, which flat floored me. This baby sports five varieties of hops and a chart-topping 60 IBUs—International Bitterness Units, more units means more bitterness—yet remains balanced and drinkable. One of the top locally brewed IPAs in my book. 3101 N. Tenaya Way, 362-7335.
Triple 7 Restaurant and Brewery. They do a solid hefeweizen that’s recently earned a permanent tap with its unfiltered, cloudy appearance, snow-white head and nice banana and clove notes. But the exciting news is the V.I.P.A. tap, a showcase for the brewpub’s hoppiest offerings. A recent sample IPA featured a beer sporting something called the Falconer’s Flight hop blend, which grabs the front of your tongue like pair of pliers but is still surprisingly smooth. Not for beginners, but if IPAs are your thing then Triple 7 is your place. In Main Street Station, 387-1896.