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Ruby Mountain Brewing Company's Steve Safford
Photography by Christopher Smith

Ruby Mountain Brewing Company's Steve Safford

Starts and crafts

Desert Companion

From a 20-year brewer outside Elko to a fledgling brew pub in Virginia City, Nevada has its share of the micro-beer market

Standing in his backyard, Steve Safford points out a slope on the eastern face of Chimney Rock and says that in a white winter like this past one, he can catch a snow-machine ride with a family member to the top, get dropped off and ski down. The East Humboldt range of Nevada’s Ruby Mountains is that close to Angel Creek, Safford’s ranch. There will be no skiing today, though. It’s late March, and a couple dogs and grandchildren romp around the place without their winter coats on. Fat cows chew early spring grass in the fields off County Road 232 between the 93 and the ranch. It’s time to bottle some beer, before the hay is ready to be cut.

Bales, beef and beer. That’s the unofficial motto of Safford’s collective businesses: high-quality horse-hay cultivation, Black Angus cattle-raising and craft-beer brewing. Safford says he started Ruby Mountain Brewing Company to diversify his agricultural business. At a time when U.S. microbreweries are opening at the rate of two a day, it’s an anomaly; Safford has been making his own beer since the ’70s and selling it since the ’90s — way before craft beer was cool.

His brewing room

Support comes from

His brewing room

But Nevada is getting its share of new action from the hot micro-beer market as well, according to Bart Watson, chief economist for the Boulder, Colorado-based Brewers Association. His research shows there are 33 craft breweries operating here right now, and another 18 in the planning stages.

“In 2015, you had 1.7 breweries for every 100,000 adults age 21-plus,” Watson says. “That ranks 30th in the country per capita. So you’re pretty middle of the pack.”

Most of the state’s breweries are clustered around the northern and southern metropolitan areas. But rural Nevada has a few, too. Besides Ruby Mountain, there’s the 2-year-old Tonopah Brewing Company and the 1-year-old Virginia City Brewery and Taphouse. Between them, they represent the three major business models of craft brewers: distribution, taproom and gastropub. But despite their different operations, they have at least one thing in common: difficulty penetrating the lucrative Las Vegas Strip.

“Vegas is a tough market for smaller distributors, which is generally who smaller breweries are associated with,” says Richard Weathers, food and beverage director for Tonopah Brewing Company. “Finding a distributor to take beer to other areas in the state with lower populations is also a difficult task.”

In other words, depending on where you live, if you want to buy their beer, you may have to go to them. Either that, or the state laws will have to change. And some up-and-comers say that’s what they’re pulling for.

His favorite beers

A few of his popular beers.

Ruby Mountain Brewing Company

Safford’s beer education actually started in his youth: His father’s Air Force service took the family to Europe, where there’s no drinking age. Returning to the U.S. for college, Safford was shocked to find he couldn’t buy beer. So he started making his own. An agriculture degree in crop science from California State Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo led Safford to Angel Creek ranch, which he eventually bought from its retiring owner. But he never stopped making beer, and in 1995, he and his wife, Maggie Safford, brewed their first commercial batch, Ruby Mountain’s Angel Creek Amber Ale.

Nearly 20 years later, they still brew and bottle Ruby Mountain beer in their 1,800-square-foot backyard warehouse. The small family affair succeeded almost immediately. Just one year after that first batch, the amber ale took a silver medal in the largest category of the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. The following year, it won a bronze.

“It’s still our flagship beer,” Steve Safford says.

Besides the amber ale, Ruby Mountain offers a Wild West Hefeweizen, Bristlecone Brown Porter and Vienna-Style Lager — all multiple award-winners — as well as Buckaroo Pale Ale, brewed originally for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in nearby Elko, and a draft-only IPA called Elevation. Safford’s beers are all clean and smooth, a characteristic he attributes to their base: fresh mountain water pumped from a well on site.

Safford has no taproom or restaurant; his beers are for sale primarily in bottles, kegs and party pigs. They have a loyal following in Northern Nevada and Southern Idaho, where Safford says he distributes 700 barrels a year. He’s been in and out of Las Vegas, but eventually gave up on the southern market.

“We used to sell quite a bit of beer there,” he says. “But it was difficult to get a foothold there.”

Over 20 years, Safford has weathered a lot of changes in the beer market. Nearing retirement age, he says he still enjoys it but doesn’t need two jobs anymore.

“It’s hard to be a local beer,” he says. “And these days, being local is everything.”

 

Tonopah Brewing Company

On the other end of the spectrum from Ruby Mountain Brewing Company — as far as business models go — is Tonopah Brewing Company, three hours northwest of Las Vegas. Besides a 5,000-square-foot microbrewery that produces 800 barrels a year, the operation includes distribution to Reno and Las Vegas, and a gastropub that specializes in classic barbecue: original sauces, sandwiches and plates piled with brisket, smoked turkey, chicken or ribs.

That last part is Richard Weathers’ doing. In his pre-Tonopah life, Weathers and his wife ran a barbecue, steak and seafood restaurant in Panama City Beach, Florida. Fred and Nancy Cline, owners of the Mizpah Hotel, hired Weathers as food and beverage director and executive chef for the hotel, which they’d bought and restored in 2011. Three years later, they opened the doors of Tonopah Brewing, with Weathers helming the kitchen. About a year later, he took over as brewmaster as well.

Passing through the double doors between the brew pub and microbrewery, Weathers is greeted by two huge, round copper tanks mounted on a platform above a maze of tubes and gauges. They look like steampunk sentries guarding 10 more-modern-looking 310-gallon stainless tanks arrayed around the warehouse.

“Okay, we’re looking at a Beraplan brewhouse,” Weathers says. “It was built in Bavaria in 1994.”

Though the custom craft-brewing system is a point of pride for Weathers, it has also given him some headaches. 

“Next week, we’ll have a German electrician here rewiring our control panels, so we won’t have to run up and down the platform to turn off the pneumatic filters,” he says. At the opposite end of the warehouse, he points out the 20-year-old Italian system he and an assistant use to hand-bottle Tonopah Brewing Company’s beers. After multiple repairmen failed to correct its glitches, Weathers says, “We literally tore it completely down, replaced all the O-rings and valves, and put it back together.” It works now — “most of the time,” Weathers says with a laugh.

He clearly enjoys the challenges and rewards of beer-making, which he compares to the chemistry, flavor-blending and trial-and-error of cooking. Tonopah Brewing offers eight branded beers, from a citrusy pilsner to a stout aged in bourbon barrels, along with three seasonal flavors. The most popular, according to Weathers, is the Mucker Irish Red Ale.

“All our beers are balanced,” he says, “even the double IPA, which is a traditional English IPA, not Western American.”

Running a bar-restaurant wouldn’t be much different than running a restaurant, Weathers adds, if it weren’t for the beer distribution.

“The only thing that is hard for me to accept is the three-tier system,” he says. He’s referring to a state law that mandates the beer go from brewers to distributors to retailers. “This means I cannot distribute the beer myself in Nevada and can’t ship beer to anyone, even if they purchase it and want it mailed to their house.” He’s not the only craft brewer who thinks this setup hampers their growth. And some say it’s time to get it changed.

 

Virginia City Brewery and Taphouse

“Nevada is growing as a beer scene,” says Adam Lundy, brewmaster and part owner of Virginia City Brewery and Taphouse. “Both Northern and Southern Nevada have great craft beer. The Nevada Craft Brewers Association gets us together once a year, and there’s a lot of collaboration. We work together toward the same common goal: self-distribution.”

BreweryThe advocacy page of the association’s website decries the state’s laws as outdated: “Nevada has some of the most restrictive rules for manufacturers of alcoholic beverages that put Nevada alcoholic beverage manufacturers at a disadvantage to those in surrounding states.”

Lundy has no complaints about Virginia City Brewery’s distributor, which he says has gotten his beers on 46 tap handles around the state, mainly in Reno. But when he was recently approached by someone who’d tried his beer and expressed interest in getting it in Las Vegas, he balked. Experiences like those of Steve Safford and Richard Weathers — who say the Strip, where the real money can be made, is inaccessible to all but a few large, high-priced distributors — are well-known in the brewing community.

At the same time, Lundy says, his product’s potential in larger markets is tantalizing. The Virginia City taproom has only been open a year, and he’s currently making 15 barrels a week, the equivalent of 780 a year. That all goes into taps, including Virginia City’s own. No bottles.

The company represents the traditional taphouse model, with a functioning brewing system on site. Unlike some microbreweries, Virginia City doesn’t keep its tanks and hoses behind glass; they occupy their own corner of the bar. Although the arrangement imbues the joint with an air of authenticity, Lundy says the cramped quarters in the middle of the city’s historic C Street make his job hectic. Code requires him to be done brewing by noon, when the bar opens, so that customers can get to the bathrooms.

“We’ve talked about, and I’m pushing for, a production brewery,” he says. “When you have finite space, you can only make so much beer. … You have a hard time keeping up with demand.”

Lundy believes his beer is popular because he tries to offer something for everyone- — IPA, honey pale ale, wheat, red, porter, stout. All are given names with flashes of local color, such as the C Street Wheat and Marlette Red, named after the Northern Nevada lake whose water goes into the beer. 

Brewery

Brewing tanks.

Lundy started dabbling in beer at UNR, when his then girlfriend (now wife) gave him his first set of home-brewing ingredients. Since adolescence, Lundy has collected six packs, carefully cutting out the main panels to mount on his walls. Variety being part of the goal, he figures he’s tasted hundreds, if not thousands, of beers. Recognizing his passion, and with his girlfriend’s support, he decided to forgo the unpleasant prospect of an office job after college and started making beer in his backyard. Persistence eventually paid off, and he landed jobs at Reno’s Buckbean Brewing Co. and then Great Basin Brewing Co., where he says three years of brewing taught him how to make great-tasting beer in the traditional American style. Typical of his generation, his own style is more West Coast-influenced: hoppy, malt-forward flavors, “but not overpowering,” he says.

“I’m really happy with how it’s going,” Lundy says. “Everyone seems to reorder, and I get very little negative feedback. I’m happy we’re running out of beer, but I’m also fretting that I’ll let someone down.”

Plenty of beer for everyone who wants it? It’s hard to imagine anyone objecting to that.

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