Chris Jacobs started Beer Zombies as an Instagram page. Five locations and four festivals later, he’s the high priest of a Vegas craft-beer cult
What compels people to line up to buy beer? We’re not talking about standing four deep at a Hakkasan bar on a Saturday night. We’re referring to the 100 or so ale-heads in their cars on a June morning in 2020, waiting to roll up to the Beer Zombies draft room and bottle shop for their curbside purchase of the new Axe Brews Vengeance brew. Vengeance was the de-facto sequel beer to April’s dankly delicious Here’s Zombie! And if social media posts for Here’s Zombie! were any indication, these sun-baked beer fans would be eagerly adding this latest brew to their collection — especially since the lovingly illustrated labels for both Axe Brews and Here’s Zombie! paid glorious undead homage to The Shining.
Those idling sweatily in their cars that toasty morning were bonded by their passion for independent craft beer — and the local brew guru serving it to them. Over the course of eight years, Chris Jacobs’ Beer Zombies has become a veritable brew empire that reaches as far as the East Coast with a straight-outta-Vegas lifestyle brand.
It’s an empire built on a fervent rejection of Big Beer. Nowhere in its three draft/bottle rooms in the west side of the valley — including the new one at Downtown Summerlin, a boozy daycare where husbands hang while their wives shop (there are also BZ locations in Salt Lake City and Dallas) — will you find anything distributed by a corporation or macrobrewery. However, it takes more than great indie suds to make a beer scene — something Jacobs has learned working in restaurants and bars for 30 years.
“You can’t have good beer and just be a total prick,” says Jacobs, whose serene warmth — and scraggly, salt-and-pepper beard — gives off favorite-uncle vibes. “Back in the ’90s, the thing is like, oh, we make good beer, we don’t worry about anything else. That’s not how it is anymore. You have to have good beer. You have to have good people working for you. You have to have good leadership. You have to have good hospitality. If not, there’s a million places to spend money and (they’ll) go somewhere else.”
Writer Bob Barnes, who has been covering the Las Vegas beer industry since 1998, says having bad-ass zombies for branding has certainly helped the company stand out. But ultimately, he says, “It’s the independent-only commitment. A lot of the local beer community are about that. And he (gives) huge support to local breweries. People care about that, too.”
And to think it all started on the Internet. Back in 2013, Chris Jacobs — whose love for indie beer began by stealing his dad’s bottles of Sierra Nevada, the local beer of his native Chico, California — was slinging drinks at the former Blue Ribbon inside the Cosmopolitan while hustling as a commercial artist. As a creative outlet, he merged his love for both ales and zombies onto an Instagram page he essentially used as a scratch pad and for hyping his new favorite indie brews. The posts captured the curiosity of followers, and Jacobs’ new icon — a zombie with a long hopcone beard — soon found its way on glasses and T-shirts, which he started selling at beer fests. He then produced his own events and began collaborating with breweries on beers. The bottle shops soon followed.
UNLV Associate Professor of Sociology Michael Ian Borer — whose book Vegas Brews credits the birth of the local beer industry with the city’s growing sense of civic pride — calls Jacobs an “aesthetic entrepreneur” who uses nostalgia-stoking artwork, must-have merchandise, and the trendiest beer varieties to woo beer drinkers of all stripes.
With Beer Zombies, craft beer is no longer the sole domain of gatekeeping hipsters. “That’s what makes a scene a scene — it’s expressive, voluntary and public,” Borer says. “People are able to come in and out of it pretty easily because the boundaries are porous.”
One way Jacobs connects his evangelism for beer, his well-honed geniality, and his desire for an inclusive subculture is bottle-sharing, a practice pioneered locally at Khoury’s Fine Wine and Spirits in Henderson. Once Jacobs opened his watering holes, he established a policy in which patrons can bring whatever beer they’ve been waiting to open to drink, share, or trade. “It shows that beer can be both social lubricant and social glue,” Borer says. “And the membership is very simple: Do you like craft beer or not? People are willing to give out the goods, so to speak, and take part with one another. It’s a sharing-is-caring mentality.”
Jacobs also helped unite beer lovers through events. He’d host shares and tastings at restaurants, often pairing beers with food. “I did vegan beer dinners,” he says. “I did anything that I could to show people it doesn’t have to be just a snooty society of beer people.” In 2017, he produced the first Beer Zombies Craft Beer Festival for 200 people. In four years, it grew to 3,500 attendees.
“I’ve been to 100 beer festivals, and (Beer Zombies’) is one of the best I’ve been to,” says Barnes, who notes that Jacobs handpicks and pays for the featured beers, and then flies the brewers in to talk them up. “Normally you don’t get that at a local beer fest. I was very impressed by that.”
Like a record store clerk who will pore over the bins to find your new favorite band, Jacobs will pull as many taps as needed to find your new favorite beer. His ultimate customer? The unjaded one who is willing to be caught by surprise.
“I love it when someone comes in, and I’ll say, ‘We have this new sour,’ and (they say), ‘Oh, I don’t like sours.’ Nah! You don’t not like sours,” Jacobs says. “You just haven’t found the one you like yet. And usually, I can find something that people will like, and they’re like, ‘Wow, I would have never guessed.’ That’s the fun part.” As Jacobs’ smile widens, so does the collective beer palette of Las Vegas.