A Craft Beer Movement Is Brewing In Las Vegas
Las Vegas is one of America’s booziest cities. And beer has played a big part in developing that reputation.
But for so long, the tap handles in casinos and bars across the valley have displayed the same names. Bud Light. Coors Light. Corona. Maybe a Blue Moon or Stella Artois.
But now those handles boast a more diverse selection of beers. And some of them feature local brews, the result of an explosion of breweries in Henderson, Downtown’s Art District and beyond.
Is it merely an extension of the American craft beer movement? Or is it another way Las Vegas is redefining itself?
Michael Ian Borer is a sociology professor at UNLV who has just published a book on the local craft beer scene, called Vegas Brews.
"Those who are part of the craft beer scene here have had to climb what I've called a steep neon slope," Borer said, "In many ways here, we've seen that craft beer has functioned as a way to counter the dominant imagery and dominant narrative of Las Vegas."
He said Las Vegas has a strong reputation, but it is not associated with craft or authenticity. He believes craft beer has been used as an "act of resistance" to the dominant culture.
"What I've seen is that people aren't just building local culture, they're building locals culture. So, for themselves, by themselves ... and together," Borer said.
One of the interesting things that sets craft beer lovers apart from other social groups, Borer said, is that they're not separated by the traditional social groupings like race, ethnicity, or gender. Instead, they're brought together by taste.
"This is about taste and taste preferences," he said, "But it's also about people performing taste together. Festivals are pretty good at bringing new people in, converting people from 'Big Beer' to craft beer, but also reinforcing what craft beer aficionados already believe -- that craft beer is better, and tastes better and better when they drink it together."
It is that sense of community that drove the owners of Crafthaus to create their brewery five years ago.
Wyndee Forrest and her husband had never worked in the brewing industry before, but they felt strongly about craft beer and building a community centered around it.
"Our driving force was the passion for the craft beer industry, primarily," Forrest said, "Our mission statement, which has stayed true for the last seven years, is: build a community around quality-driven beer.
She said she sees that community building when a regular at their taproom in Henderson starts talking to a new person who has never walked in the door before about the story of how the brewery got started.
But that start wasn't as easy as rolling in some kegs of homebrew to share with friends, Forrest explained. Some of the laws surrounding alcohol sales were geared entirely for gaming establishments.
Since they didn't want their beer to be seen as a side item to slots, they decided against gaming at their taproom. It took them several months to have the laws adjusted and the licensing fees lowered.
"Changing the licensing definitely allowed other breweries to open and that was our plan," Forrest said, "We can't build a community with just one."
Since then, other breweries have opened in Henderson and in Las Vegas.
Right around the time that Crafthaus opened, food and beverage writer Jim Begley also noticed a turn in the scene in Las Vegas. The publication he was working for, Las Vegas Weekly, had its first cover package devoted to beer.
Begley has seen the scene steadily grow since then. The craft beer industry in Las Vegas has not reached the capacity of other cities like Denver or San Diego, but he notes Las Vegas is not as big as those two craft beer powerhouses.
He is encouraged by the noticeable appearance of local craft beer on the taps of bars on the Strip.
"It's not nearly where I'd like to see it," he said, "But, let's face it, the Strip is not marketing to me. The Strip is marketing to out-of-towners. As the culture grows across the country and there's a demand, both across the country, and frankly, worldwide, I think you're going to see more prevalence of local beers and of microbrews."
And as for so-called 'crafty' or 'phantom craft' beers -- created by big brewers to taste like craft beers -- Begley believes for many people those beers are a step toward better, more authentic craft beers.
Michael Ian Borer Book Signing Events
Saturday, November 2
595 Craft and Kitchen
Friday, November 15
CraftHaus Brewery - Henderson
Wyndee Forrest, co-owner, Crafthaus Brewery; Michael Ian Borer, author, Vegas Brews; Jim Begley, freelance writer