If you want a good beer at a hotel on the Strip in Las Vegas, you've got to work for it.
While every casino is lousy with bars, the majority of their offerings are mass market macro, something that makes sense given the city's foot traffic. But if you search patiently, you can usually find a tap that pours a craft beer. And increasingly, that craft beer is from a local brewer.
Las Vegas is far behind the rest of the country when it comes to local brewing. Even the local beer makers don't dispute that. It's trying to play catch up, though. And while it's very hit and miss still, there are some diamonds in the rough.
"I'd say we're a solid three to five years out from other craft beer cities," says Nathan Hall, owner of Bad Beat Brewing in nearby Henderson, NV. "I still get people coming here saying 'Why are you in an industrial complex?' and 'Where's the food?'"
The confusion is natural. Until recently, the only people who could brew beer in the Las Vegas area were brewpubs, which carried a hefty license fee that was prohibitive for most small brewers.
There are some legacy brewers in the city. Big Dog's has been around since the 1993. And Joseph James has been a part of the beer scene for nearly nine years. But as in many other cities, there are several semi-recent additions for people to explore. The city is home to roughly 10 local breweries now, with three more in the planning stages.
Most, though, aren't easy for tourists to find, unless they rent a car and venture beyond the big hotels. Joining Bad Beat in Henderson is CraftHaus and Joseph James (which isn't open to the public). Big Dog's is in the Northeast region of the city. And Tenaya Creek is a couple miles north of downtown's Freemont Street.
Craft fans aren't completely out of luck, though. On the Strip, Sin City Brewing has pour houses in two casinos, the Venetian and Planet Hollywood, and at the Harmon Corner retail center across from the Cosmopolitan. Downtown is home to Banger Brewing. And tap takeovers at Strip restaurants or just-off-the-strip hotel bars are common.
There's even a casino with its own brewery - Ellis Island, which is less than a mile off the strip. (The beers, unfortunately, are not something worth seeking out.)
The problem is: Tourists rarely seek these places out - and locals aren't particularly well-educated when it comes to craft beer. Brewers and employees say there's no strong "buy local" movement, which so many brewers rely on. And some styles that are fairly common in the craft world are mysteries to customers.
Bad Beat, for instance, offers a Weiss and Hall says "I can't tell you how many times people ask how we get the banana into the beer". (The banana flavors are a result of the Belgian yeast used in the style.)
The good news, though, is that many local brewers are working to raise awareness of the Vegas craft beer scene. And while they acknowledge they've got a way to go before they can stand on the same ground as other major cities, they're making good progress.
Headed out to Sin City? Do yourself a favor and seek out these local treasures:
Joseph James Citra Rye - Citrus, specifically tangerine, is the defining characteristic in this American Pale Ale. The Rye definitely takes a backseat, but makes itself known with a spicy exclamation point at the finish. It's a sessionable beer, which makes it ideal for warm Nevada afternoons. (ABV: 5.4%)
Tenaya Creek The Dutch - This Belgian tripel is a seasonal offering that's only available on tap at the brewery (though they are thinking about bottling it next year). Quite frankly, it's one of the better Belgians I've tasted. Loaded with the banana and clove tastes you'd expect from the Belgian yeast, it's a very full-bodied beer with a terrific mouthfeel. There's an alcohol kick (and even a slight burn) as you swallow, but it's a very solid offering. (ABV: 8.5%)
Bad Beat Brewing's Hoppy Times - A well-done IPA that has a nice punch of fresh hops at the beginning, but holds back on bitterness. Best of all, it boasts a remarkably clean finish, which makes you eager for another sip. (ABV: 7%)
Big Dog's Dirty Dog IPA - One of the most established locally made IPAs in the city, Dirty Dog has a good blend of citrus and pine tastes, with the strong hint of lemon and grapefruit. The malt adds a touch of biscuity sweetness at the finish that gives the beer a nice balance. (ABV: 7.1%)
Banger Brewing Morning Joe - Arguably the most unique and distinctive beer in Las Vegas, this coffee Kolsch is not at all what you'd expect. Light bodied and a golden color, it surprises you with a huge hit of coffee on the nose (think that smell you get when you open a new bag/can of beans). That coffee's certainly there when you take a sip, but it's supported by caramel, hazelnut and a nice roasted malt. Despite the huge mouthfeel, it's ultimately a light ale that leaves you refreshed. It's certainly a nice break from a heavy stout or porter coffee-infused beers. (ABV: 5.5%)
Bad Beat Brewing's The Ringer - This nicely crafted Pilsner is light and wheaty with just a hint of hops, which might not be for everyone, but for me it made the beer stand out in a category that can be a bit bland. It's a refreshing, flavorful beer that goes down smooth. (ABV: 5.1%)
Tenaya Creek Bonanza Brown Ale - Tenaya Creek, frankly, has a vast number of beers you should try. (The flight, when I visited, was made up of 11 different styles.) Bonanza is a very solid brown ale, even for people who aren't generally a fan of the style. There's a nice roast on the malts, but not so much that it shifts the flavor into chocolate or coffee territory. It's a big, rich beer that is extremely tasty. (ABV: 5.6%)