I don't really know my way around Vegas, so I prefer to pay others to drive me to the places I want to go. However, my trip to Tenaya Creek Brewery required me to provide to pull navigatorial duties for my cabbie for the second time in as many days. Located a pretty good distance from the Strip, the brewery isn't necessarily a common destination for the typical tourist crowd.
My cab driver, Mike, was a transplanted Bulgarian who had a pretty great outlook on life in general, so our conversation to and from the brewery (I was able to call him to pick me up at the completion of my tour) made up for any extra work I had to put in. Plus, Mike lives pretty close to the brewery, so I was able to get in a little evangelism on the return trip.
Tenaya Creek originally opened in November of 1999 as a fine dining restaurant with a great wine selection and, of course, fresh craft beer. But after nearly 9 years, they made the decision to cut out the kitchen and focus on their true passion: beer. Rather than offering their draft beer only at the brewery, Tenaya Creek began to supply several restaurants and bars in Las Vegas as well.
As a result of their growth, the brewery remodeled in July of 2010 to expand brewing capacity and add a 22oz bottling line. I got word that they may be moving to canning before long, which would likely improve availability to a broader distribution than their current 4-state (and also British Columbia, which is neither British nor Columbian) market.
It was right around noon when I arrived at Tenaya Creek, and the vibe gave the impression that it was far more than 20 miles from the hustle and bustle of the casino crowd. Other than an animated group congregated around a table near the entry, the u-shaped bar was relatively empty and only a couple folks were shooting pool off to the side.
I took a seat at the video-poker-machine-studded bar and asked for Anthony Gibson, TC's head brewer and the man with whom I had corresponded regarding my trip. I was a little early and Anthony was tied up with brewing, so I was told that the privilege of showing me around had fallen to Alex Graham, Beer Mercenary (best biz card title ever?). So I grabbed a Hop Ride IPA while I waited and watched the White Sox game; I was not disappointed (in the beer; the game was more of a beggars/choosers situation).
My first thought was that Hop Ride was very light in color for an IPA, appearing more golden than copper (I later found out that they had recently tweaked the recipe to achieve the lighter color). As I raised the glass to my nose, I was greeted with a fragrant citrus and floral bouquet that came as the result of an aggressive dry hop process.
But the heavy hopping didn't stop at the nose; true to it's name, Hop Ride is bursting with flavor and a bitterness that gave the beer a bite that is far more pleasant than the rattler on its label. Despite the light color, this beer isn't lacking in body or booze, coming together with a near-perfect balance that makes it a very drinkable IPA.
Alex came over to greet me and I followed him back to the brewery, passing beneath the tombstone marking the end of Tenaya Creek's kitchen as I did so. We had more of a conversation than a tour and I learned a little more about the brewery's philosophy and history, and about the Vegas beer scene in general.
Given the craft beer boom across the country, I'd have thought that a city like Las Vegas would have all sorts of spots popping up to take advantage of the heavy tourist market. But Alex explained that until January of this year, it was very difficult to obtain a brewer's license in the LV/Henderson area. That's because the legislature required not only a brewer's license, but also liquor and gaming licenses, making the whole thing a very pricey endeavor.
But with a new brewing-only permit available, Las Vegas should be positioned for quite an expansion in the coming months. In fact, I understand that 5 or 6 breweries have already either applied for or been granted the ability to start up. But back to Tenaya Creek; before the tour continued, I was invited to try another pint, which I accepted with little hesitation.
Local 702 is a great session APA (American Pale Ale) named for the Vegas area code. Clean and refreshing with a great hop nose and just over 5% ABV, this is the kind of beer you could drink even when the temperatures get into the 100's. Alex explained that that's what they're shooting for in most of their beers; you want to produce brews that people can drink year-round. Note, I said most of their beers.
In between brewing duties, Anthony came by to greet me as well, so I picked his brain for a bit to determine the hop profiles of the Hop Ride and Local 702, both of which are diverse and have a nice balance of bitterness, flavor, and aroma. I also asked a bit about their philosophy, which I found refreshing, both literally and figuratively.
I've found that, at least in some corners of the craft explosion, brewers have consciously chosen to take an elitist attitude when it comes to beer, sort of a this-is-what-I-like-and-you're-not-cool-if-you-don't-like-it-too mentality. And that's unfortunate because I believe it turns a lot of people off to new beers that even the most staid macro fan would enjoy.
Anthony explained to me that they want to make beers that are approachable to more than just the adventurous drinker, to produce drinkable brews without sacrificing quality or flavor. Given the heat and the somewhat transient nature of the Las Vegas population, that's a great tactic both locally and with an eye toward expansion.
Alex and Anthony are both Vegas natives, as is Tenaya Creek's owner. Even the guy applying labels to bombers (they still hand-label every one, a process that will likely change as production continues to grow) was born and raised nearby. And speaking of labels, all of them feature some sort of iconic imagery from the area, with only one, Monsoon IPA, hearkening to the glitz and glam of the Strip.
I wrote earlier that most of the beers from Tenaya Creek are lighter or fit for sessions. That was not the case, however, with my final two samples: Old Jackalope barleywine and Imperial Stout. As mythical as the beast on its bottle, Old Jackalope comes in at 10.4% ABV and is a rich beer with great dimension that comes from multiple malts and hops. This is the kind of brew that will age like a fine wine, though I can't imagine anyone being able to set it aside for very long.
Their Imperial Stout was incredible as well, and I'm not even much of a stout guy; as my reviews may have divulged, I trend toward the hop-forward APAs, IPAs, etc. The combination of pale, caramel, chocolate, roast, and Victoria malts give it a black color, hearty body, and a smooth, sweet finish, while Magnum hops provide a bitterness to round out the beer. At 9.3%, this isn't a summer beer, but my goodness it was incredible.
I spent a little while longer just talking beer and Tenaya Creek's future with Alex, including their goals for both the local and national market. For a small brewery, elbowing your way into the mass of macro taps in the casinos isn't easy, but as more and more high-end bars and restaurants pop up in Vegas, there'll be that much more room for high-quality, home-grown brews.
And if Tenaya Creek keeps making beer like this, they may not stay a small, local brewery for long.
Hop Ride, Local 702, Old Jackalope, Imperial Stout
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Filed under: Craft Beer