Strange brew

Reno’s microbreweries offer unique opportunities for flavor savoring and people watching

Great Basin Brewing Company brew master Tom Young defies both gravity and convention with a pint of Death by Chocolate Stout, the beer that brought home the gold in the 2002 World Beer Cup.

Great Basin Brewing Company brew master Tom Young defies both gravity and convention with a pint of Death by Chocolate Stout, the beer that brought home the gold in the 2002 World Beer Cup.

Photo By David Robert

American culture grows increasingly soulless and homogenized. The landscape edges ever closer to indistinguishable strip malls with the same shops on every block. There is one great beacon of hope for those of us who value a unique regional identity: beer.

Yes, beer, that frothy delicious liquid that’s both one of life’s great pure, simple pleasures and, at times, like moonlight to a werewolf, the stuff that inspires us to our most embarrassing behavior.

Nothing is more indicative of real community flavor than the local beers. Locally produced beer is the local water—the basic substance of life—handcrafted by local artisans into a potable art meant to elevate the palate and the spirit.

According to the American Brewers Association, July is American Beer Month. July is the perfect month for beer. One of the best times to enjoy a beer is in the evening after a long day of hot-weather fun, sitting in the shade somewhere, chatting with friends, enjoying a leisurely sunset.

And what better time to get to know our local brewers? The folks who brew are as idiosyncratic as the flavors they craft.

“Brewers are a unique bunch,” says Trent Schmidt, co-owner and brew master of Silver Peak Restaurant & Brewery. “They’re often very intelligent, often very goofy—and usually a combination of the two.”

Of course, the best way to get to know your local brewers is the old fashioned way: to drink with them. So, if you’re not already having one, be sure to get a beer—preferably a local microbrew. It’ll make this story go down easy.

A Great Basin—that’s a pun, right?
The first stop on our brew tour of the Truckee Meadows is Great Basin Brewing Company, since 1993 Nevada’s oldest operating brewery and a fixture of downtown Sparks.

“It’s our goal to produce the best beers in the world,” says brew master and co-owner Tom Young with a casual humility that belies such a lofty goal. Young’s easy-going, infectious enthusiasm and the brewery’s long list of awards and accolades make it easy to believe him. Among the awards is a Gold Medal won at the 2002 World Beer Cup for the “Death by Chocolate Stout,” so that beer really is considered to be the best chocolate/ cocoa-flavored beer in the world.

When Young and his wife, Bonda, first began plans to open the brewery, they faced an uphill battle. In those days, it was illegal in the state of Nevada to operate a microbrewery. In what today may seem like a quaint throwback to Prohibition, the state law regarding beer was that a business could be a manufacturer, distributor or a retailer—not all three. But the plan to open the Great Basin helped change the law.

Young had been a geologist for mining companies for most of his life, but after getting “downsized,” Young took the opportunity to pursue a dream.

“I had been to Europe, I had tasted the beers, and I had been home-brewing,” he says. Young and his friend, the late Eric McClary, had been winning home-brewing contests and saw the opening of a microbrewery as the next step in the evolution of their craft.

When Great Basin first opened, McClary and Young were the two master brewers, and they were always trying out new things—a spirit of experimentalism that lives on at the brewery.

“Eric would take the approach of an artist, and Tom would take the approach of a scientist,” says Bonda Young. The double-edged brew attack yielded immediate successes, and the brewery won medals at the Great American Beer Festival its first year out—not to mention a devoted local following that grows every year.

Over the years, the Great Basin Brewing Company has brewed some 60-odd styles of beer. Some, like the Ichthyosaur “Icky” India Pale Ale have been wildly successful; others are barely remembered.

“If it doesn’t appeal to the masses, that doesn’t bother me,” says Young, “I’m not looking to go into mass production; I just want to have well-brewed beers. It’s fun to try beers you can’t get anywhere else, and it’s even more fun to try to brew them.”

Young works with fellow brewers Randal Richardson and Jazz Aldrich, and between the three of them they have more than 25 years of brewing experience. “For a town of this size, there’s a lot of interest in beer,” says Richardson. “There’s a large segment of the population that really appreciates flavor. And that’s who we brew for.”

Though the brewery often hosts local music and what Young describes as “the good, the bad and the ugly” comedy nights, the atmosphere at Great Basin is primarily casual and intimate.

When Darren Whitcher realized he couldn’t afford the high-quality beer he liked to drink, his great budgeting expertise inspired him to brew his own. Now he’s the brew master at Brew Brothers in the Eldorado Hotel Casino.

Photo By David Robert

“Beer is an elixir for conversation,” says Young. Eavesdropping at Great Basin, you’re not likely to hear many cheesy pick-ups or pretentious blathering, just down-to-earth, genuine conversation, people bonding over a few beers. It’s the kind of place where people hash out friendly ideas, where you might leave with a cocktail napkin list of future band names.

“We’ve had a lot of romantic stories,” says Young. “Engagements, weddings, funerals and, after some visits, what we like to call ‘Icky babies’ conceived.”

Great Basin has one brew, the seasonal Harvest Ale, available only for a short period in late fall that is brewed entirely with ingredients indigenous to the Great Basin, including pinion pine nuts, sage and local honey. How’s that for local flavor?

“The difficult thing is cracking all those pine nuts,” says Young, “We could buy them pre-cracked, but then they wouldn’t be from the Great Basin. That would be the cheap way, that would be the easy way, that would be the fast way—but it wouldn’t be the Great Basin way.”

Have a brew, bro
Whereas Great Basin is a place for intimate conversation, Brew Brothers is the place to see and be seen. There’s a lot more hustle-bustle, and since it’s part of the Eldorado Hotel & Casino, the chiming of slot machines is never far away. On my most recent visit, I was sitting at the bar with a friend and a woman in a pink, mesh shirt bumped into my chair.

“Oh, excuse me,” she said, tossing her hair back.

“No problem,” I said, giving a polite smile and turning away.

Then she whispered to me, huskily and confidentially, “You know, the sad thing is that’s probably the most action I’ll get all night.”

Now, I’m no expert, but it seems to me that those who enjoy this sort of interaction could leave The Brew Brothers with a cocktail napkin list of phone numbers. This isn’t the only reason to visit, however; there’s live music every night, usually hard-rock cover bands, big screens for sporting events and, like Great Basin, Brew Brothers is also a restaurant. And, of course, there are the beers to be enjoyed, like the ever-popular Lucky Lady Lager.

Darren Whitcher is the brew master. “Think of me as the home economics teacher you never had,” he says. “I first started home brewing because at the time I couldn’t really afford imported beers.”

But brewing is really just a part of his larger dietary philosophy. Whitcher advocates making and preparing much of your own food in ways that are health-minded and eco-friendly. He bakes all his own bread from scratch and has worked with professional athletes helping them enhance performance by making better eating choices.

Whitcher, a family man and former college instructor and administrator, may seem like an odd fit with the hopping casino atmosphere of The Brew Brothers, but he has been with the establishment since its beginning 11 years ago.

"[Eldorado owners] the Carano family is good at developing visionary places,” says Whitcher. “They see a good idea, and they make it happen.” Don Carano recruited Whitcher from The Black Diamond Brewing Company in Walnut Creek, Calif., which Whitcher co-owned.

“It was a beautiful project with a bad business relationship,” he says, “I finished at Black Diamond on a Friday and started at The Brew Brothers the next Monday.”

Whitcher designs beers to be accessible and highly drinkable.

“I examined [the] market, saw what was consumed locally and in potential tourist markets, especially northern California.”

The beers have casino-oriented names like Wild Card Wheat Ale and Double Down Stout. The Brew Brothers brews are highly drinkable but, according to Whitcher, the brewery has benefited from something else as well. “Location, location, location. We have world-class beers, but it helps that we’re located between three huge hotels.”

A peek at the Peak
Trent Schmidt is the original brew master at Silver Peak, but, as co-owner, he’s gravitated toward managerial work, and the active brew master is 23-year-old Mike Cronin. “I retain the title, but Mike is the brewer.” says Schmidt, “I get the glory; he gets the grunt. He does all the work. And does a great job. He has a lot of responsibility for a guy his age, and he’s risen to the occasion.”

Cronin, as clear-headed and sincere as they get, started out as a busser before becoming a brewer’s assistant in 2002, cleaning kegs and other such menial manual labor. Then, after the death of brewer Andy Hines, he became head brewer. “It seems like so many beers ago,” says Cronin.

Silver Peak’s Mike Cronin worked his way up quickly from busser to brewer.

Photo By David Robert

“It’s flattering to see so many people enjoying something you’ve made, but it can be overbearing. And I’m still learning. Though if I’m still brewing at 50, I’ll still be learning. I just take it one batch at a time.”

It can be quite taxing, and the hours are often extremely long. Cronin remembers working a straight stretch from Thursday morning at 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Friday night. “It wasn’t because I needed the cash or because somebody told me to but because I could see it needed to be done.”

Though he didn’t design the original recipes of Silver Peak’s flagship beers, he has worked to modify and improve them. “Trent designed the recipes, but I perfect them,” he says. However, Cronin has designed some original recipes, including the South Town Spiced Holiday Ale, a tribute to the South Reno neighborhood where he grew up.

In a way, it’s not surprising that Silver Peak would have a young, hard-working guy as the brew master. Since it opened in 1999, the brewery has established itself as a favorite hangout for the college-age crowd and other assorted hepcats. Whereas as Great Basin has the feel of an old, venerated pub and The Brew Brothers has casino-style excitement, Silver Peak feels younger and hipper. This might be the place where you walk out with cocktail napkin of phone numbers for the future members of your band.

“At Silver Peak, we try to focus on traditional styles,” Cronin says. That would include the Red Roadster, a traditional red ale with a deep, rich color and flavor and a powerful alcohol content. “It gives us a gauge of how we’re doing when people say ‘This is the best IPA I’ve ever had.’ or '[It’s] my favorite hefeweizen.'”

“Our goal is to have customers want to have more than one beer,” says Cronin. “We say that you know someone’s a real Peaker—that’s what we call our regular customers—when they’ve had six Red Roadsters in one night.” Presumably, these are the patrons who will be taking cabs home.

The Silver Peak opened a downtown expansion location near the river on West First and Sierra streets last year. At the downtown location, they have guest kegs, and Cronin loves it when he hears customers order a Silver Peak brew over a comparable beer. “It’s really satisfying when someone chooses our beer over a national brand.”

You are where you drink
It’s all too easy to peg these three breweries as analogous to three of the dominant regional characteristics. The Brew Brothers has plenty of the downtown casino excitement that lures tourists. Silver Peak appeals to the emerging local youth culture, and while Reno still might not be the hippest city on the left coast, there’s more of a youth culture presence here than ever before. And Great Basin appeals to that old Nevada spirit: iconoclastic, independent, outrageous, experimental, wild and Western—just the type of place to lead the fight to get rid of restrictive laws.

The three breweries’ most popular brews reflect their individual character. The Brew Brothers’ Lucky Lady Lager is a light, “domestic-style,” accessible, easy-to-enjoy beer with broad appeal, especially to tourists. Whitcher points out, “You can really judge a brewery by its light beer. That’s where you know their practices are sound. You can hide a lot of impurities in an IPA or a stout that you can’t hide in a light beer.”

Silver Peak’s Red Roadster is hip, cool beer with a great, distinctive color and an appealing, stylish taste. And, at 8 percent alcohol, it packs punch.

Great Basin’s Icky, named after, of all things, the official state fossil, has a complex, seemingly difficult taste. It’s not surprising that the most popular beer at Great Basin is one of its most unusual brews—and the one with the ugliest name, to boot.

The brewers do agree on a few things. For one, they get a boost from the quality of the water in the Truckee Meadows. “We have great water here,” says Cronin. “Because it’s from the snow pack, it has a very high mineral content.”

“We have excellent water,” says Whitcher. “In a way, it’s just easier to brew great beer here.”

All three breweries also value the importance of their own kitchens.

“Beer goes well with food,” says Young. “Say what you will about wine, but, for some things, you can’t beat beer—especially for desserts.”

And, of course, they agree on the importance of microbreweries to the social character. Microbrews not only provide us with distinct local flavors, but they may also provide beer drinkers with a superior product. It’s sort of like the difference between live music (the microbrews) and CDs (national breweries).

“We like to say that we serve live beer,” says Cronin. “We never bottle the beer, so it hasn’t been pasteurized or sanitized.”

“The things that corrupt beer are oxygen, sun and temperature,” says Whitcher, “all of which the beers encounter when they are bottled, shipped and distributed. At local breweries, the beer only travels like 10 feet. So customers leave with a good taste in their mouth.”

“Large breweries cut corners on their product because, for them, it’s all about marketing,” says Young. “At special events, we often get people asking for national brands, and it’s fun to turn them on to new beers.”

Drinking at a microbrewery is also direct support for a local business (and even the seemingly corporate Brew Brothers is really a local family-owned business). And, most important, microbrews taste good.

“That’s the honesty of beer,” says Young. “It can be as complex as wine, but it’s not as pretentious. You drink beer to enjoy it. If your goal is just to get smashed, I recommend vodka—it has the least flavor and is the fastest. But if you want to sit longer and enjoy a beer, you’ll live longer, and be wiser and happier. Beer is the beverage of moderation. And they’ve done studies that [show that] moderate alcohol consumers live longer than people who drink excessively and people who don’t drink at all. There’s a lot of speculation as to why this might be, but it might be because you more time talking with your spouse, your friends and family. You relax more. You enjoy a better, happier life.”