Tapping in

Why drink Coors? With four local breweries and a homebrew supply store, beer lovers can tap in to fresh-brewed flavors

Trent Schmidt, co-owner of Silver Peak Brewery, peeks out of a beer vat.

Trent Schmidt, co-owner of Silver Peak Brewery, peeks out of a beer vat.

Photo by David Robert

Trent Schmidt, co-owner of Silver Peak Restaurant and Brewery, is full of beer anecdotes. He tells me, for instance, that brewing beer dates back to the Sumerian era. He also explains that beer played a vital role in Columbus’ voyage to the Americas. When Columbus sailed to the New World, he and his crew drank beer, which was safer than the scurvy-causing water. At one point, the crew put off sailing back to Europe so they could brew more beer for the journey home.

“It wasn’t simply, ‘Don’t take my Bud,’ “ he jokes. “It was, ‘If we sail back to Europe, we won’t have enough.’ “

It’s not something they usually mention in the history books: “America founded on beer.”

On a rainy Thursday afternoon, Schmidt, who started Silver Peak three years ago with his partner David Silverman, takes me on a tour of the brewery, tells beer anecdotes and—best of all—gives RN&R photo editor David Robert and me beer samples to taste. He also explains the subtleties of brewing.

Every beer, Schmidt tells me, has four basic ingredients: malted barley, water, yeast and hops.

“Making all the different styles of beer is [a matter of] juggling those ingredients,” he says. “My job as a brewer is to pick and chose those ingredients I think will give me the right profile in the end.”

And there are many, many ways to make beer. Schmidt says that there are about 900 recipes for porter alone. In Germany, brewers can use only the four basic ingredients, since German beer purity laws forbid the addition of say, fruit flavors or flavored malts. In Belgium, it’s a whole different story.

“Belgium just blows it right out of the book,” he says. “It’s almost like wine in the treatment of it. It’s a flavor profile that’s mind-blowing.”

Here in Reno, one can get a mind-blowing, Belgian-style beer (when it’s in season) or a simple, unadulterated beer like Silver Peak’s XXX Blonde Ale—what Schmidt calls his most “naked” beer. The name is a humorous nod to the adult bookstore across the street—the one on South Virginia Street with the prominent “XXX” on the building’s north wall.

It’s good for a brewery to play up local culture, Schmidt says.

The number of breweries in America has been rising steadily over the past two decades, according to Stonebrew.com. The Web site states that there were nearly 3,000 breweries in the nation at the turn of the 20th century, but those breweries had to shut their doors when Prohibition came along. Small breweries never regained their pre-Prohibition popularity, with big, national brewers like Anheuser-Busch dominating the market. There were fewer than 50 breweries in the late 1970s. But things are turning around; as of the year 2000, there were more than 1,500 breweries in America.

It turned out that those megabrew joints like Coors couldn’t always compete with the flavors of fresh brews. People like to link their beer to a locale, Schmidt says. Silver Peak’s Peavine Porter, for instance, may remind a hiker of a favorite Peavine trail. Silver Peak also has a seasonal beer commonly referred to as the “birthday bock” on tap right now. It’s brewed every February to celebrate the birthday of Schmidt’s daughter.

Silver Peak is one of several area breweries, including Brew Brothers at the Eldorado Hotel-Casino, Great Basin Brewing Co. in Sparks and Lake Tahoe Brewing Co. in Crystal Bay. Silver Peak is doing so well that it plans to open a satellite pub along the Truckee River as part of a proposed downtown redevelopment plan.

“People keep congratulating me,” Schmidt says, as someone passes by our table, applauding him on the proposed Silver Peak Jr. “But it’s like being pregnant—I still have to carry this around for another year before giving birth.”

In addition to flourishing breweries, Northern Nevada also has a brewing supply company over on Dickerson Road. California native Rob Bates dropped his Silicon Valley job to start The Reno Homebrewer in the mid-'80s.

“I just went all out and didn’t do anything else but this. I went full tilt. People found out.”

His business is thriving, he says, with between 300 and 400 regular clients and about 100 other brew-curious customers stopping by throughout the year.

What sort of person avidly brews, I ask Bates. Frat types?

He tells me that no, brewing beer is a time-consuming enterprise, and young folk generally want get their beer in a timely fashion—like, in the amount of time it takes to walk to the Texaco mini-mart.

“Demographically, we’re looking at mid-30s to mid-60s, age-wise,” he says. “It’s people who like upscale beer.”

Bates sells all the beer basics: malt extracts, hops, yeast, etc.

“What I do here is essentially what amounts to selling groceries, and people can make that into beer,” he says.

So if someone with no brewing experience were to want to start making beer—say someone like me, who has difficulty making a grilled cheese sandwich—what would he tell her?

“I would say, well, we have a home brewing kit. And once you get set up, you get all the advice you can stand from me for no extra charge.”

Aside from the kit, you need a stove and a vessel in which to boil water. The kit yields about eight six-packs of brew.

The home brewing kit costs $60 and includes everything one needs to get started, except for the bottles. Bottles cost about $20 extra, or brewers can supply their own—although pouring your prized creation into used Miller Light bottles de-romanticizes things somehow.

Bates has about 30 beer recipes in his brewing cupboard. Pale ale recipes are the most popular, he says, although amber and red beers have a devoted following. And during the cold season, many brewers want thicker, stronger beers like porters and stouts. But brewers needn’t cling to a recipe; Bates says that he’s always happy to give experimentation tips.

“The combinations are infinite,” he says.

I ask Schmidt at Silver Peak how he narrows down those infinite beer combinations into the eight to 10 beers he has on tap at any one time.

“I have my own ideas [about brewing], but there are accepted standards. If I say, ‘India Pale Ale,’ most people understand that it’s a golden beer with strong hoppy flavors. If I say, ‘Hefeweizen,’ they think of an unfiltered beer with a slice of lemon. I kind of want to follow accepted standards, the historical parameters of what a beer should be. People have a standard of what beer will look, feel and taste like—kind of like art. People want to classify you—are you a realist, a surrealist, an impressionist.”

While almost anyone can learn do it, beer brewing takes patience—and a vision. Most of us are happy leaving beer to the imagination of local professional brewers like Schmidt. A home brewing kit may get you started, but passion and imagination are qualities you have to supply yourself.

“There’s a lot of science that goes into it," Schmidt says. "But there’s also a lot of art."