drinkable reno tahoe
THE GREAT BEER PIONEER
Twenty years ago, Tom Young and his team blazed a path for brewpubs in Nevada.
WRITTEN BY MARC TIAR
PHOTOS BY CHRIS HOLLOMAN
In 1993 Nevada wasn't exactly what you would call, in beer terms, a hotspot of hoppy delight. The 1980s saw a growing minority of beer drinkers who thirsted for more complexity, flavor, and variety in their beer when crafting their own. And from those, some were beginning to see the potential of turning that hobby into a business. In addition, investors and capitalists saw the microbrewery trend as the next big thing, and, thus, a boom in microbreweries began across the country.
Still, in the greater Truckee Meadows, our choices for what we now call American craft beer (that which is made traditionally by a small, independent brewer) still were relatively limited. American-brewed beer made by small brewers such as these represented about 1 percent of the national beer market.
Enter Tom Young and Eric McClary. Both were award-winning home brewers and beer judges. They decided the time was right for not just a brewery, but a brewpub that combined a brewery and restaurant in one. At that time, one might have thought they were crazy — opening either kind of business alone takes a massive investment of capital, labor, licensing, and not to mention energy for overcoming other challenges. The biggest challenge was that Nevada didn't even have a law allowing this kind of business (The Silver State was the last holdout in the western states). Although the first brewpub in the nation since Prohibition had opened only 11 years earlier (Grant's Brewery Pub opened in Yakima, Wash., in 1982), such businesses were now popping up as part of the microbrew gold rush nationwide.
Young says that when they approached potential financiers — wooing them with bottles of home brew to taste what they had in mind — the financial pros were skeptical and cautious.
"Lenders advised us against making 'aggressive' beer, fearful that the palates of local beer drinkers wouldn't appreciate anything but the mild lagers that dominated the marketplace," Young says.
Challenges are meant to be overcome, though. Great Basin Brewing Co. served its first pints of fresh, locally brewed beer in November 1993 at its newly opened Sparks facility on Victorian Avenue. And the beer has been flowing ever since. This fall, Great Basin celebrates 20 years in business.
Of course, the Great Basin of 1993 is nothing like the Great Basin of 2013. What started with that Sparks location and a few basic home brew recipes now is a thriving business with three locations (the original Sparks location, as well as a Reno location on South Virginia Street, and Taps & Tanks, a production facility and taproom). The company also can claim the title of Nevada's oldest operating brewery. Those few basic beer choices from 1993 are now part of a wide range of brews such as McClary's Irish Red, seasonal fruit beer Bitchin' Berry, and an annual release, the Red Nose Holiday Wassail. Bottling of the flagship Ichthyosaur IPA (aka Icky) for retail sales across the region began in 2011, with additional bottled varieties being released regularly.
A commitment to sustainability means composting restaurant waste, sending spent brewing grains to local cattle ranches, and, perhaps most notably, brewing Nevada's only all-organic beer (see sidebar). Great Basin's cooks even use some of the brewpub's beer and grain to produce their own Brewer's Bread for sale to the public and for use in dishes at both restaurant locations.
In the days of brewing at home in the 1980s, through good batches and bad, Tom Young and his wife, Bonda, couldn't have foreseen the empire they've created. (Tragically, McClary disappeared in 2002 during a Michigan vacation and is presumed deceased.)
"Bonda put up with a lot of lousy home brew over the years," Young recalls.
Considering craft beer then and now, Young is reflective about the evolution of brewing.
"Customers expect better. Tastes have changed. Big beer is paying attention. [Major beer companies] are a threat to craft beer," Young says.
Nonetheless, Young still believes there is plenty of room for growth in the craft beer industry he helped create in Northern Nevada. Now, as then, and into the next two decades, Young says he wants to continue as a provider of this "elixir for conversation, the beverage of moderation ... active in the community, important in Nevada's people's lives" for as long as possible.
Marc Tiar is a Reno-based librarian, family man, and home brewer, obsessed by all things beer.
Great Basin Brewing Co. will celebrate 20 years in business this November with a week of festivities and special offerings, including vintages of past brews, live music, and other revelry. For details, visit Greatbasinbrewingco.com.
When it comes to talking about a brewpub, the only thing that separates it from being just another restaurant is the beer. And Great Basin's beers certainly have stood apart. Here's the low down on their great brews:
Black Eye PA
Marrying the roasted flavors of a dark beer with the hoppy flavors of an IPA, this favorite will be one of Great Basin's seasonal bottled releases beginning this winter.
A community favorite, this jalapeno-infused pilsner has won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival three times.
Brewed once in 2011 for the Nevada Museum of Art's 80th anniversary, when an exhibit of ancient Egyptian treasures was featured, this hops-free beer was brewed using organic emmer, a cereal grain that likely was grown in ancient Egypt, sourced from Washington and malted locally.
For this annual tradition, customers are invited to help crack pine nuts for this celebration of local ingredients, including juniper berry and sage.
Ichthyosaur India Pale Ale (aka Icky) Named after Nevada's official state fossil, this hop-heavy flagship brew has become synonymous with Great Basin's beer. It remains the business' highest volume beer and has spawned countless Gimme an Icky! bumper stickers through the years. In 2011, Great Basin began bottling its beers and Icky was the first to go into bottles.
In honor of (or perhaps poking fun at?) the Mayan-prophesied apocalypse of 2012, this strong beer included a roster of Mayan-inspired ingredients, including corn, honey, vanilla, chile peppers, and chocolate.
Outlaw Oatmeal Milk Stout
A national medal winner, this ebony brew made with oatmeal for a smooth creaminess and lactose for sweetness is one of Great Basin's newest bottled beers.
Truckee River Red
Great Basin is the only USDA-certified organic producer of beer in Nevada. Organic malt sourced from Wisconsin and organic hops from farms in Oregon and Washington go into this brew, released periodically since 2008. The brewery also produced the organic Ponderosa Pale Ale as a benefit to the Nevada Land Trust in 2012.
Wild Lemon Wheat
An occasionally offered treat, this beer is light and refreshing, sour and sweet at the same time.