It’s late on a Tuesday night—or maybe it’s a Wednesday morning. There’s no way to tell because my cell phone is dead and I haven’t seen a clock since I landed in the arid embrace of the Vegas afternoon. I’m equally unaware of how much money I just surrendered to the blackjack table. But it couldn’t have been a small amount. The woebegone look on the dealer’s face as I departed, his squinting eyes allowing for even a small shade of guilt, suggest it was a sizable hemorrhage. Ambling aimlessly for a small moment, I look to regain some semblance of pride. Instead, I stumble upon something far more reassuring: craft beer handles. Things are going to work out for me, I am sure of it.
I pull up a stool at the Yardbird—a southern-inspired kitchen and bar (by way of Miami) that specializes in comforting expressions of grits and gravy, fried chicken and waffles. Just beyond the bar is a winding hallway, which connects the Palazzo Tower to the rest of the Venetian Resort. It is littered with discarded credentialed lanyards from Dell employees.
"I’ll be damned," I think to myself. Partly because I didn’t know Dell was still a thing, but mainly because there’s a beer on tap that appears to be made with grits. I consult the bartender and, sure enough, Unfor’grit’able is true to its name. Vegas-based Able Baker Brewing ferments it especially for the restaurant. Less than three years in operation, and the brewery has already grown into the local craft darlings. By 2020, I am told, they will open their own brewpub just north of the Strip.
Compelled by the malt and hop balance of the grits grog, I opt for a pint of Able Baker’s flagship Atomic Duck IPA. It pours slightly cloudy into the glass. Absolutely no surprises there. What is surprising is that I’m sipping on a solid craft beer on the Vegas Strip, made in Las Vegas.
Maybe it’s a fluke.
At Mott 32—a modern Chinese export from Hong Kong—there’s a ‘Nevada Weiss’ by IMBĪB Custom Brews. The tart and tangy take on a Berliner is true to style and surprisingly effective at cutting through the fat of a crispy fried Szechuan chicken. My misfortune at the gaming table is now a distant memory. I press my luck next-door at Bar Luca and order a glass of I Love Nevada, an Amber Lager with a brown sugar-like maltiness. “This is delicious, who makes it?” I ask. The barkeep obliges, it’s made in the neighboring town of Henderson by Bad Beat Brewing. This seems like as good of a time as any to call it a night—or morning or afternoon—while I’m still ahead
The next day—away from the bright lights and clanging bells of slot machines—the genesis of this microbrewed menagerie becomes more apparent. I meet with James Buchanan, the Venetian’s Director of Beverage and a Certified Cicerone. “Craft beer has definitely started to gain traction on the Strip,” he tells me. “The beer lists at the new bars and lounges are very craft-focused. Ten years ago, finding a great craft beer list on the strip was next to impossible, whereas now almost every casino will have an option for great craft beer.”
Buchanan isn't the only one keeping a closer eye on transactions happening the bars than the craps tables. According to David G. Schwartz, Ph.D., who runs the Center for Gaming Research at UNLV, “Spending on beverages [in Las Vegas] has increased by 54 percent in the past ten years. Compare this to the gaming number, which is lower than it was 10 years ago. As a result, casinos get a higher share of their total earnings from beverages than they did before. The trend of growing beverage spend is well established, and explains why casino companies are investing more in bars, lounges, and nightclubs.”
All this knowledge so early in (what I suspect is) the afternoon is making me thirsty. So I set out to prove the professor’s theory. The only thing standing in my way is the treacherous journey across the Strip—a byzantine barrage of escalators positioned perpendicular to any direct route of travel, strewn with street performers, nightclub solicitors, and Iron Man.
I’ve suffered far greater for far less than what awaits at Beerhaus: An aptly named house with beer at the Park MGM. There are thirty selections on draft, with asterisks denoting local liquids. Eyeing the list, I remember some advice from Mr. Buchanan back at the Venetian. “Joseph James and Crafthaus are both putting out some great beers,” he told me. “Las Vegas hasn’t seen the proliferation of craft breweries like other cities in the US, but these two have really elevated the scene since their arrival.”
At Beerhaus I sip on Busker Brown Ale from the former and Shiny New Toy Extra Pale Ale from the latter. Buchanan was onto something, particularly with the Shiny New Toy. It’s brewed with Idaho 7, an experimental hops variety way sexier than it sounds. It has tropical juice flavor and refreshing drinkability—the sorts of things you tend to appreciate in a desert. Or in any climate, really. Surrounding me is a Millennial-skewing swath of day drinkers. Many of them might very well have come to Vegas to do more sensible things than waste their money on blackjack. But I won’t judge them for that.
Against my own better judgment, I wander into the adjoining New York-New York Hotel and Casino. Another venue, another on-the-nose exercise in naming. This time, I saddle up to Pour 24, where 24 taps and pouring 24 hours a day. I count no less than seven locally sourced suds, including a perfectly adequate lager from the folks at Big Dog’s Brewing. If you’re from any big city in America, perhaps the set up would seem standard, at best. But does your local craft beer bar have happy hour from 3 to 9…a.m.?! No, no it doesn’t.
I’m keen on continuing this crawl—purely in the name of science—and a quick search reveals a dozen craft-focused outposts within a ten minute walk. The roof of Paris appears to have the most potential. After a slow, steady slog to the top, I count 38 beers on tap. But it’s all tilted terribly towards the adjunct-lager. Not today, Spaten.
Back on solid ground, I head to the Linq Promenade to scope out the scene at AmeriCAN. As the name suggests, draft is not the name of the game, but there are all sorts of canned and bottled standouts. The bartender steers me towards 9th Island, a pineapple sour from the Las Vegas Valley’s own Lovelady Brewing. It’s gently tart and entirely crushable.
It’s a far cry from the more conservative styles at my final stop, Sin City Brewing Co. Founder and brewer Richard Johnson opened the brewery in 2005 as one of the city’s first craft breweries. Today, the brewery remains rooted in the past—for better or worse—with beers like Never Pass Up a Blonde and Say Hello to Amber served in pint glasses adorned with the image of a busty devil. “While the creativity of the local guys is off the charts, an old guy like me is excited to see some of the traditional beers making a comeback,” Johnson says. “As [brewers] take the flavor profiles into uncharted territory, it’s nice to have some traditional beers being reintroduced to solidify beer’s roots.”
Regardless of style preference, Vegas-brewed beer is undeniably becoming less of a gamble and more of a sure thing. A sure thing is a rare find in this town, I think to myself, as I stammer inevitably towards the closest blackjack dealer.