Nevada’s craft beer scene is booming, but will the buzz wear off?
BY THE NUMBERS
40: Number of craft breweries in Nevada
24: Number of craft breweries in Northern Nevada
64,621: Barrels of craft beer produced annually in Nevada
$434 million: Annual economic impact of craft breweries in Nevada
Source: Brewers Association
RENO, Nev. — Bryan Holloway takes a sip of ale and smiles.
“We’re doubling our production,” said Holloway, co-owner and head brewer at Reno-based Pigeon Head Brewery, which will jump from producing 700 to 1,400 barrels of beer this year. “We’ve purchased new tanks, so we’re growing just like everyone else is around here.”
Pigeon Head’s planned growth this year is just one example of how the craft beer industry is abuzz and booming in Northern Nevada. In fact, craft breweries in the Silver State produce 64,621 barrels of craft beer per year, according to the Brewers Association, a trade association representing small and independent American craft brewers.
In turn, Nevada’s economy receives a $434 million boost from the state’s craft beer industry. With that, it comes as likely no surprise that the number of craft breweries operating in Nevada has more than doubled in the past seven years — swelling from 18 to 40. And of those 40 craft breweries, 24 are producing and pouring their suds in Northern Nevada.
Nationally, the trends show similar levels of robust growth. In 2017 alone, there were nearly 1,000 new brewery openings nationwide, the Brewers Association reports. Further, as many as 2,700 additional independent breweries are in various planning stages to open this year and beyond, according to the association.
Meanwhile, more craft breweries closed in 2017 than any time in the past decade, with 165 closures across the country, a closing rate of 2.6 percent. While the percentage is low, statistics show it is a 42 percent jump in closures from 2016.
With breweries springing up across America left and right — as well as here in Northern Nevada — it begs the question: Has the craft beer industry in Northern Nevada become oversaturated?
‘A lot of room for growth’
Holloway, for one, doesn’t think so.
“I think there’s a lot of room for growth around here,” said Holloway, who purchased Pigeon Head Brewery along with his partner, Peter Crooks, in December 2017. “There are a lot of cool breweries popping up, a lot of good beer coming up, a lot of experimenting. We might be a year or two behind some other states, but we’re really catching up. It’s a really cool spot to be right now.”
Like Pigeon Head, most area breweries are increasing their production, offerings and out-of-state distribution. Currently, Holloway said Pigeon Head can only be found in Nevada, but will be distributing to Northern California in a matter of weeks.
Ryan Bauer, brewer and co-owner of Shoe Tree Brewing Co. in Carson City, said he thinks oversaturation in the region is a ways away — especially in Carson City, where Shoe Tree is one of only three operating breweries.
Though Carson City may be behind neighboring Reno in terms of amount of beer geeks, Bauer feels the craft beer scene in the state capital is gaining froth.
“It’s kind of tough in Carson, but it’s growing,” said Bauer, noting he’s seen at least two breweries shut down in the city over the years. “When you see two breweries fail in that town, you’re a little hesitant. There are a lot of Budweiser drinkers out there, so we’re trying to start people out slowly on sours and double IPAs and growing organically in town first before branching into Reno and the surrounding areas. So we’re going slow and steady.”
Opened roughly a year ago, Shoe Tree Brewing produced 600 barrels in its first calendar year. Bauer said they’re planning a “significant uptick” in production in year two.
The story is a bit different at the Brewer’s Cabinet in Reno, where co-founder Zachary Cage says they “cannot make beer fast enough.”
The Brewer’s Cabinet produced 3,500 barrels in its first year, 2012. Cage said they’re on target to bump up to 7,500 barrels by the end of 2018, distributing throughout Nevada as well as the California side of Lake Tahoe.
“It’s booming,” Cage said. “We would like to expand our reach in terms of distribution faster than we healthily can. It’s like having all of the best problems.”
LAY OF THE LAW
Last July, the state’s craft breweries — after years of trying — were finally able to increase the amount of beer they can make by law. With the adoption of Assembly Bill 431 during the 2017 Nevada Legislature, breweries’ production cap was boosted from 15,000 barrels per year to 40,000.
However, legislators reduced the amount of beer a brewery can sell directly to its customers from 15,000 barrels per year to 5,000 barrels (up to 1,000 of which may be sold in kegs), meaning some breweries need to rely more heavily on third-party beer distributors in the region.
Most of the breweries in Northern Nevada are nowhere near producing even the previous 15,000-barrel cap — at least not yet.
“A lot of us are under 15,000 by quite a bit, but eventually we’re going to get there,” Holloway said. “We’re all getting to that point where we’re going to be able to open other locations and produce more beer, so it definitely helps a lot. Even for one of the bigger ones like Great Basin (Brewing Company).”
Despite last year’s gains, Nevada remains one of the few states in the country with such a restrictive cap on a brewery’s production — as well the distribution and sale of its beer. California, for example, does not have a barrel limit.
While the state-run California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control regulates California’s breweries, the Silver State has a three-tier system set up through the Nevada Department of Taxation — this means that while brew pubs can sell some product directly to customers, the majority of beer produced locally gets sold to distributors, which is then re-sold to other retailers.
With that in mind, Tom Young, brewer and co-owner of Great Basin Brewing Co. — the state’s largest and oldest operating brewery (it launched back in 1993) — feels Nevada still has a long ways to go when it comes to liquor laws.
“We did get a break going up to 40,000 (barrels), but other states don’t have these stupid restrictions,” Young said.
Speaking of other states, you step into any bar in Northern Nevada, you’ll find either a video screen — or a chalkboard in more rustic examples — broadcasting beer names and a lineup of tap handles to match.
IPAs. Saisons. Sours. Stouts. Each fermented beverage released into pint glasses over and over from a bar’s open to close.
Many of the beers are locally brewed, sure, but area brewers must also compete for tap handles with regional and national breweries. As Reno-Sparks’ thirst for unique and flavorful beers intensifies, those out-of-state brewers will continue to move into Northern Nevada bars.
And there are only so many tap handles available, making it especially difficult for a new small brewery to squeeze into the rotation.
“It’s exceedingly difficult to get your beer in a bar,” Young said. “You want to get your beer in some bar, you have to knock some of your buddies’ (breweries) off sometimes. That’s not always pleasant.”
Simply put, a large factor of becoming a mainstay on bar taps in Northern Nevada is brewing good beer that people enjoy.
“If your beer is low quality, people will turn to the myriad options that they have. You have to have a good quality product,” said Cage, who along with Michael Connolly and Chris Kahl opened the Brewer’s Cabinet in 2012.
Nevertheless, Cage said that the breweries of Northern Nevada don’t see each other as competing enemies, rather relatives of a growing craft beer family.
“It’s like you’re at a family reunion,” said Cage, offering an analogy, “and they are all my cousins. I may not like all of them, but I love them and am interested in what they are doing.
“It’s not a scrap, it’s more of a group effort and who makes it, makes it.”
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