Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Beer and roaming in Las Vegas

The cabdriver kept apologizing for the unforgiving choke points in afternoon rush-hour traffic en route to the Draft House, ground zero for the beers made under the Big Dog’s Brewing Company brand.

As we rode along, the driver held up his end of the beer conversation: Bud’s no longer in American hands, he says he heard, shaking his head at the fact that some European outfit snapped it up; the Draft House is a Packers bar, he adds (as in Green Bay; the brewpub’s founders originally hail from Wisconsin; brats and cheesy things on the menu); good beer there, he says, and best of all, about 5 miles from his home.

The driver knew plenty about the place, but had one question: Why the special trip to a brewpub 10 miles off the Strip, where there was no shortage of beer, food and gambling?

Answer: The Draft House has a Jersey connection we needed to check out … that and the release of the brewpub’s Belgian Wit seasonal. It seems that Miss America isn’t the only one who fled Absecon Island for the desert palms and bright lights of Las Vegas; it’s just that she’s far better known, of course, than Dave Otto, the guy behind the stouts, IPAs and pale ales from Big Dog’s.

Dave’s been in Vegas longer than Miss A, heading out there about a dozen years ago, when Bill Clinton hadn’t yet regretted giving Monica Lewinsky a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Ray Rhodes was still coaching the Eagles. In beer terms, Flying Fish was still swimming up stream then, releasing its Abbey Dubbel for the first time; the now late, mutton-chopped Michael Jackson made a beer hunter stop at the Cherry Hill brewery; and the Tun Tavern existed only as a venerated piece of Marine Corps history, not a place for fresh beer in the shadow of Atlantic City Boardwalk casino glitz.

Indeed, craft beer and the beer renaissance in general were starting to take firm hold in the Mid-Atlantic back then. And Dave, originally from Cinnaminson, did his pubcrawls at Philly bars, while Home Sweet Homebrew provided him with malt, hops and other homebrewer supplies. (He still remembers, Nugget, that colossal-sized cat that used to keep George and Nancy company at the Sansom Street shop.) Back then, Dave was also kicking around Ventnor and the Atlantic City scene, parking cars at the Showboat and Tropicana, and driving a limo for a company with ties to Trump casinos. Not much of a job, nor direction, he says, recalling those days. He did what anyone does when life starts to seem like four walls: seek a sunnier vista. So he headed west, looking for a place to go to school and study history.

Welcome to fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada.

Dave applied to a few schools, but it was UNLV that accepted him; so did Holy Cow Casino Café & Brewery, the first throw of the beer dice for Big Dog’s Brewing and Sin City’s first microbrewery. Dave worked as an assistant brewer at Holy Cow on the Las Vegas strip, turning his homebrewer knowledge into pro brewer skills while on the job.

Holy Cow closed in 2002, and its owners shifted brewing operations to their Draft House property, where fermenters, conditioning tanks and the brew kettle are housed beside the barn-shaped building and its spacious bar area, video poker and dining tables. (Big Dog’s has two other locations: Big Dog’s Bar and Grill and Big Dog’s Casino Café.) Dave took over as brewmaster a year and a half later. Besides the brewhouse, these days you’ll also find him mingling with the crowds and beer geeks that turn out for the tasting parties for new beer releases (the first round is on the house, by the way, with a complimentary appetizer), or writing about beer for Southwest Brewing News.

Dave still has family in New Jersey, and except for the White House Sub Shop, and maybe the Baltimore Grille, he’s not one to get wistful over Atlantic City. Vegas is, after all, his roll of the dice.

Looks like it came up 7. Yep, a natural.


Brews we had at the Draft House (served in nonic pint glasses, with 20-ounce imperial pours and 16-ounce pours; slip a $20 into a video poker machine at the bar, your beer is comped):

  • Black Lab Stout (5.5% ABV): Well-balanced, smooth and tasty, poured under nitrogen, a good starter if you’re looking for a session brew but wanting to go beyond the pale. And of course, a black Lab is the iconic brand image of Big Dog’s Brewing.
  • Holy Cow! Original Pale Ale (5.3% ABV): Clean aroma and lots of hops, but not overboard with bitterness. Very much the American version of pale ale, will remind you of the first time you had a West Coast-style beer.
  • Sled Dog Winter Stout, aged in Jim Beam bourbon barrels (9% ABV): Vanilla signatures abound in a quite good imperial stout. Nice brew to come back to after the hop-centric Holy Cow. Just a hint of alcohol in the flavor, tucked in behind the roasty notes.
  • Belgian Wit (4.8% ABV; in wheat glass): Nice and hazy from wheat and oats, orangey and refreshing to sip. Saaz hops, coriander and curacao. Our only regret with this brew is we had to chug it and dash, so we could keep to a schedule.