Brewed In Nevada -
A History of the Silver State's Beers and Breweries
By Eric Moody and Robert Nyland
Copper King, Tahoe, Royal, Malt Rose, New Style Lager, Sierra, Riter's Elite Steam -these are just some of the many beers once brewed in Nevada. In the Silver State, as in other parts of the country, the production and bottling of beer was a colorful "local industry" during much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Beers produced by dozens of Nevada breweries engaged in lively competition with "foreign" beers, as local brewers contemptuously labelled out-of-state products. Whether because of the superiority of home beers or simply native pride, the local products held their own. Local brewing flourished until Prohibition, increased production costs, and the more efficient distribution and advertising of large national companies combined to extinguish the small brewing concerns.
In Nevada, vestiges remain only in the form of fading bottles and cans, old breweries and bottlmg plants, yellowed pieces of advertising, photographs and company records. They are intriguing reminders of the once-considerable manufacturing business that began in the early 1860s, when the first mineral booms brought hordes of miners into the region. Part of an overwhelmingly male society, these wealth seekers spent considerable time gambling and drinking, and the resultant demand for beer encouraged the establishment of breweries in many communities. These fluctuated in number and prosperity with the fortunes of the mining industry and the growth or decline of the state's population.
Nevada's first brewery was established in Carson City, where Jacob Klein and his partners in the Carson City Brewery began selling beer for $3 per gallon in 1860. The Carsonites were joined shortly by a small army of Comstock brewmasters who were practicing their craft by the early 1860s. The Nevada, Virginia, Union, California, and the other breweries were active in Virginia City, and had counterparts in Gold Hill, Silver City, Dayton, and American City. Other western Nevada breweries flourished in such places as Genoa, Crystal Peak, and Washoe City.
As prospectors fanned out into the interior of the state and established new mining camps, brewing activity also spread. The year 1863 saw Ploschke and Betz open Austin's first brewery, the Pioneer, and begin marketing their Pioneer Beer. During the 1860s and 1870s, many more breweries appeared at Austin and other signfficant mining camps - among them Belmont, Aurora, Unionville, Eureka, Pioche, Grantsville, Tybo, Tuscarora, and Hamilton - where in 1869, Davison and Wagner's Philadelphia Brewery became the first in White Pine County.
Reno, Wadsworth, Battle Mountain, Elko, and Winnemucca - railroad towns that appeared along the Central Paciftc's transcontinental route in 1868-1869 - also boasted breweries. In Winnemucca, which became a station on the rail line in 1868, two rival breweries appeared. Soon after passenger service began in May, 1869, Head and Krinkle's Winnemucca City Brewery and Charles Kesler's Empire Brewery were both doing business on Bridge Street, competing energetically for customers. Agricultural communities, too, fostered breweries, albeit to a lesser extent than mining camps and railroad towns. Genoa and Paradise Valley were two farming or ranching centers in which commercial breweries existed.
As Nevada's population grew during the third quarter of the nineteenth century, Reno became the leading railroad and transportation center. As such, it was Virginia City's principal rival for the title of beer manufacturing capital of the state. In the bustling city by the Truckee River, as in other places, the industry was monopolized by German immigrants. Frederick Hertlein opened his Reno Brewery, the community's first, on Commercial Row in 1868. fohn George Becker, one of several Beckers involved with area saloons and breweries, built the Washoe Brewery in 1870, with an associate, Charles Knust, and the Pacific Brewery eleven years later. William Hoffman, who purchased Hertlein's building in 1873, shortly before it burned to the ground, later acquired Becker's Washoe Brewery. By the 1890's, Henry Riter, afterward owner of the renowned Bowers Mansion resort in Washoe Valley, was running his Elite Brewery at the old Washoe Brewery location and producing Elite Steam Beer.
It should be pointed out that not all activity in the beer industry involved brewing. After rail transportation made distant markets more accessible, out of state brewing companies began shipping their products into Nevada in large quantities. Barrels of these "foreign" beers were unloaded at "beer depots," which were receiving and shipping centers, usually located on railroad spurs and often with bottling works attached. The beer was then either bottled, distributed in kegs to local saloons, or reshipped by wagon or truck to towns with no rail connections.
Reno's leading depots after the turn of the century, all of which had bottling facilities, were the Rainier Bottling Works, of the Seattle Brewing and Malting Company, on Spokane Street; the Buffalo Beer Depot, on Commercial Row; and the John Wieland Bottling Works, specializing in lager from San Francisco's massive John Wieland Brewery, which German born Otto Benschuetz managed at 251 Ralston Street.
The 1900 discovery of silver at Tonopah ushered in a new mining boom, thereby greatly increasing the demand for the products of Nevada's beer makers and bottlers. A new Reno Brewing Company, incorporated by some Montana entrepreneurs, commenced production of a line of beers in 1903. Within. two years this firm absorbed its principal competitor, Riter's Elite Brewing Company, built impressive new brewing and bottling plant on East Fourth Street and became the largest beer manufacturer in the state. In 1905, it contemplated, but did not build, a brewery in Tonopah; and it continued to prosper despite the advent of beer manufacturing in such new mining centers as Goldfield (where Munich native Max Stenz, formerly with Riter's Elite and later owner of the Carson Brewery, became the leading industrial figure), Ely (where the Consumers Malting and Brewing Company produced its Copper King Beer), and Gold Center, the short-lived camp in Nye County near Beatty.
In places that did not acquire breweries, beer depots often appeared. Among these were Tonopah, where the John Wieland Company occupied a stone storage building in 1901, and Las Vegas. By the summer of 1905, a cold storage warehouse for the Maier and Zobelein Brewing Company of Los Angeles had been completed and was supplying beer to the.swelling populace of Las Vegas as well as thirsty inhabitants of booming mining camps to the north.
The local beer industry in Nevada and the rest of the couptry virtually ceased to exist at the end of the World War 1. Prohibition commenced in Nevada in 1919, under state law, a year earlier than it did nationally. Most small breweries closed and never reopened. in Nevada, only the modem Reno Brewery and the prestigious old Carson Brewery, both of which converted to the manufacture of legal "Volstead" or "near" beer during the dry years, were still around to resume production of real lager when Prohibition ended in the 1930s. However, increased competition from larger, more efficient out-of-state breweries soon forced even these survivors to shut down. The Carson Brewery produced its last Tahoe Beer ("Famous as the Lake') in 1948, and the Reno Brewing Company's renowned Sierra Beer disappeared in 1957.
Not much remains today of the buildings that once housed Nevada's native beer industry. There are a few inactive breweries - such as the Carson Brewery and Virginia City's Union Brewery and a small number of "recycled" bottling works - including Reno's Rainier, Wieland, and Reno Brewing Company buildings. In Tonopah, the modest storage structure erected for the John Wieland Company is still in use as a private residence.
©1986 Nevada State Museum, Carson City, NV 89710
NEVADA’S BREW PUB ERA
By Eric N. Moody and Robert A. Nylen
The first chapter in the history of Nevada’s brewing industry, which began in the 1850s and witnessed both the Comstock and Tonopah-Goldfield mining booms - and scores of breweries producing beer in over fifty towns, came to a close in 1957. That was the year in which the Reno Brewing Company, operator of the state’s sole surviving brewery, recorded its last production.
For the next three decades, there was no commercial beer brewing in Nevada, although a Carson Brewing Company did appear in the early 1980s with plans to construct a new brewery in the capital city. Taking the name of an earlier Carson City business, this company eventually produced – just as its predecessor had – Tahoe Beer (“Famous as the Lake”), but it was made in Wisconsin.
It was not until 1987 that the beer-making drought ended in Nevada and a new “Brew Pub Era” began.
After the Carson Brewing Company’s failure to build its new facility, the attention of prospective commercial beer producers focused on less ambitious brew pubs - small operations that produced and sold their “craft” beers on the premises. These were already operating in many parts of the country, and there was growing pressure on Nevada’s lawmakers to legalize the increasingly popular businesses in the Silver State. At that time, Nevada law discouraged the start-up of breweries and effectively barred brew pubs by prohibiting in-state manufacturers of alcoholic beverages from retailing them in the state.
In 1987, as the result of pressure from brew pub supporters, Assembly Bill 357 appeared in the lower house of the state legislature. Introduced by Assembly Speaker Joe Dini, the bill was passed without much fanfare and became law in May. It created just a minor exemption to the existing prohibition against brew pubs, but it opened the door for further brew pub development – and marked the beginning of a new chapter in the story of Nevada’s brewing industry.
The landmark 1987 law sponsored by Dini, whose district encompassed Storey and Lyon counties – and thus the Comstock, was a narrowly focused measure that authorized the “renovation and operation of a brewery in the Comstock Historic District.” It permitted any building in the district which had formerly been used as a brewery to be remodeled for the operation of a new brewery. Any brew pub that might open under the law was allowed to make no more than 500 barrels of beer in a calendar year, and was to sell the beer only on its premises.
The bill had been persistently sought by Rick and Julie Hoover, owners of the atmospheric old Union Brewery Saloon in Virginia City, who were looking for a way to improve business in their bar, especially during the slow winter months. A preamble to the bill made it clear that the measure was intended for the Hoovers’ benefit:
Whereas. The Comstock historic district is an area containing numerous structures, buildings and landmarks of historic interest and scenic beauty; and
Whereas. A brewery of notable repute flourished for many years in the area contained within the Comstock historic district; and
Whereas. The structure in which the brewery formerly was operated remains in existence and is eminently suitable for renovation; and
Whereas. The cultural, educational, historic and general welfare of the public would be beneficially served by the renovation and operation of a brewery in the Comstock historic
district; now therefore….
Despite statements to the contrary by Rick Hoover and other proponents of the bill, it appears that the Union Brewery Saloon, which had indeed functioned as a brewery in the nineteenth century, was the only structure on the Comstock that qualified as a site for a brew pub. (There was one building in Dayton – inside the extended “Comstock Historic District” – that also qualified.)
The Union Brewery’s brew pub opened to the public with considerable fanfare one evening in October, 1987, with a good-sized crowd of visitors touring the basement brewery and sampling fresh beer. (Bottles of Union Brewery dark lager, bearing a label that featured a tasteful, nineteenth century picture of a semi-nude woman, could be purchased at $10 apiece.) For a time the brewery enjoyed its distinction as Nevada’s only brew pub – though even Rick Hoover believed that future legislatures would expand the 1987 law to permit similar businesses in other parts of the state. The Union Brewery continued to operate as a brew pub into the mid-1990s, with Hoover producing small quantities of his trademark beer. Brewing eventually ceased – reportedly after the quality of the beer declined, although the saloon remained open.
The less than spectacular career of the Comstock’s first brew pub did not deter other prospective operators from attempting to start up their own places. The brew pub-microbrewery business, with its increasingly popular craft beers, was then flourishing in the United States; by 1987 more than 70 small breweries were operating in California alone – a state which had made them legal only in 1983. Close to the Nevada state line, in Truckee, California, the Truckee Brewing Company had been successfully producing light and dark beers since 1985.
No legislation further modifying Nevada’s brew pub regulations emerged from the 1989 session of the state legislature, but as the 1991 session approached, calls for change were heard once more. The most prominent voice in the chorus belonged to Dick Murray, a retired aerospace engineer of Carson City who wanted to open his Ramshead Brewery, a brew pub, in his home town. Murray persuaded his state senator, Ernie Adler, to introduce a bill that would exempt Carson City from the prevailing brew pub prohibition, just as the Comstock Historic District had been favored four years earlier.
This time, however, the brew pub proposal was discussed at length in the senate, with sentiment being expressed that brew pub exemptions should be extended to the entire state. Amendments to the bill resulted in a measure that permitted brew pubs to operate in any historic or redevelopment district in counties having 100,000 or more inhabitants (namely Clark and Washoe), and in any location approved by county commissioners in those counties having less than 100,000 people. After relatively low production limits were imposed (5,000 barrels a year in historic and redevelopment districts; 3,000 barrels elsewhere), the politically powerful Nevada Beer Wholesalers Association – which had steadfastly opposed the proliferation of brew pubs – announced that it would support the bill. Harvey Whittemore, lobbyist for the beer wholesalers, declared that the bill’s stated intention of helping to redevelop urban and historic districts was the factor that finally overcame the association’s reservations about the measure.
The revised bill (SB 250) became law in May, but its impact was not immediately apparent. No new brew pubs opened in 1991, or in the following year, but 1993 saw a trio of such businesses established. Las Vegas acquired its first brew pub when Tom Wiesner’s Big Dog Hospitality Group opened the Holy Cow Casino, Café and Brewery on a corner of Sahara Avenue and The Strip; up north, the initial brew pub in the Truckee Meadows was the Great Basin Brewing Company, which owners Tom Young and Camille Prenn and brewmaster Eric McClary opened in Sparks late in the year; in Carson City, Dick Murray’s Ramshead Brewery never materialized, but the Carson Depot Café, Brewery and Sports Bar was started by Al Gaspar in the city’s old bus depot, located two blocks from the state capitol. These three businesses produced an array of beverages, from light Pilsners and ales to wheat beers, dark lagers, and porters.
No new brew pubs opened during 1994, but those already in existence appeared to prosper (with the exception of Virginia City’s Union Brewery, which discontinued brewing not long after it began). Also doing well were establishments operating on the California side of Lake Tahoe – such as the Brewery at Lake Tahoe, in South Lake Tahoe, and the Blue Water Brewing Company in Tahoe City.
The major Nevada “beer event” of 1994 was the emergence, or re-emergence, of the Reno Brewing Company. This business, which had no relationship to the company that had shut down in 1957, beyond use of the name, had been incorporated in the summer of 1993. It was announced at that time that the new company was seeking a brew pub site in downtown Reno’s redevelopment area. It wasn’t until the spring of 1994, however, that the company really came to public attention and offered any definite plans. Reno Brewing declared then that it had given up on the redevelopment area and would, instead, open its brew pub in the old Joseph Giraud home on California Avenue, an historic structure which had also housed the Hardy House restaurant and, most recently, the Pyrenees Bar and Grill, a Basque restaurant. A public offering of company stock was made to raise money for the building’s renovation.
The summer of 1994, however, found Kirk Ellern, Reno Brewing Company’s general manager and brewmaster, making a disappointing announcement: the effort to raise funds for the remodeling of the Pyrenees had been unsuccessful, and investors’ money was being refunded. The company had decided to have its beer (Ponderosa Pale Ale) made at the Cold Springs Brewery in Minnesota – and the ale would be distributed through a Nevada wholesaler to “grocery stores, bars and other outlets” in northern Nevada. With this decision, Reno Brewing elected to follow the same uncertain course taken by the defunct Carson Brewing Company and the Heckler Brewing Company of Tahoe City, whose Heckler Brau beers were produced elsewhere.
The Reno Brewing Company continually lost money in its operations. Thus, it was not surprising that the company’s owners looked to a change in the state’s brew pub law for their salvation. Kirk Ellern declared that the company had again changed its focus and now wanted to start a microbrewery, an operation considerably larger than a simple brew pub with a restaurant, somewhere in Reno. However, he said, there were no suitable or affordable sites for such an operation in the downtown redevelopment district. The company needed to “locate in an attractive commercial or industrial area” in order to become economically viable, but was blocked from doing so by existing law. Reno Brewing Company’s officers hoped that the state legislature would give them the ability to choose an appropriate location for their business.
In March of 1995, it was reported in the press that Ellern was working with Washoe County Assemblyman Pete Ernaut on legislation that would allow brew pubs to operate more freely.
While the 1995 legislature considered changes to the state’s brew pub and brewery laws, a microbrewery that avoided Kirk Ellern’s urban difficulties was commencing operations in Elko County. In the spring of that year, Steve and Maggie Safford began producing beer at the Ruby Mountain Brewing Company on their Clover Valley ranch. The company’s Wild West Wheat Beer and Angel Creek Amber Ale were soon being distributed by DiGrazia Wholesale of Wells, and began appearing in kegs, bottles, and “party pig” containers in northeastern Nevada bars and retail stores. (Another rural microbrewery followed the successful Elko plant three years later, when the Bandit Brewing Company started up in Pahrump. Producing Silver Strike Pilsner and bock beers at it Silver Strike Brewery, Bandit distributed its products chiefly in Pahrump and Las Vegas. The brewery was destined to shut down operations early in 2000 during a corporate reorganization involving an attempted sale to the German Gantner Brewing Company, and to close the next year.)
1995 turned out to be a landmark year for Nevada’s re-emerging brewing industry. Pressure on legislators from Kirk Ellern and others – particularly casino operators who had taken notice of the growing popularity of brew pubs – led to enactment of a new state brew pub law. Assembly Bill 594, which became law in July, further deregulated the brew pub business by permitting the pubs to operate in any location in a county or city that was approved by the governing body of that entity. The law clearly distinguished brew pubs from breweries (the latter being defined as manufacturers that did not sell their malt beverages at retail), and it specifically gave brew pubs the right to sell “packaged goods” – bottles, kegs, etc. – directly to their customers for consumption off premises.
The new law, described in the press as one that “would allow resort hotels… to set up brew pubs,” had initially been opposed by the tightly regulated beer wholesalers of the state. They viewed it as unfairly lessening controls on brewing establishments, allowing them to compete with wholesalers in some situations – since brew pubs functioned as both manufacturers and retailers of the products they produced. SB 594 was finally embraced by the beer distributors after it was amended to provide wholesalers exclusive distribution rights in specified marketing areas and to make it more difficult for producers of alcoholic beverages to cancel contracts with wholesalers.
Almost immediately following enactment of the 1995 law, brew pub development increased and Nevada’s casinos and hotel-casinos began participating in the brew pub “boom.” The Brew Brothers brewery and restaurant opened in Reno, on the skywalk between the Eldorado and Silver Legacy hotel- casinos (it was named for the sons of Eldorado owner Don Carano). At Lake Tahoe, new brew pubs appearing in the wake of the 1995 law included the Tahoe Mountain Brewery (in the south shore’s Horizon Casino and Resort) and the independent Borderhouse Brewing Company at Crystal Bay on the north shore, close to the main entrance of the Cal Neva Resort. Two other Reno brew pubs, neither associated with casinos, that were open by 1999 were the Copper Summit Brewing Company and the Silver Peak Restaurant and Brewery.
More “rural” brew pubs also sprang up: in Mesquite, where the Muddy River Brewery and Sports Pub opened in Si Redd’s Oasis hotel-casino; in Laughlin, where the Boiler Room (renamed Pints Brewery in 2011) steamed up in the Colorado Belle hotel-casino; and in Carson Valley, which saw the Carson Valley Brewery begin operations in 1999 at the airport just outside Minden.
It was in the Las Vegas area, though, where the greatest brew pub growth occurred. The city’s proximity to populous southern California, an area with a great beer drinking tradition, seemed to help spur its brewery development. In 1996, the Monte Carlo Pub and Brewery, in the hotel-casino of the same name, became the second brew pub on the Strip, and it was followed by: Barley’s Casino and Brewing Company, which boasted the first brew pub in Henderson; Gordon Biersch Brewing Company’s brew pub and restaurant; the Triple Seven Brewery in Las Vegas’s downtown Main Street Station; the Sunset Brewing Company in Henderson’s Sunset Station hotel-casino (where Gordon Biersch initially did the brewing); the Ellis Island Brewery, Casino and Restaurant; the Tenaya Creek Restaurant and Brewery; and – in the spring of 2000 – the Chicago Brewing Company.
By the late 1990s, however, competition among the proliferating brew pubs of Nevada – and those at Lake Tahoe – had begun taking a toll on the establishments. The early enthusiastic support of the businesses, grounded partly in their novelty, began to wane. A nationwide economic downturn which commenced in 2000 and accelerated after September 11, 2001, also contributed to the growing woes of Nevada’s brew pubs and microbreweries. A number of them were forced to close.
Among the casualties in the northern part of the state were the Union Brewery in Virginia City, the Carson Depot (later McWain’s Brew Pub and Eatery), the Carson Valley Brewery, the Borderhouse at Crystal Bay (which, in a brief unsuccessful venture, was taken over by the Lake Tahoe Brewing Company of Tahoe City), and the Copper Summit Brewing Company in Reno - where, also, the Reno Brewing Company stopped selling its Minnesota-made beer. Even in southern Nevada, where the country’s economic difficulties didn’t affect tourism as much as in the north, the new beer business slowed.
Sunset Station’s Sunset Brewing Company ended production (in the spring of 2000, craft beers for Sunset Station and Barley’s Casino, both owned by Station Casinos, Inc., were being made at Barley’s by Michael Ferguson, the German-trained brewer who also served as director of brewing operations for Station Casinos). 2002 witnessed the closure of Las Vegas’s first brew pub, the venerable Holy Cow. The Bandit Brewing Company’s brewery in Pahrump, which had shut down temporarily in 2000, didn’t reopen.
During the middle of the 21st century’s opening decade, Nevada’s economy rebounded and beer makers prospered, but only a handful of new brewing operations appeared. Among these were the microbrewery at the Draft House in Las Vegas, where Big Dog’s Hospitality Group set up the brewing equipment removed from the Holy Cow, the Sin City Beer Company of Las Vegas, and Stew’s Sportatorium (or Stew’s Brewery and Eatery), which opened on Carson City’s main street in 2005, in a building formerly occupied by the Lucky Spur Casino. (Stew’s, which utilized brewing equipment from the defunct Blue Water Brewing Company at Lake Tahoe, was succeeded by Doppelgangers Brewery and then, late in 2010, by the High Sierra Brewing Company.) BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse commenced operations in south Reno in 2006, and the Boulder Dam Brewing Company opened a brew pub in Boulder City the next year.
The closing years of the new century’s first decade and the beginning of the next ushered in another period of economic uncertainty in Nevada, but even so there seemed to be a renewed energy in the state’s brewing circles. Not only did a handful of new brew pubs open, but several existing ones, such as northern Nevada’s Great Basin Brewing Company, BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse, and the Silver Peak Restaurant and Brewery, expanded to additional locations or increased their production - or did both.The popularity of craft beers also encouraged the development of new microbreweries, among them Reno’s Buckbean Brewing Company, which commenced production in 2008 (and was unique in that it canned rather than bottled its beers), and the Joseph James Brewing Company of Las Vegas, which also began operations in 2008. (This same year saw Tenaya Creek in Las Vegas close its restaurant, expand its beer production, and become a microbrewery.) During the next several years, Nevada witnessed the emergence of “nano breweries” - smaller than microbreweries - in Las Vegas (Plan 9 Brewing) and in Washoe County’s Pleasant Valley (Woody’s Nanobrewery). Early 2011 found the White Pine Brewing Company of Ely preparing to open its long-delayed brewery.
For more than a decade now it has been obvious that freshly brewed craft beer by itself, as a simple novelty or as a stand-alone attraction, is no longer enough to guarantee success in the crowded brew pub marketplace. With each passing year, prosperity – even survival - seems to depend more and more on a varied and inter-connected array of factors, such things as the quality of beer produced, the social atmosphere cultivated in individual establishments by pub operators, the quality and variety of food served in pub restaurants, and offerings of live musical entertainment. (Some brew pubs now emphasize their restaurants as much as their beer – and even offer impressive wine lists.)
Nevada’s brew pub-microbrewery business has matured significantly in its first two decades, becoming more complex, but also achieving a relative stability. It has survived its early “experimental” phase, which was too often characterized by unrealistic enthusiasms and inexperienced entrepreneurs, to become an established element of both the state’s business community and its entertainment scene, appealing to tourists and residents alike. Today, even with the state mired in economic recession, indications are that the still-evolving business will not only survive, but prosper – and be a worthy successor to the frontier brewing industry that took root and flourished in Nevada in the nineteenth century.
©2011 Nevada in the West Publishing