by Corrine Casanova
Today, Nevada is home to about 37 craft breweries. There were breweries in this state prior to Prohibition in 1920 which banned the production, distribution or sale of alcoholic beverages. After the repeal in 1933, a three-tier system was set in place for the distribution of alcoholic beverages. This system ensured producers (brewers, wine makers and distillers) would sell to distributors who then would sell to retailers who would then sell to consumers. There was no by-passing the tiered system so brewery tap rooms didn’t exist.
Despite rather liberal litigation when it comes to public intoxication (it’s legal) and the availability of purchasing alcohol 24/7 Nevada wasn’t very liberal in their policies regarding alcohol production and distribution. Tom Young, founder of Great Basin Brewery, discovered this first-hand back in 1993. At that time, neighboring states California and Oregon allowed breweries to sell their beer directly to the public, but not Nevada, advocates of the three-tier system were strong here. Virginia City resident Rick Hoover cracked the system a bit when he helped pass a law that if you were in the Virginia City historic district in a building that just happened to once be a brewery and you were properly licensed, you could operate a brewpub. Hoover opened the Union Brewery in 1988. According to Young, “It was pretty much a one-person law. Despite having the only brewery in Nevada, Hoover didn’t make very good beer. He had these feral cats all over the place who would try to drink your beer so you had to hold your hand over it.” The brewery closed around 1995.
As a home brewer, Young won amateur nationals for his beer and wanted to open his own brew pub after leaving his career in mining. Young didn’t think he’d be successful in battling the big beer distributors, but a new law was passed with restrictions. If brewers reached a certain production limit, they’d need to cease production and close the taproom. Young saw it as a law that encouraged failure. Despite that, he opened Great Basin Brewery in 1993. Today, they are still recognized as the oldest operating brewery in Nevada.
In June 2017, the Nevada Craft Brewers Association worked with the Nevada Legislature to pass Assembly Bill 431 and Senate Bill 199. Governor Sandoval signed the law no longer limiting brew pubs to two locations and also raising the amount of beer craft brewers can make from 15,000 to 40,000 barrels. Matt Johnson is president of the Nevada Craft Brewers Association and co-founder of IMBIB Custom Brews, which specializes in old-world barrel aged beers. He sees the passing of this new legislation being directly related to vocal consumers who love craft beer and want to protect the industry. He noted, “There is a whole lot of politics in the world of beer and beer distribution that are finely coming to the surface because we as independent craft breweries we finally have a large enough voice to heard.”
IMBIB co-founders Johnson and Jason Green met as their wives both were teachers at Reed High School. Johnson and Green were avid home brewers and after many late nights drinking their creations they decided to open a brewery. Green explained, “We raised $30,000 through crowdfunding. We bought this building in Sept. 2015. Piece by piece we raised money, sold our beer and now we are actually functioning as a brewery.”
They have intentionally grown slowly. Starting from brewing 50 gallons at a time, they are now up to 320 gallons. One of IMBIB’s specialties is making sour beers that can take up to three years to make. They create over 50 different beer styles. There are six staple beers and the rest of the 16 beers on tap rotate.
The Silver Peak Restaurant and Brewery debuted in 1999 and their Silver Peak Grill and Taproom opened in downtown Reno in 2004. Head brewer, Sam Soliday, loves the science and creativity when it comes to craft brewing and even enjoys the mechanical side when equipment inevitably breaks down. The feels the camaraderie in the craft brewing community is second to none. Brewers are willing to share ingredients and help each other out and also recommend their customers visit neighboring breweries as each one is unique.
One of the newest kids on the block, Revision Brewing Co., opened its doors in Sparks in March 2017. Jeremy Warren, CEO, co-founder and brewmaster sold Knee Deep Brewing Co. in Auburn, CA in July 2015 to open Revision Brewing. Recent accolades include winning a gold and bronze medal at the Brussels Beer Challenge and gold and silver medals from the 21st Annual Great International Beer, Cider, Mead & Sake Competition in Connecticut. The winning gold medal beer in the New England India Pale Ale category was Disco Ninja, a collaboration beer brewed with Revision Brewing and Carson City’s Shoe Tree Brewing Co. Although new to Reno, Warren has his roots in Sparks.
Mill Street Still & Brew, located in the former Ring-Lee Grocery Store, opened in May 2017. Will Whipple, head brewer, noted, “All our stainless tanks were built here in Reno. We sell about 85 percent of our products through our distribution channels. What makes us unique is that our stills run at ambient, room temperature. We use a proprietary vacuum distillation process that allows the unique flavors of the spirits to shine through. Our vodka speaks for itself. It is very smooth rich, creamy and kind of sweet.” They will soon be packaging and bottling their distilled spirits in a facility in Stead. During Burning Man, they brought nearly 3,000 gallons of beer to the Playa. Original recipes were formulated from there. Whipple noted that 80 percent of Mill Street Still & Brew employees are UNR graduates.
The Frey Ranch Estate Distillery, located seven miles south of Fallon, is not only the oldest legal distillery in Nevada, the Frey Family has been farming continuously in Nevada since 1854. Owner Colby Frey is a fifth generation Nevadan farmer. Frey Ranch is considered an estate distillery because they grow 100% of the grains that go into their distilled spirits. They produce vodka, gin, absinthe and bourbon whiskey on the farm. They received their distilling license in 2006, but it wasn’t until 2013, when a Nevada state law allowed them to commercially sell their product. The passage of AB199 allows craft distillers to sell 10,000 cases of spirits in the state and export 20,000.
It’s important to Frey to grow all the grains. He explained, “By growing them ourselves we can grow better quality grains for distilling purposes that we couldn’t buy on the open market. There are certain things we can do to increase quality but they almost always lower our quantity. We are okay with that. My family has been growing grains in Nevada for 160 plus years so this information has been passed down from generation to generation. In the process, we’ve learned how to grow the best quality grain.” The farm sits on about 1,400 acres of which 1,200 are farmed. Originally, the Frey’s goal was to open a winery which they succeeded in doing with Churchill Vineyards. However, they wanted to make something out of the grain in the fields. That’s when the distillery idea came to fruition. Frey said, “We are really fortunate to be able to be here on the farm and use all our biproducts. I think our footprint is much lower than other distilleries. My wife tells our customers that none of the ingredients in our products have ever left our possession until you take it home.”
The Frey Distillery can produce 120,000 bottles a month when at full production. Besides Nevada, Frey’s products are distributed to CA, MI, GA, CO and IL. Frey concluded, “Right now we have 1,250 full size 53-gallon barrels full of whiskey in storage right now which equates to about 450,000 bottles. We want to age it a minimum of 4 years, if it’s not ready, we will wait longer. We don’t want to release a product until it is ready. There is a saying in the wine industry. You’ve got to like what you make because you might end up drinking it all yourself. The same thing applies to our distillery.”
James Silpada is the owner of one the newest distilleries in Reno, Forsaken River. Frey sources his materials from Reno and local parameters. He distills vodka, Scottish style gin, smoked rye whiskey and plans to introduce a chocolate vodka and a coffee vodka with Blind Dog Coffee. The Reno native opened his tasting room in April 2017.
With all the different distillery and brewery options here in northern Nevada, it makes it easy to get into the holiday “spirits.”