Nevadan at Work: West Point grad finds passion in craft beer

Little did Brian Chapin know in 1998 when he graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he studied engineering, that his job 16 years later would be staging a monster beer festival in downtown Las Vegas.

But as founder and owner of Las Vegas-based Motley Brews, Chapin has retired his West Point grays and is focusing on assembling more than 80 craft beer companies, lining up sponsors and forging business alliances to put on the Great Vegas Festival of Beer on East Fremont, Sixth and Seventh streets.

Throwing a downtown Las Vegas beer bash on April 26 is a long way from his five-year Army hitch that took him from West Point on the Hudson River 50 miles north of New York City to military bases in South Korea, central Missouri and Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Motley Brews has carved out a growing niche — staging beer festivals in a market that is slowly coming of age when it comes to savoring the taste of craft India pale ales, brown ales, porters, stouts and lagers. He began putting on his signature beer festival at Tivoli Village off Alta Drive before moving it to Sunset Park off South Eastern Avenue in 2013 and now the downtown East Fremont district this year.

Chapin, a Buffalo, N.Y., native who lives in Summerlin, launched Motley Brews with less than $10,000 and a partner. He has three other full timers and will enlist several dozen part-time workers for the April beer festival.

After serving in the military, Chapin worked in real estate development but knew that he always had a passion for craft beer.

He figured out his business niche after putting on a happy hour beer tasting in Phoenix. He moved to Las Vegas in 2009 with the aim of starting Motley Brews.

“It was an untouched market when it came to the craft beer scene,” Chapin said. “It was night and day compared to how it is now.”

He held his first beer festival in 2010 at the Hard Rock, but said a few closed streets in downtown Las Vegas is the best place for a craft beer venue. “Downtown captures the spirit about us,” Chapin said.

Chapin envisions growing his business, with sights set on staging beer festivals in San Diego; the San Francisco Bay Area; Grand Rapids, Mich.; and Asheville, N.C.

Chapin said he knew his specialty was putting together beer festivals, instead of working behind the scenes and brewing the suds.

“I’m pretty terrible at it,” Chapin said. “But I like to drink it.”

Question: Why do you want to get people excited about craft beer in Las Vegas?

Answer: Las Vegas is a relatively young, burgeoning craft beer market. We see one of our primary roles as a cheerleader for the great beer that exists right in our own backyard. Our festivals serve as a medium for local and regional breweries to show off their skills and establish face-to-face relationships with local consumers.

Our goal within the industry remains to be seen as a truly unique portrayal of what craft beer is all about. We host areas dedicated to beer-infused cuisine produced by renowned Las Vegas chefs. We’re developing instructional areas within the festival, but we’re keeping it light with classes like “Beer Sorcery.” We want to excite people with the innovations of the craft beer industry and we’re constantly reinventing ways to make it fun and accessible to the casual beer drinker.

Question: What’s the business strategy behind staging beer festivals to grow the craft beer scene in the Las Vegas area?

Answer: We’re big believers in building up local craft beer within Las Vegas to spur overall market growth. The craft beer industry is extremely collaborative and the local beer scene sets the tone in many markets around the country. The strategy goes beyond getting beer samples to the lips of our attendees. We see it as our responsibility to make sure they stay connected to craft beer postfestival as well. ... We find it much more meaningful when we’re able to provide tools like mobile apps for our guests to seek out their favorite brews at their favorite on- or off-premise locations.

Question: Are you able to turn a profit on your beer festivals? What is the biggest challenge when holding a beer festival?

Answer: The biggest challenges recently for us have come as a result of growth with our festivals. Scaling festivals to accommodate more breweries and beer lovers while continuing to improve the event quality remains a main focus. We’re seeing overall profitability, but are investing in the long-term by focusing on guest experience to generate word-of-mouth buzz.

Question: What is your own personal favorite type of beer and why?

Answer: I’ve been religiously drawn to India pale ales for the better part of a decade. There are so many microcosms of varieties within this style and each is uniquely different. As a parallel, to me, crafting an IPA has become akin to creating a bold cabernet in the wine industry. Breweries are constantly pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with hops and having a blast doing it.

Question: What was it like launching Motley Brews? How much money did you have to invest to start the business?

Answer: It was a hell of a lot of fun, actually. We’re a pretty rambunctious group and none of us take ourselves too seriously, so we decided to make an effort to incorporate that style into parts of our festivals. We made a relatively modest investment to get a website going along with a few other startup expenses. We knew we had something when the first Great Vegas Festival of Beer sold out in 2011.

Question: What’s the biggest expense in staging beer festivals and what’s the biggest thing you have learned from holding these kinds of events?

Answer: Most of our event venues start as a blank, outdoor canvas in which we provide every piece of the puzzle. That in itself is an expensive proposition but allows us ultimately to be much more creative. Las Vegas is a tricky market for beer festivals — we always thought that if we just curated an immaculate beer list that the crowds would come pouring in. What we learned is that the beer list is one part of the overall formula. We’re focused on creating something truly immersive and memorable for our guests and try to outdo ourselves with each subsequent event.

Question: What’s your favorite beer city in America and why?

Answer: There’s so many great ones out there now. I’d say that San Diego ranks among my favorites; there’s an energy among the breweries that’s absolutely insane to be around. I feel like a kid in a candy store when I visit. A lot of the San Diego breweries see success for one local brewery as success for all local breweries. That collaborative spirit combined with the beachside makes for an amazing beer haven.

Question: What do your former West Point cadet pals say to you when they find out you’re in the craft beer festival business?

Answer: Typically they say, “Dude, send me beer.” I’ve been an alumni beer pimp for quite some time now.