Hops to it: Microbrewer creates beers with distinctly Las Vegas flavor

A hobby that began in college turned into a 20-year career for Richard Johnson.

And all he was trying to do was get free beer.

Now, Johnson hopes his beverages will become synonymous with a trip to Las Vegas.

Johnson, 46, created the Sin City Brewing Co. in 2003, inventing his own special beer brands and selling them on tap at Las Vegas bars and taverns.

Three years later, he opened a small bar inside what is now the Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood Resort where he sells his four custom brands of beer by the pint and offers a line of Sin City Brewing Co. logo apparel and other merchandise.

The 400-square-foot location has done well enough to warrant a second site, which is opening at the end of March at the Flamingo. The 900-square-foot bar will overlook the Flamingo’s 15-acre pool area and wildlife complex and also offer an outdoor patio.

Johnson hopes the Flamingo outlet will lead to other Sin City Brewing Co. locations on the Strip.

“We needed a microbrewery that identified with Las Vegas,” Johnson said. “People go into cities and the easiest way to get to know the town is to buy some of their products. Beer is definitely one of those ways to get to know the city. It makes you feel like you get a taste of the place.”

Microbreweries have exploded across the nation in the past decade, many of which began like Johnson’s, as someone’s hobby. For three straight years, microbrewery beers have outpaced the sales of imported beers, the American Brewers Association reports.

Johnson creates four beers — Sin City Amber, Sin City Light, Sin City Stout and Sin City Weisse. He brews the beers in small batches (100 kegs at a time) at the Gordon Biersch Brewing Co. on Paradise Road. He helped build the brewery in the late 1990s when he worked for the company.

Johnson said he brews his beer using traditional methods, premium raw materials and a strict adherence to the Rheinheitsgebot, the 1516 German beer purity law.

Johnson employs five people at Sin City Brewing and he oversees production of the beer.

Popularity at the Miracle Mile Shops bar and the new location at the Flamingo means more of Sin City’s beer needs to be directed toward the company-owned locations. Johnson has scaled back the bars and taverns to about 15 locations from a high of 50.

He has no plans to turn the microbrew bars into microbrew pubs that offer food service.

“For us, it’s all about the beer,” Johnson said.

Question: How important to your business was landing a location at the Flamingo?

Answer: It was huge. We were talking about places for more than a year and we were just waiting for the right location. Being right off the pool area is tremendous and having the outside patio area really enhances what we offer.

Question: Do you still see growth at your Miracle Mile location?

Answer: Absolutely. We’re going to be right next to an entrance for the Westgate (a 1,200-unit time share attached to Planet Hollywood Resort that is under construction). So we’ll have a captive audience.

Question: What prompted the notion for the Sin City Brewing Co.?

Answer: The idea was start a Las Vegas brewery and sell draft beer to casinos and bars around town. When that started to take off, this idea came up. I don’t want to be in the brewpub business and I thought a mini microbrew bar would work. We offer peanuts and pretzels. It’s nice and casual. People come in, sit and have a beer, and then go about and do whatever they had planned.

We’re not competition (to the restaurants at Planet Hollywood Resort and the Miracle Mile Shops), we’re a nice little addition to everyone’s day. People stop here, have a beer, and then go on to the restaurants. No one thinks badly of me.

Question: Were you surprised the name Sin City Brewing hadn’t been taken?

Answer: For me, that seemed to be the only real choice for a name. It was a natural and I was amazed it was available. It fits perfectly with the city and what we were trying to do.

Question: Has the logo become popular?

Answer: All my beer buddies, my beer brewing compatriots if you will, are surprised there isn’t a beer on the logo. A picture of me holding the beer does nothing. The girl with the tail and the hint of sin, that shows a good time and gets your attention.

Question: How important are merchandise sales for your business?

Answer: They’re about 25 percent of our business. People always want to take home part of their trip and we’re happy to help them out.

Question: What goes into brewing a beer?

Answer: I studied art in college and I always liked the creative aspect and tradition. I spent a lot of time traveling around Europe and developed a good taste for the style of beers long before microbrews started. I like that beers are stories and the styles have been around for hundreds of years. There is also a physical aspect to creating a beer.

Some of the guys I know are biologists and they like the breakdown and chemistry, For me, it’s the stories. Beer is a very social drink. Everyone likes to talk over a beer.

Question: Can you describe your beers?

Answer: We have four styles. The Sin City Amber is our most popular and an Oktoberfest-style beer. I’m pretty proud it tastes like an Oktoberfest beer from Germany. We do an Irish stout that is very robust and our Sin City Weisse is our traditional German Hefeweizen with a very distinct flavor. Our Sin City Light is perfect for Las Vegas with the 110-degree, 112-degree days. It’s a Las Vegas type of beer.

Question: Has the economic slowdown hurt business?

Answer: I’ve been through a number of recessions, but nothing like this. Beer seems to be doing all right, though. If we can’t afford a beer, then we’re really in trouble.

Question: Is brewing beer still a hobby?

Answer: It was one of those things in college where we were hanging around a keg and wondering how to get free beer for life. We brewed beers, but the first few weren’t very good.

Contact reporter Howard Stutz at hstutz@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3871.

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