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Las Vegas brewmaster dishes on the Las Vegas craft beer scene

Updated February 5, 2018 - 9:00 pm

Ask Las Vegas craft beer fans about the local scene, and most give the same response: We’re not as advanced as many cities, but we’ve come a long way. Or, as Wyndee Forrest of Henderson’s CraftHaus Brewery puts it, “We’re young adolescents at this stage; still experimenting and finding ourselves, but we’ve surpassed the infancy stage.”

If you want to learn about that infancy stage, however, and how we got past it, PT’s Brewing Company’s Dave Otto is the guy with the answers.

Otto came to Las Vegas from Philadelphia in 1996 to attend UNLV. An avid home brewer, he says he arrived, “knowing a lot about beer, more than the pro brewers, believe it or not, because I was exposed to so much stuff on the East Coast.”

When he sought out the local craft beer scene, however, there wasn’t much to be found.

“It was nonexistent,” Otto recalls of those days. “Around town, everybody had a cookie-cutter draft system. And everybody had Bass Ale, Guinness and Harp. There wasn’t any craft beer available. Maybe there was some Sierra Nevada Pale Ale around, but that’s it.”

Holy Cow, good beer

Otto found sanctuary in the now-defunct Holy Cow Casino and Brewery, which was at Sahara Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard where a Walgreens now stands, and owned by Big Dog’s Hospitality Group. It was, by all accounts, the first local brewery.

“I was going to school full-time,” Otto says. “But I was always at the Holy Cow because I loved the place and loved the beer.”

In search of a job, he applied to be a server, but was turned down because he lacked experience. He would regularly pester the managers, undeterred by their repeated rejections. They did, however, repay his patronage with some support for his hobby.

“They would give me some yeast and a little bit of hops here and there,” Otto says. “And that was huge, because I was home brewing and that was just a nice cost-saver for me.”

Turning pro

After one of his pro-forma job requests, Otto got an answer that would change the course of his life.

“One day I popped my head in the office and said ‘Any job opening?’ ” he relates 20 years later. “And (the general manager) said ‘No.’ So I kept walking. Then he said ‘Wait a minute,’ and asked me if I wanted a job as a slot host.”

Between classes, Otto spent his time cleaning gaming machines, filling them with quarters, repairing jammed equipment, hand-paying jackpots and generally taking care of gamers. Six months later he was offered the assistant brewer’s position. Although it was a full-time job that would mean leaving school, he accepted.

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“I just thought, ‘I have this opportunity to work in this brewery. I can’t turn it down.’ So I did it. And I just never looked back.”

After a year and a half in that position, he was promoted to head brewer, a position he held with Holy Cow and later Big Dog’s until the PT’s chain bought Tenaya Creek Brewing Company’s old facility and asked him to run PT’s Brewing Company.

Craft brewing comes of age

When asked about major landmarks in the local craft brew scene over the past two decades, the veteran is hesitant.

“Obviously the first big deal was the Holy Cow, which was the first brewery,” Otto says. “Then the thing that really started to get things going were the breweries over in the (Henderson) booze district: Bad Beat and CraftHaus. When they opened, it brought a little bit more of the boutique breweries to this town and got people more and more interested in it. But there was no real ‘A-ha!’ moment or anything that I can think of. It’s just been sort of a slow roll.”

Looking toward adulthood

Does Otto think Las Vegas will ever progress past that adolescent stage and catch up with more mature beer cities?

“It’ll probably level out someday,” Otto predicts. But he concurs we’re not there yet. “All of the beer trends (now) come from outside of Las Vegas, for sure.”

Otto remains happy to have a local community of people who appreciate good beer. He also says a fraternitylike atmosphere has developed among the small but growing club of local brewers.

“We all know each other,” he says. “We all communicate with each other. We all trade ingredients. … We’re all cool with each other. We’re all competitors, but it’s friendly competitors.”

And that’s not something he could have foreseen two decades ago.

Contact Al Mancini at amancini@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5250. Follow @AlManciniVegas on Twitter.

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