Two weekend festivals show off craft brews

Hand-crafted beers will be the focus of two festivals in downtown Las Vegas this weekend: the 2012 Downtown Brew Festival at the Clark County Amphitheater on Saturday and the third annual Fall Beer Festival at the Golden Nugget on Friday and Saturday.

No, you’re not real likely to find a bottle of Bud Light at either of them. But then again, Brian Chapin, founder of Motley Brews, which is organizing the amphitheater event, is no beer snob.

"We wouldn’t have beer without the big guys that got it all started so long ago," Chapin said. "We grew up on all of those brands. I think they have their place."

But he remembers, about 15 years ago, tasting two pioneering craft beers – Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and New Belgium Brewing’s Fat Tire Amber Ale – and experiencing a revelation.

"I’d never had anything that flavorful," he said. "I was just blown away. I didn’t know the taste of beer could be so fresh and unique." And so was born Motley Brews, which spreads the gospel at events like the two this weekend.

The craft-beer movement is growing across the country.

"It definitely is catching on," Chapin said. Since 2007, no other segment of the alcohol business has experienced double-digit increases in revenue and volume, he said. The current 2,000 brewers in the United States are the most in 150 years, and another 1,000 are in the planning stages.

In a way, Chapin said, the craft-beer movement is reflective of slow food, which spreads the news of eating locally.

"They attract on a very local basis," he said of the brews. "We’re all about sustainability. We like to drink locally, we like to drink regionally. The product tastes absolutely best when it’s at the peak of freshness."

Among local breweries, he said, Big Dog’s Brewing Co., Tenaya Creek, Chicago Brewing Co., Joseph James Brewing Co. and Triple 7 will be represented at the amphitheater event. Joseph James also will participate in the event at the Golden Nugget.

Chapin acknowledges that the movement has been somewhat slow to catch on in Las Vegas.

"We’re definitely behind," he said. "San Diego has 45 (craft breweries), we have about 10. But we’re catching up – and that just means there’s a lot of room for growth."

David Pasquale, head brewer for Chicago Brewing Co., has been watching the movement grow since 2005.

"It’s been really tough," Pasquale said. "We have a lot of casinos who contract with these large companies. Being a town with the amount of people moving here, we thought a lot of the beer culture would transfer itself here. It’s been a really slow transition, and we’re still going through that transition."

But he said that in addition to the numbers that prove the movement is growing, he also sees anecdotal evidence at events he attends and among his customers.

"Definitely I’ve seen the community change in the few years I’ve been in the business. It’s a younger crowd, college kids up to my age," said Pasquale, who is 30. "They know about breweries."

Dave Otto, brewmaster for Big Dog’s Brewing Co., agreed that Las Vegas has been behind in the national trend.

"But that is changing," he said. "A lot of bars – especially Strip bars – are putting a lot of craft beers on tap. Whole Foods embraces it. It’s definitely on the move."

And he echoes Chapin on the appeal of craft beers.

"I think it’s just the innovation of the beers – the creativity, better flavors, better quality than the typical imports or the typical domestic beers we’ve had for years," Otto said.

While there are a few purists out there who decry the flavors used in some craft beers, Chapin isn’t among them.

"A lot of what the craft breweries do is seasonal, which also pertains to seasonal ingredients," he said. In the case of pumpkin, for example, "in the fall, they can get it fresh. They don’t use extract or flavorings, they want the natural ingredients. If anything, it’s another way to get folks excited about the other types of flavors that are out there."

And in some cases the flavors are paying off. At the recent Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Chicago Brewing Co. took a gold medal for its chocolate-coconut porter, Cocoa for Coconuts. (Big Dog’s won, too – a silver medal for its Red Hydrant Ale in the English brown ale category.)

"I like to do something that stylistically shows technique in a beer, and also try to do something fun," Pasquale said. "There’s excitement in the beer community to see what we can make, what we can put our stamp on.

"It’s basically a blank slate. I get something in my mind and I’m going to try to make it so other people can see what I’m trying to create, for the masses – at least for the small masses."

During the Downtown Brew Festival Saturday, more than 40 local and national brewers will offer tastings of more than 150 craft beers, including seasonal brews. The event will include live music.

The Fall Beer Festival will launch Friday evening with a tasting of more than 120 craft beers, plus appetizers. Saturday’s free event from 3 to 9 p.m. is the Oktoberfest Beer Party, offering samples of more than 150 beers and both current and traditional German music. Additionally, the Paulaner Beer Garden, featuring two Paulaner draft beers and some foods, will be on Fremont Street, across from the Golden Nugget, today through Sunday.

Contact reporter Heidi Knapp Rinella at hrinella@ or 702-383-0474.

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