Nevadan at Work: UNLV grad had the time so he pursued brewing career

As he sought an elective his senior year to reach graduation requirements, David Pascual exemplified University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ reputation as a party school by signing up for a semester-long course in beer tasting.

Not only did he finish with the credits, but he came away with a couple of cases of beer courtesy of the professor, a local brewmaster, and a five-month unpaid internship when he graduated in 2004.

"He told me, ‘Hey, you studied the most, you learned the most, you knew the most, so here’s what you deserve.’ " Pascual recalled.

But at the point of the script where he was supposed to get that phase worked out of his system and head to medical school – he majored in biology and a minored in chemistry – he decided to go all-in with brewing.

"I heard through the grapevine that they were hiring here (at the Chicago Brewing Co.), so I thought I might as well try this out," said Pascual, who now spends his days in rubber boots. "I put my dreams of medicine aside and here I am, seven years-plus later."

Since becoming head brewer in September 2008 after more than three years as the assistant in what amounted to an apprenticeship, Pascual is one of perhaps 10 professional brewers in Las Vegas. While several resorts have their own brewing operations, brewpubs haven’t caught on among locals as they have in cities such as San Diego and Portland, Ore.

But Pascual said the ranks of craft beer drinkers have risen steadily in recent years. And winning some competitions has started to erase the nasty aftertaste that people elsewhere get from just the mention of Las Vegas beer.

"At least when we say it, they don’t cringe, their faces don’t turn sour like they used to," he said. "We do get it every once in a while, definitely not as much as I remember when I started."

Question: Brewing is generally considered an art. Does it help to have a science education?

Answer: Having a biology background, I think, you are a little more attuned to make sure that everything is done properly. This is a food product and things can go bad. This is especially tough if you are trying to mimic a certain style. At least you learn how to control most of your variables having that background and understanding the processes of getting things clean and how things are made from a micro standpoint.

There are some styles that use bacteria in the beer. It’s certain bacteria that provide the aromas and flavors that you are looking for. But I don’t want random molds or wild yeast getting into my beer. The next thing you know, you’re making vinegar.

Question: What appeals to you about brewing?

Answer: The cool thing is you are starting from scratch. You’re trying to paint a picture to see what style of beer you’re producing. It’s an art in that you are helping people understand something they have never had. I think you can make a beer that is tasty, but I think it takes technical skill to get it to a certain style.

Question: What is the Dave Pascual style?

Answer: I try to bring complexity to the flavor. A lot of people like our amber ale. The type of hops we use, how we brew it, is not just like your typical amber ale. It has a slight candy orange taste in the background. It throws people off, but it’s common in some beers. I try to accentuate certain flavors just to give it more complexity, make it a little different from what people typically come across so it’s not just a straight shot flavorwise.

Question: How to you develop a professional taste?

Answer: You can go over style guidelines, read books, read other people’s reviews, but it just doesn’t make sense unless you try it yourself. When I first came into the industry, it was really hard to pick up your palate. It comes from speaking with other people, getting the general consensus. You have to find a way to pick up the off-flavors so you know you’re aware of bad batches of beer and whatnot. Knock on wood, but we have been blessed here not to come across that. It only makes sense if you can taste it.

You come across some of these wine reviews where they talk about a light lemongrass, dried fruits and things like that. I can maybe focus in on fruit characters, but I can’t tell you dried, fresh or some of that stuff. It’s a little too far-fetched for me.

Question: Las Vegas is not known for craft beers. Why hasn’t it caught on here?

Answer: It is something we are still kind of scratching our heads about. But I have noticed a change in the last three years or so. Locally, I think we are doing a better job. The only way probably that we can broaden the market is to prove to the public that we do make a quality product and a consistent product. The (oldest) brewery here is only about 12 to 14 years old. Some other places, like Denver, they have been around a lot longer. They have a history of beer.

Over time, I think we are slowly building a community here. But if one of us fails, I think it hurts us more than some places because it gives everyone a bad name.

Question: You became head brewer as the recession was worsening. Did you have to adjust your brewing?

Answer: We tried not to cut expenses. We have always thought cost should not be the foremost consideration for brewing our beers. We haven’t really tailored anything to the economy besides redoing contracts, like for hops, just to keep prices down. But we haven’t changed any of our ingredients, we never dropped our prices or anything like that. I’m not going to say there weren’t those conversations about what could be do to cut costs like going to a cheaper malt. But we were ultimately adamant about maintaining quality.

Question: Thanks to Budweiser’s huge advertising budget, probably the best-know quality technique is beechwood aging. What does it do?

Answer: I’ve never used beechwood. I’ve never seen any other craft brewers that use beechwood. I don’t know what it’s supposed to do.

Question: You were studying to become a doctor. Why the switch in career paths?

Answer: It was just something that was really cool, sounds awesome. I thought, maybe I can take a break from school. I guess I’m still on break.

How often can you talk to someone and say, ‘they start from scratch.’ Besides the fact I’m not growing the barley or the malts or kilning it, I am overseeing the whole thing from start to finish. There are so many steps to it and so many things you can control to make the product good. It’s rewarding.

For me, I just love beer and it was definitely something that was different.

Question: After working here since 2005, shouldn’t you weigh more by now?

Answer: I started off at 184. Now, I’m probably in the 2-plus area, so I gained 20 to 30 pounds. You never see any skinny brewers. Do you trust a skinny chef?

Contact reporter Tim O’Reiley at toreiley@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5290.

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