For the Love of the Craft
Imagine a time when everywhere you turned, bars were fully stocked with a wide array of macro-brewed adjunct lagers as far as the eye could see, all boasting the coldest beer in town. Frosty, freon-filled mugs were like badges of honor ensuring that you wouldn’t taste anything except for basically nothing. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve “enjoyed” too many days and nights filled with too many opened bottles and flattened cans in the binge drinkers paradise that Vegas was and is, but for those wanting more fulfillment out of beer the landscape was quite desolate. Although quantity was in abundance, we were in the middle of a beer desert. And to think, just miles away a beer renaissance was well under way. Old styles, new styles, a blending of new & old traditions were being explored up & down the West Coast. At the time, few F&B people in Las Vegas took note and most were very happy with the lucrative status quo. One brave person did notice and almost single handedly brought good beer to the Strip by using smarts, tenacity and passion for the craft. Her name is Sarah Johnson. Starting off on the culinary side and then taking on a vital yet strenuous position in financial planning, she was able to both transform her career and the Food & Beverage Culture of a major Strip casino with her passion for beer. She is a stellar example for Vegas and the world! on how to balance economic viability and the love for the craft. On a beautiful October afternoon we discussed fly fishing on the Deschutes, drinking on a desert island, and a Chicago gold.
You have done great things for beer in this city but you have been able to travel a bit lately? Where have you gone?
For sure, we flew into Bend but during the weekend we were fly fishing on the Deschutes River. It’s the first time I’ve actually ever been fishing, so it’s pretty epic for first time out. Wading belly button deep in a booming river. It’s pretty wild. But I caught a fish. It was a 26-inch wild steelhead on the afternoon of the last day. Then I could go home. It was perfect.
But I just landed my tickets for the Copenhagen beer celebration next year. Very hard to get!
How did you transform an old school beverage culture in a major Strip property?
Well I have a phenomenal direct support, Sean DiCicco, Mandalay Bay Vice President of Food and Beverage. I’ve worked with him for almost 10 years but in different positions within our food beverage department. He had a conversation with me and really challenged me to re-engage, find something in food and beverage that would keep me happy and keep me sticking around, frankly, because he knew I was getting a little itchy and for me that was beer without a doubt. I got to travel and do some education and get my Cicerone certification; that’s really where that came from so that I could have some street credit. I think beer is the one area in food and beverage that Las Vegas on the whole is really under-serving the business of beer. I was also able to sell it to our CFO and President by making a strong business case. I had an opportunity, so politically it was helpful too because I wasn’t really stepping on anybody’s feet because nobody was really passionate about beer making it happen. As you know, being in and around large casinos, the culture really was your three big macro-light lagers and beer was a brand, not necessarily a style. Yes, we’ve had to combat a lot of things and I think it’s not all me, clearly there are a lot of other people doing great work, but in the last three years I think that beer has taken some pretty big leaps forward in Vegas. We still have a long way to go, but it’s encouraging to hear you say that you’re seeing it, so thank you.
Where do you see Las Vegas local beers
as of now?
In the last year and a half I think we’ve more than doubled our brewery count in the Las Vegas metro area. There’s still a learning curve for some of them. We’ve come a long way for sure and the scene is changing up a little more now as well.
Who are some of your local favorites?
Yeah, I mean I’ve always loved what Dave Otto did down at Big Dog’s. He can brew some really, really solid beer. He moved on just super recently. I’m stoked to see what he does at the new joint. Dave Pasqual is another one. He makes phenomenal beers. He, just recently at Chicago Brewing Company, won 2 medals: a gold and a silver.
Editor’s note: since this interview was conducted Otto accepted the head brewer position at the new PT’s Brewing and Pascual took Otto’s position at Big Dog’s
For the new kids, Craft House has done a great job in marketing. They brought in two really stellar brewers with great personalities. They have an adorable tap room and they’re making some noise out there as well so I like them a lot. Bad Beat Brewing is doing good work too. I can’t forget to mention Tenaya Creek, who is opening a spot downtown, so I’m super stoked about that as well.
There are some non-traditional beer producing countries and some of them are making great beer now like Italy and Japan. Where would you see the next worldwide beer boom coming from?
I’ve been hearing some great things out of Russia. That’s one that interests me a lot and I’d like to dig into it a little more, but definitely Scandinavia in general, beer has just exploded there. Brooklyn Brewery, as you know, is all over Scandinavia.
Desert Island Question: If you had to pick three breweries to drink from for the rest of your life, which three breweries would you pick?
Oh boy! I’ll throw out Firestone because I just love them and they don’t make a bad beer. Belgium, it’s hard to pick any one of them, but I’ll go with the big money prize, Cantillon. Why not? I’ll go the best friend forever route and throw out Moody Tongue, because he hasn’t made a bad beer yet.