Oasis in the Desert
Las Vegas isn't the first place that comes to mind when you think of good beer, actually you don't think of it at all. However, a lot of people travel there for weddings, bachelor parties, gambling, sun, or like in my case, work. I've attended the National Broadcasters Conference every year in Las Vegas for the last twelve years. To be honest, if it wasn't for work, I probably wouldn't ever take a trip there, at least not to stay on the strip. To me, Las Vegas is a sea of cigarette smoke, over indulgence, macro beers, gambling, hoochies, guidos, and drunk frat boys. Walking down Las Vegas boulevard is like walking in a large, busy city except everyone is drunk. Its really strange to see people walking down the street, or in the many shopping malls carrying giant cans of Bud Light. Actually, in my mind, its really like the anti-Portland. Anyway, with all the years that I’ve been going to “Sin City”, I’ve seen the beer scene grow, ever so slowly, but growing nonetheless. So, if you’re a beer snob like me, and you find yourself in Las Vegas, you’ll be happy to know you do have options, some of them quite good.
I usually don’t have a car, so I have to rely on taxi’s, buses, the monorail, or walking to get around, which primarily keeps me close to the strip. My first Las Vegas tip is to purchase a monorail ticket. As they say, objects in Las Vegas are further than they appear, so being able to take the monorail can really save your legs.
One of the first places I discovered a few years ago was The Burger Bar in the Mandalay Bay hotel. They have a around 30 taps, some good selections, but nothing extra special. They also have an extensive bottle list separated by country with vintage and rare beers, including vertical flights. The prices on draft beers are pretty good for Vegas at $6 and up, but the bottles can be expensive. As one might guess, they have good burgers too, I recommend the slider plate that has a buffalo, Angus, and NatureSource burger. I thought it was funny that my beer was served up in a Miller Lite shaker pint, reminding me that I was still in Vegas. It's also worth noting that Mandalay Bay’s Director of Food and Beverage, Sarah Johnson, is a Cicerone, so maybe more beer options will show up in the hotel’s bars.
Another place I tried out was the English themed Gordon Ramsey’s Pub & Grill in Caesars Palace. They have a lot of taphandles, but mostly standard craft and import, emphasizing English beers, in fact, I don’t think they had any local or regional beers on tap. As for the food, I had good Scotch Egg there, but the bangers and mash were a bit bland (authentic British?). The pricing wasn’t too bad either, they didn’t rake me over the coals like some celebrity chef places do. I think I would like to get back and try some of the other things on the food menu.
One of my favorite places on the strip is Todd English Pub in Aria. These guys have a great taplist, including many regional, seasonal, cask and rare beers. Bring your wallet as this is one of the more expensive craft beer spots, except during happy hour when the drafts are half off. An example, I had an 8oz Uinta Labyrinth Black Ale which would have been $16 at full price, ouch! Also during happy hour they have damn good $3 sliders, $2 oyster shooters, and $1 wings.Another bonus is that the staff is knowledgeable and they serve the beers up in the proper glassware. One bartender told me that the company was thinking of paying for the bartenders to attend the cicerone program which seems like an interesting idea. I was able to find beers here that I haven't seen on tap in the Northwest, like Greenflash Green Bullet and some seasonals from Uinta. They also had a Vegas wager game called the “7 second challenge”, where they flip a 7 second sand timer and if you can finish a whole pint, they buy it. I was amused that on the menu under “Vintage Ales” they listed Pabst and Bud Light. The happy hour while I was there ran from 3-6pm and 10pm-midnight.
My absolute favorite place on the strip for excellent beer and upscale pub food is the Public House in the Venetian. The Public House’s beer list is curated by its very own Cicerone, Russell Gardner. Their draft list is very good, similar to Todd English, with many regional and rare beers, including cask beer. They also have an extensive bottle list and a cool iPad menu system to help people find the beer they’re looking for. The bartenders also were very knowledgeable, and are especially engaging when they realize the customer appreciates good beer. This is probably because even though they are a beer bar, they are still serving cocktails and other beverages to the partying crowd that comes in from the casino. I watched a bartender serve up about 20 mixed drinks before a beer order came in. I appreciated that the bartender even shared a little bit of a Westvleteren with me that he and the other bartenders were sampling.Another draw is the unique cask beers that they always have. While I was there they had a Sierra Nevada Ruthless Rye hopped in the cask with Citra hops as well as a Lagunitas Sucks dry hopped with the same. I also sampled a Green Flash Belgian IPA, Squatters Outer Darkness, and two very good beers from local breweries, Big Dogs War Dog Imperial IPA and Tenaya Creek Hauling Oats Stout.
If you get thirsty while walking between these beer destinations on the strip, you can always grab a bottle for the walk. There are a few liquor/convenience stores on the strip where you can find a Stone or Sierra Nevada. I also like to grab breakfast and a 22oz at Hash House A Go Go. They feature Stone and sometimes Ballast Point beers, which are also available to go.
If you head downtown to check out the Fremont Street Experience light show, you have a couple of brewery options. The first option is Chicago Brewing in the Four Queens. This pub (brewery is located elsewhere) is kind of hard to find, as there really isn’t any signage directing you to it in the back corner of the casino. The beer lineup is pretty standard here, with a light, pale, amber, IPA, stout, etc. They do have seasonals which have been pretty good in the past when I’ve stopped in. The Triple 7 brewpub located in Main Street Station is another option near Fremont street. The 777 reminds me of chain brewpub like the Ram or Rock Bottom, large space, in house brewery, lots of food options. The regular beers are solid, but they get more adventurous with one-offs and seasonals. You can hop on “The Deuce” bus with a bunch of other drunks to get to downtown from the strip (it will also take you up and down the strip).
There are a couple of spots off the strip that seem to get a lot of love, the Freakin Frog and Aces & Ales. I made the long trek to Aces & Ales for the first time on my last trip. It’s kind of like a sports bar meets beer bar, lots of tv’s, a digital beer board, and a really good selection of drafts and bottles. The crowd seemed to be more like one from a sports bar, as I noticed a lot of people drinking buckets of domestics. They also have an unusual pricing system where all drafts are $6, but they come in 4, 8,12, or 16 oz, depending on the beer. The first two beers I ordered were supposed to be 12 oz and the last beer was to be an 8 oz, except they were all in the same size glass which, in the end, I think was an 8 oz glass. I also ordered a sandwich and got the wrong one. I probably should have complained, but the bartender was alone most of the time, working the tables as well, running around like crazy trying to keep up with the orders. I also noticed lots of ads for upcoming beer events and tap themes, which is expected in a good beer bar. In the end, I wouldn’t spend the cash on cab fare to get out there from the strip, unless they have a special beer event going on that you want to check out.
I haven’t ever made to the Freakin Frog, so I really can’t comment on it much, except that it always gets mentioned as a place for beer geeks. However, I’ve heard mixed reviews from people I know that have been there, so I’ll try to make it out there next year to see for myself. One other “local” spot worth mentioning is Ellis Island Brewing, which is just a Las Vegas block off the strip behind Bally’s. While it is a brewery, don’t get too excited, one look at the beer menu will tell you something is amiss. The truth is, you go there for the ambiance of the karaoke lounge. This dimly lit, smoke filled room with locals belting out lounge hits will make you feel like you’re in old school Vegas, its really a good time. One other funny thing, they had a premixed Jager and house rootbeer drink coming out of one of the taps, I think they called it a Jagerbrew. The beer may not be great, but at $2.50 for a 20 oz pint of house brewed beer, this may be the place you end up after losing your ass on the strip.
Other Places Near the Strip
There are a few other places a short cab ride from the strip. There is a Yard House on the South end of Las Vegas Boulevard, near the airport. They always have a huge taplist. If German beer is your thing, there is the Hofbräuhaus Las Vegas which claims to be an exact replica of the one in Munich. I’ve been to both, not the same...however the beer seems to be the same. Also near there is a Gordon Biersch chain brewery if you’re so inclined.
Party TimeI realize that sometimes you’re in Las Vegas solely to party with friends and chasing down good beer might not be a priority. Usually the casino bars will have a few choices beyond Bud, Miller, Coors-like Heineken, Guinness, Sam Adams, or if you're real lucky, Sierra Nevada. But if you must rehydrate with that Coors Light that your old college buddy just bought you, just remember, what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.