When Sarah Johnson arrived in Las Vegas nine years ago with a culinary school background and brewing experience, the beer scene at the tourist destination paled in comparison to her previous stops in Portland, Ore., and Austin, Texas.
“It was horrible,” says Johnson, now food and beverage director at the Mandalay Bay resort and casino. “I didn’t feel like anybody was doing a good job of it.”
Last year, Mandalay Bay sold 2.2 million beers, 4 percent of which were craft (made by independent brewers). That number may sound low, but it represents substantial progress, according to Johnson. In casinos from Las Vegas to Connecticut, independent brews are gaining ground, but struggling to take hold. (The national average is about 8 percent.)
At Fleur, a Mandalay Bay restaurant, Johnson brings out some of the rarer bottles she’s serving, which include rye beer from Oregon’s Upright Brewing, a high-gravity wheat from California’s Lagunitas, and a 64-ounce growler of a saison from Big Dog’s Brewing Co., just down the street. Next to the restaurant is a several-stories-tall wine tower, but Johnson thinks it’s more fun to pair food with good beer. To that end, she offers saison with tuna sashimi tacos.
Connecticut casinos Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun are both in the early stages of their craft beer journeys. In 2010, the then-Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins ran up a $156,679.74 bar tab at a Foxwoods club, which included 136 Bud Lights and other brews, not a craft beer among them. Today, you can get a 22-ounce bottle of Lagunitas Hop Stoopid at Foxwoods’ David Burke Prime Steakhouse, and Mohegan Sun’s annual wine festival has added a popular beer component (festival organizer Vicky Cirilli says couples are often divided as wine and beer drinkers).
Craft products are slowly making their way into the rest of the casino. “The only growth in the beer industry as a whole is craft beer and small-batch products,” says Richard Zazzaro, Mohegan Sun’s vice president of food and beverage.
In Las Vegas, Big Dog brewmaster David Otto says that bringing craft brews into the city from outside the region is difficult. He and others contend that the desert location allows one or two distributors to control the supply and many standout beers from West Coast breweries don’t make it to the strip. At only a handful of spots — including Public House, Freakin’ Frog, and Aces & Ales — can you get a good beer, and even then you have to pay a premium.
Johnson and others are seeing small gains in Vegas. Mandalay Bay just added Lagunitas IPA as a free-drink option for gamers on the casino floor (“It’s taken off like crazy,” says Johnson). A complete overhaul of the casino’s offerings is unlikely, she says, and would involve an expensive revamp of tap lines. Competing resorts face similar challenges.
“We’re very proud of how far we’ve come,” says Robert Parekh, general manager of The Pub at Monte Carlo, also in Vegas. “I don’t see casinos offering imperial stouts to players at the craps table anytime soon. But there will definitely be at least one craft beer available.”
One, as they say, is better than none.