By Bobby Bush
From 1892 to 1943, an estimated 17 million immigrants were processed at Ellis Island, a tiny island in Upper New York Bay made up mostly of landfill. What that little bit of history has to do with beer and brewing - as you'll see below - is extremely foreign to me.
Las Vegas added its fifth brewpub in January 1999. I won't tell anyone, if you won't. One big block off the Strip, behind Bally's, connected by canopy to a Super 8 Motel, resides Ellis Island Brewery. Actually a casino that caught onto the brewing craze a few years too late, Ellis Island is everything a brewpub shouldn't be- even in Vegas.
To the strains of a worse-than-karaoke night band, the island bar, centered amidst buzzing slot and video poker machines, stays busy with off-strip gamblers looking for a last ditch jackpot. Only a few were drinking the house brewed brands. But, of course, that's why I was there. From chilled pint glasses, the EIB Amber was actually a nut brown ale, as the slightly amused and bewildered bartender advised me. It was thin, crisply hopped, with a swift mid-mouth bitterness; definitely Ellis Island's best brew. Beneath its big head, EIB Dark- not to be confused with bock -started sweet before finishing sourly acidic. EIB Light, billed as "made in the American tradition" (of what?), and the rice-adjuncted American Style Lager, which was unavailable during my short visit, join EIB Hefeweizen to fill out the Ellis Island line-up. Apologetically, the bartender told me an EIB Stout would be up soon.
Over in the corner, behind darken windows, sat an antique-looking 15 barrel brewery, rustic copper-clad kettles and all that jazz. A piercing red digital readout display control panel indicated that this was no ordinary ex-dairy makeshift brewery. Someone sunk a small fortune into making mediocre beer in a low-traffic, second-rate casino. What if they made good beer and no one came? I was warned in advance about Ellis Island, but, beer spectacles balanced upon my pointy nose, it was my duty and destiny to sample their wares. Somebody's gotta do it.
Not to fear, there are good brewpubs in Lost Wages. The first, and arguably best, is Holy Cow! Casino Cafe Brewery. Founded in 1993 and part of the Vegas Big Dog Hospitality restaurant family, this friendly casino has a non-gambling bar dedicated to beer, but also features a large island bar complete with video poker imbedded in the bar surface. Without losing nary a quarter, we tried many of Holy Cow's seven brews. "Rebel Red" Red Ale, though redundant in name, offered a good balance of malt and hops. Vegas Gold Hefeweizen was yeasty, clovey Bavarian in style. Light, yet tasty, the Cream Ale made a nice session brew. At 7% abv, the IPA was good and hoppy, as was the thin Amber Gambler Pale Ale, just a little less so bitter. We passed on Apricot Wheat, and settled down for a long slow visit with the Stout, whose big brown head held warming, roasty flavor submerged below. Check out Holy Cows!'s website at www.HolyCowBrewery.com.
Downtown, not far from the famous Golden Nugget is Main Street Station, Casino & Brewery and in the heart of the Strip resides Monte Carlo Pub & Brewery. Both are decent, fun brewpubs, but for my last stop on this rushed trip, I chose non-casino, one-year-old Gordon Biersch at Hughes Center on Paradise Road. This German lager brewpub chain, established in Palo Alto, CA back in 1988, knows food and beer better than almost anyone. In the midst of the local post-5:00 Friday afternoon crowd, I never found a seat at the bar. But I was able to partake of GB's fine beers. Malty but not cloyingly sweet, Dunkles is my favorite of their regular beers. The Maerzen, Blonde Bock and Original Export tie for second place. The on-tap seasonal- never a fruit beer at this traditional brewpub - was a creamy, sweet Winter Bock, fashioned, as did 11th century monks, to provide sustenance through long periods of fasting. Since I was nowhere close to grabbing a barstool, food was an afterthought anyway. From Pasadena to San Francisco to Honolulu to Las Vegas, Gordon Biersch's beers, are always fine and filling.
This article first appeared in Focus Magazine of Hickory, North Carolina.
© Bobby Bush