If not for a college roommate, Tenaya Creek Brewing founder Tim Etter might be an engineer. And Las Vegans would be a lot thirstier.
In the early ’90s, the Vegas native headed off to the University of Utah, where his roommate helped immerse him in homebrew culture. “Beer is not just light lager anymore,” Etter remembers thinking.
As their DIY project expanded, the duo became quite popular. “We bought an old refrigerator from a thrift store and turned it into a keg fridge,” Etter says. “Getting people to leave our apartment was difficult. We had to call [out] last call.”
Etter’s roommate went on to work at Squatters [brewery] in downtown Salt Lake. Etter would visit him there and think, “Man, you can get a paycheck doing this? I gotta figure out how to do this. Free beer for life—that’s the dream, right?” After taking some classes at the University of California, Davis, he eventually found himself at Salt Lake City’s Uinta Brewing, where he honed his skills until the opportunity arose to return Vegas and launch his own brewery in 1999.
When Tenaya Creek opened, the craft-brew landscape here looked a lot different. Gordon Biersch’s Paradise Road location had just opened, and Holy Cow Brewing—now Big Dog’s— sat on the Strip at Sahara Avenue. Otherwise, casinos ran the scene: Barley’s in Henderson, Triple 7 Downtown, Monte Carlo Brew Pub on the Strip and Ellis Island nearby.
“Tourists weren’t as craft-beer savvy as they are today,” Etter says. “And locals, forget it; they wanted food. So, we had to have food or we wouldn’t have survived. The bar was very popular, [and] gaming paid for a lot of mistakes. The brewery was almost an afterthought. But it was the only reason we opened the business to begin with.”
Etter says Las Vegas’ ban on smoking in restaurants, along with the Great Recession, forced Tenaya Creek to close its restaurant in 2008. Instead, the brand shifted to beer production, with Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort (now Lee Canyon) coming on as the first retail account. Before long, the brewery began running out of production space, leading Etter to the vacant Bonanza Road warehouse that has become Tenaya Creek’s wildly successful new home, in 2015. “It’s been a lot better received than I ever imagined,” he says.
Now, he can look back on two decades in the business. “Twenty years for any business is just crazy, [but] I think craft beer is definitely here to stay. I’ve seen the craft community and market evolve, [and] now, you’ve got an entire generation that’s known nothing but craft beer.”
Tenaya Creek will celebrate with its fans at a November 16 anniversary party at the brewery. Among 30-plus tap handles will be Tenaya Creek’s first-ever Scottish-style wee heavy (weighing in around 11.5%) along with barrel-aged renditions of the brewery’s Bonanza Brown and Old Jackalope barleywine.