From Yugoslavia to Northern Nevada: Great Basin going strong as Silver State's largest and oldest brewery, 25 years later

Great Basin brewers Eric McClary, left, and Tom Young at the Great American Beer Festival in 1993.

Great Basin brewers Eric McClary, left, and Tom Young at the Great American Beer Festival in 1993.

SPARKS, Nev. — It started in Yugoslavia. Back in 1983, Tom Young, a geologist from Reno, was living in the European country, working on a project for a U.S. mining company.

During the workdays, a somber cloud hung over the people of Yugoslavia, then a communist country, Tom noticed.

In the evening, however, a switch flipped — and craft beer was at the center of it.

“At night they would go to pubs and restaurants and turn into real people,” Tom recalled. “And they’d dance and drink beer. And I was drinking this beer thinking, wow, this is really good beer — it’s really flavorful.”

Tom didn’t know it at the time, but a decade and a hemisphere later, a generation of beer drinkers would be sitting in his Northern Nevada brewpub — sipping, nodding, grinning — and saying the same thing about his craft creations.

Brewing up an idea

Upon returning to the Silver State, Tom Young looked past the cases of Bud and Miller, instead reaching for the six packs of imported lagers and ales. They were pricey suds, and it didn’t take long for Tom’s wife, Bonda, to take notice.

“She got really upset at me because she said, ‘we don’t have the money to do this,’” Tom said with a laugh.

Shrugging, he added: “So I started homebrewing.”

Turned out, Tom’s homebrewing hobby might pay off. After he was transferred to Northern California, a wave of mining companies began moving overseas. The company Tom worked for followed suit.

“One day he came home and said the company was closing down and, gee, what should we do now?” recalled Bonda, who formerly worked as a medical technologist. “He said, ‘I can go get a job somewhere else’ or I could brew beer.’ So we talked about it a lot and decided to go for it.

“The rest is history, I guess.”

Nearly 25 years after opening its original brewpub in Sparks in December 1993, Great Basin Brewing Company has grown into the largest, oldest and most award-winning brewery in not just Northern Nevada, but the entire Silver State.

Hurdles to clear

Back in ’93, though, the Youngs weren’t sure if they’d ever get their brewery open. Tom, in fact, was instrumental in helping get a bill passed that legalized breweries in Nevada.

With a brewery blueprint at the ready, the Youngs now needed to find investors to help make Great Basin a reality. But the banks weren’t interested.

“The bankers all said, ‘this will never go — people don’t know beer, they don’t care about beer. This is a Bud town, they’re not ready for it,’” Bonda recalled.

Laughing, Tom added: “Plus, here’s a guy who has a degree in geology and a medical technologist … I don’t think banks should have lent us money.”

After finally convincing a California bank to give them a loan, and also convincing local agencies to allow brewpubs in the city of Sparks, the Youngs had Great Basin built in a redevelopment zone on Victorian Avenue.

When the law passed to allow brewpubs in the state, it was only legal to open them in redevelopment areas.

Due to the law, production was also capped at 5,000 barrels (a barrel is 31 gallons) per calendar year. These stipulations were due to the influence big beer and distributors — who saw craft breweries as “pests,” Tom said — had and continue to have on state legislators.

“They said, OK, if we’re going to do this, we’ll put them in a place where they have the biggest chance of failure, which is the redevelopment district,” Tom said. “We threw every cent we had into it and we’re going, ‘geez, what if this doesn’t work?’”

An impromptu opening

Between paying for rent, permits and consultants, the Youngs, with two daughters, Mollie and Katie, were treading water — they even leveraged their house — and hadn’t even sold their first beer yet.

“We were so broke that one day we just said, ‘open the doors, man, we need to figure this out. We need to make payroll. We just have to open,’” Tom said.

And so, in December 1993, Great Basin Brewing Company opened. Quickly, people poured inside, Tom recalled.

“I remember there was a line out the door, and I’m going, ‘damn, this is cool!’” he exclaimed. “It was just fun to see all the people line up at the door, big smiles on their faces.”

Their smiles widened once they tasted the beer, brewed by Tom and longtime friend and fellow Great Basin brewer Eric McClary. Notably, prior to Great Basin’s conception, the two were award-winning homebrewers for many years.

One of their first beers on tap was an Indian Pale Ale that packed a bitter punch. Being a former geologist, Tom named it after Nevada’s state fossil — the Ichthyosaur “ICKY” IPA, which eventually captured silver at the 2006 World Beer Championships.

Since, Tom and McClary have gone on to brew 16 different award-winning Great Basin beers, the most decorated of which is the Outlaw Milk Stout, which has won at least seven national and international awards, including three World Beer Cup silvers.

Meeting the demand

All the while, Great Basin, with taps flowing at a steady clip, saw lines grow and the brewpub continue to fill to the brim.

“We were frankly running out of beer all the time — we couldn’t keep up with it,” Bonda said. She even recalled a year when they were down to one beer on tap follow Hot August Nights and the Nugget Rib Cook-Off.

To keep up with demand, Great Basin opened its brewpub at 5525 S. Virginia St., in Reno in July 2010. This came on the heels of Young and fellow state brewers successfully petitioning legislators to increase the state’s annual production cap from 5,000 to 15,000 barrels.

Despite the Great Recession, demand for beer didn’t slow. So, Great Basin expanded a third time in 2012, opening a production facility in the warehouse formerly occupied by the defunct Buckbean Brewery. The facility, called Taps & Tanks, is located on South Rock Boulevard in Sparks.

“We saw it as an opportunity to get into a turnkey operation and we could instantly increase our production,” Tom said.

Over these past six years, Great Basin’s Taps & Tanks has added seven times more fermentation, installed a $500,000 bottling machine, and tripled its production facility space, expanding to 23,000 square feet.

Keeping the pace

As pioneers of the craft beer industry in Nevada, Tom and Bonda Young have no immediate plans of slowing down.

Last year alone, the brewery produced 50 different beer styles. Great Basin’s brewpubs typically offer 12 to 14 beers on tap — including the more eccentric Bitchin’ Berry (a wheat beer brewed with raspberries) to its Cerveza Chilebeso (a Jalapeno-spiced pilsner).

“Right now, I think we could grow a little bit,” Tom said. “We’re looking into working with other partnerships and getting some distribution to other businesses.”

Great Basin Brewing, thus far, has opted to only distribute to three states: Nevada, California and Utah. Simply put, it hasn’t made sense for them to expand their state reach.

“We could distribute to a bunch of states but we’ve chosen not to,” Bonda said. “It doesn’t really mean anything if you’re in 30 states, you might be selling one case of beer.

‘One pint at a time’

The Youngs point to their involvement in the community, as well as offering plenty of local jobs — Great Basin employs 115 people at its three locations — as a main ingredient for business success that spans a quarter century.

This past May, for example, Great Basin hosted a series on pollinators and native plants of Nevada at its Taps & Tanks location. A year ago, they hosted a series on the federally threatened Lahontan Cutthroat Trout, the state fish of Nevada.

“I’m proud that we’ve been able to give back,” Bonda said. “Tom’s thing is ‘making this world a better place, one pint at a time.’”

Speaking to Great Basin’s three locations, Bonda said it gives her joy to see people “gathering and having a good time” day in and day out.Over the ensuing 25 years, Tom said he hopes Great Basin will continue to be a leader in brewing innovation and a stable force in the beer world and local community.

In other words, he hopes generations of beer drinkers continue to sip, nod and grin with a Great Basin beer in hand.

“I truly believe that Great Basin Brewing Company has been a positive influence on other lives,” Tom said. “Our staff, customer base and our own.”

Smiling, he added: “And hopefully given our community pride.”


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