It was the fall of 1997 when chef Mark Estee first tasted a Great Basin Brewing Company beer.
Perched on a stool inside Great Basin’s original brewpub in Sparks, Estee decided to try the brewmaster’s special, the famed Ichthyosaur “Icky” IPA.
It wouldn’t be his last.
“I thought, ‘This is friggin’ delicious,” said Estee, reflecting on that first sip.
More than 20 years — and many Ickys — later, the Reno restaurateur is more than just a fan of Great Basin Brewing Co. He’s now an owner.
In mid-September, Estee’s company Local Food Group — which owns eateries in Reno, Lake Tahoe, Carson City and Gardnerville — purchased Great Basin Brewing Co., the oldest operating brewery in Nevada.
Owners Tom and Bonda Young said financial details of the deal, which closed Sept. 15, are not being disclosed.
“It’s two companies that align culturally and align with the way we treat our community and our coworkers,” Estee told the NNBW last week. “Our group is lucky that Tom and Bonda chose us to be able to carry on their legacy.”
ITCH TO SLOW DOWN For the past few years, the Youngs, who launched Great Basin in 1993, had been looking to slow down and pass the pint to a successor.
A couple of years ago, they had even reached an agreement to sell to Mammoth Brewing Company. The deal, however, never closed after investors on the Mammoth side “didn’t follow through,” Tom Young said.
Great Basin Brewing Company founder and brewmaster Tom Young pours the brewery’s first pint on Nov. 13, 1993, in Sparks.
In late 2019, Estee and Local Food Group expressed interest in merging with Great Basin. Estee had dipped his toes in craft brewing in 2017 when he opened The Union brewery and restaurant in Carson City.
He picked Tom Young’s brain in the process, and Estee returned the favor by offering flavor advice on Great Basin’s restaurant side.
“The smartest thing I did was listen to him,” Estee said. “He is the brewmaster. Think of how many brewers have come through there and gone on to great successes coming out of Great Basin.”
In working closely with Young, Estee said he realized that Great Basin was cut from the same cloth as Local Food Group and the two companies would mesh well. And so, in March 2020, the two sides were close to sewing up a deal and raising a glass.
“We had an offer on the table,” Bonda Young said. “And then maybe a week or two later … COVID hit.”
PANDEMIC PAUSE As a result of the pandemic’s rippling impacts on the restaurant industry, Local Food Group pulled the offer to focus time instead on keeping their restaurants afloat.
The Youngs did the same, putting all their time and effort into getting their restaurants in Sparks and Reno and the Reno brewing facility — and their 100-plus employees — through the pandemic waves.
Amid capacity restrictions, layoffs, reduced brew cycles and revenue shortfalls, the Great Basin owners began to wonder if the opportunity to sell had passed them by.
“We didn’t know how this was all going to go,” Tom Young said.
Thanks to widespread community support, both companies rebounded strongly from initial COVID impacts, Bonda Young said.
Back to pouring beer and serving food at pre-pandemic levels, this past spring, the Youngs and Local Food Group rekindled conversations. All the while, Great Basin was fielding other offers from “larger national-type groups,” said Tom Young, who did not disclose the names of those firms. When they weighed their options and priorities, Local Food Group was still “at the top,” said Bonda Young, adding: “We’re feeling very lucky that we found somebody locally that wanted to take it over.” The Youngs said finalizing the deal and officially handing over their longtime business gave them “an emotional and bittersweet” feeling. “The most important thing for us is to see what we have worked really, really hard to build over our lives, to continue and prosper and thrive,” Tom Young said. “I think we have done a fairly thorough job to reach out to the community and community partners in our society here and internationally. And we thought we had a lot better chance of continuing to do that (by selling to Local Food Group) than selling to a larger unit who had other motives for the brewery.” PASSING THE PINT After all, the Youngs have put nearly three decades into crafting one of the most successful and decorated breweries in not just Nevada, but the entire country. To date, Great Basin has racked up 16 Great American Beer Festival medals and nine World Beer Cup awards, earning accolades for a variety of its suds creations, from its Icky to its Cerveza Chilebeso to its Wild Horse Ale. In the early 2010s, to meet demand, Great Basin opened up a second brewery and restaurant in Reno. The company also added a 23,000-square-foot brewing facility to expand its production. Along with the entire Silver State, the brewery distributes in California, Utah and, most recently, Idaho. Despite all their successes, the Youngs still have the same humble attitude they had when they first opened in 1993 in Sparks. “A lot of people go into business, they have an idea they’re going to put a project together, build it up to a certain point, get a couple of units going and then flip it,” Tom Young said. “That was not our business plan. Our business plan was to create a brewery and then run it, and this would be our job and our life for quite some time. “But when everyone reaches a certain age, it’s probably a good time to think about slowing down or passing the torch to somebody that can run it even faster and farther than we can.” To that end, Local Food Group is looking to expand distribution of Great Basin beers into more states across the West Coast, said Estee, adding: “This is a legacy brewery — the oldest in Nevada — and one that’s still poised to do the most damage.” On the food side, Estee’s group is implementing initiatives to source ingredients from local ranchers and growers, as well as many house-made items produced at Liberty Food and Wine Exchange’s 4,000-square-foot production kitchen, bakery and butcher shop (Liberty is one of the restaurants under the Local Food Group umbrella). He added that Great Basin’s restaurants will start featuring some of Liberty’s pretzels, breads, pastas, sausages and more. “We know the work that’s ahead of us, and it’s an honor and a privilege to have to be where we are right now, so we take this very seriously,” Estee said. “But we also know that we’re going to serve great food and serve great beer.” Pausing, he tacked on: “And we’re not going to screw up the Icky recipe.”