Drinker of the Month Cameron Kelly took me to an unusual Pho restaurant to talk about his journey from waiter to Icky master at Reno Great Basin Brewpub and his new role selling beer to the rest of Nevada.
Drinker of the Month is an ongoing monthly series where we spotlight someone in the community who brings joy to our taste buds. Brewers, bartenders, distillers, sommeliers, farmers and many others help us enjoy life just a little bit more every day. This is an ode to them. If you want to nominate someone (or yourself) to be the next Drinker of the Month, visit the Contact page and send in your suggestion.
I started the morning at the Reno Great Basin Brewpub to get pictures of Head Brewer Cameron Kelly for the story. I thought he was late so I texted him and he emerged from the brewery with Deathwish IPA in hand. He recommended the Little Cowboy Coffee Stout on nitro for breakfast. An excellent choice.
After a complete tour of the Reno brewery, it was time for lunch. Cameron wanted Asian, “because I love that shit” so he recommended a Vietnamese place: Asian Pho on McCarran and Longley in the mega 7-11 with a Wendy’s on the other side.
Cameron Kelly: I’ve been trying to figure out why I know you, where we initially met.
Mike Higdon: It was about three years ago in 2010 or 2011, you worked as a waiter at the Sparks Great Basin and a bunch of us came in with our home brewed Imperial IPA, Little General, and you wanted to try it. Ever since then we’ve run into each other a bunch of times throughout the last three years.
He orders the 44 and I order the 49. Asian restaurants don’t waste time.
MH: What happened in the last three years since the day I met you as a waiter?
CK: I feel like I got very lucky. I originally got the job at Great Basin in Sparks because I love beer. I had done some home brewing but I wasn’t getting crazy about it like some people get crazy about.
MH: Like what kind of crazy?
CK: Like my assistant in Reno is an awesome guy, but he spent like $5,000 on his home brew set up and spent years and years learning to sweat pipes and build his own thing. He’s taken over his entire house basically. He has a closet that he turned into a fermentation room and it has a heater and an air conditioning that he turns on depending on how cold he wants everything to get. I never got to that point. I brewed six home brew batches and barely started using grain and mostly did extract.
MH: Up till now or then?
CK: In the beginning. Even now, I don’t homebrew. But I really loved beer and I was like, ‘oh I’ll get job at Great Basin’ because I was a Tuesday night regular for two years or something. I got the job waiting tables and one of my other friends was going into the brewery and starting to help them clean kegs. I said, ‘that sounds cool, I’ll do that too,’ and I started doing that and my schedule was a little more flexible. He was doing it because he wanted to get into the brewery and I was doing it because I thought it was cool and would be fun to learn something. But because I was doing it more often they started paying me, which was nice.
MH: How much more often would you have to do it to get paid?
CK: I ended up working 10-15 hours a week in the brewery.
MH: That’s a lot more than just an hour before and after your shift.
CK: I would just go in on my day off and devote a day to cleaning kegs. So I was doing that and still serving and then a brewer in Reno suddenly left and they said, ‘well Cameron has been doing stuff so let’s move him over.’ So that’s how I ended up getting into the brewery. And it’s been two or two and a half years now.
The waitress brings Cameron his no. 44 and my no. 49. Cameron immediately pours Sriracha on his noodles while I put my life into my own hands with some asian chili sauce.
MH: So you were assisting at first?
CK: I was an assistant at the Reno pub and was basically just an Icky machine. If you look at our brew logs, we just passed 600 brews and like 480 of them are Icky. I was there for a while, about a year and a half when Ryan Quinlan left, so they bumped me up. I had been running the Reno brewery for five or six months anyway. So they gave me a chance.
MH: Do you feel like you were ready to take it on your own?
CK: I think so. Everybody is trepidatious when going into a new thing. But I was doing the physical work of running the brewery. It was more learning the new paperwork and training a new person at the same time. But I felt ready. We don’t do a lot of new stuff at the Reno location. I knew how to make Icky every single day and make it really well. I still don’t know a ton of the science behind what we do but I can physically do the work and I know enough of the science it doesn’t really matter unless we’re doing a new batch..
MH: Is that something you want to be able to do, to make your own beer?
CK: It’s not something that drives me — to make something new and exciting. We have some people who have come from the home brew world who just want to make a new thing every single time. That’s cool and I definitely have ideas and would like to do certain things but I’m also happy making a consistently quality beer no matter if it’s someone else’s recipe or not. I still really love the beer we make. I didn’t get into brewing for the creative side, I got into it because I love beer. It doesn’t matter where I go in the company, I just love Great Basin, I love the beer. If they move me somewhere else, I’m happy to. It would be cool to know a lot more about why certain beers work and certain beers don’t. But for me that’s my own personal curiosity not my professional need.
MH: That’s such a cool perspective, a lot of us want to make the newest, differentest beer and don’t care how it tastes.
CK: That’s how I am as a beer consumer. Most of the time I’m not going to go and buy a Sierra Nevada if there’s another option because I like to try new things. But that’s not the standard beer consumer, so to be a successful company you must have a product that people say, ‘I want it to taste like it did last month and I want it to taste the same next month and I want it to be readily available’ and that seems to be the more standard beer drinker. And so I really like the way Great Basin has it setup that we have these larger breweries that can continue to do that. But we also have Sparks that can do smaller batch stuff. I still think we make interesting beers. With the 20th Anniversary beer we got take all of our favorite beers and batch them together.
MH: I had that recently and didn’t realize the jalapeño was in it and it caught me by surprise because I didn’t bother reading the label, I just figured ‘oh this is Icky on steroids.’
CK: I really liked that beer. I took some of that and threw it into a Rogue Pink Gin barrel.
MH: Is that something that is out now?
CK: We just put it in about December, so it’ll sit in that barrel for at least 6 months.
MH: Let me know when that’s ready. If you don’t, I’ll be really upset.
CK: Well if it tastes like shit, I’m going to dump it down the drain. Or give it to someone to distill… legally.
This comment spawns a rather lengthy conversation about distilling, Churchill Vineyards and distributors. But we digress.
MH: So, tell me about this sales thing, I keep interrupting you when you bring it up.
CK: So we’ve basically just been in Northern Nevada for distribution. We are Northern Nevada’s beer. We don’t have to go out and tell people to buy it here, they’re going to ask for it. People just put it on because it’s Icky. They’re going to start sending me out to South Lake Tahoe and Truckee. Then we’ll start pushing down into Vegas too.
Cameron wants to push World Beer Cup silver medal winning Outlaw Milk Stout because that’s one of his favorites.
MH: Who got gold, was it Left Hand Milk Stout?
CK: We got the silver in 2008 and 2012. I think in 2008 it was Left Hand and in 2012 it was Ska Brewing.
MH: Left Hand figured out a way to put nitro in the bottle without a widget and they won’t tell anyone how they do it.
CK: I actually know what it is.
I double check the recorder to make sure it’s working.
CK: They have a system that drops liquid nitrogen into each bottle before it’s capped. They’ll drop it in and before it disburses, they cap it.
MH: Oh yah that’s right because the nitrogen would never stay in solution anyway.
CK: Right. At last year’s World Beer Cup [in Denver] we were trying to figure it out for Outlaw so we sent one of our brewers to Left Hand [in Longmont, Colo.] to try to figure it out. He was in there sneaking around the bottling line and asking all the brewers and nobody would tell him anything. So we were back at the convention hall and all the brewers were there and Left Hand guys said ‘oh this is exactly how we do it’ so we drove two hours round-trip for nothing just so they could tell us. But I think it’s just so cost prohibitive for us that it wasn’t worth it.
MH: Was it the liquid nitrogen costs?
CK: No it’s more the equipment on the bottling line.
MH: Could you just have a guy with an eye dropper do it by hand?
CK: Haha yeah I don’t think so. Plus they wouldn’t tell us exact measurements.
MH: So you would just keep putting it in until it exploded.
CK: Pretty much.
We finished up lunch and headed over to the Great Basin bottling production brewery for a tour. Cameron shows me the old tasting room that is now just a brewers bar and pours us a glass of cloudy Icky and a glass of clear Icky. It turns out the cloudy one is Icky fermented with Belgian yeast and the other is regular Icky. The Belgian yeast Icky is sweeter, more citrus hops flavor and aroma and my new favorite beer.
Then he tells me it will probably never leave this room.