UPDATED: Great Basin Brewing merges with Mark Estee restaurant group; the Icky remains

The brewery is the oldest operating in Nevada

JOHNATHAN L. WRIGHT/RN&R: Tom and Bonda Young, left, founders of Great Basin Brewing Co., and chef Mark Estee toast the Sept. 15, 2021, merger of the brewery into Estee's Local Food Group.

This story has been significantly updated from the original version published 4:01 p.m. Sept. 14, 2021

“We will not eff up the Icky recipe.”

Mark Estee, the celebrated Reno chef, made this vow at lunch on Sept. 15 at Great Basin Brewing Co. in Sparks. And well he should have.

Ichthyosaur “Icky” IPA, named after the Nevada state fossil, is Great Basin’s flagship beer, and at midnight Sept. 15, about 12 hours earlier, it became official: Great Basin had merged into Local Food Group, the company helmed by Estee that owns six restaurants, a catering outfit and a butcher shop.

After nearly 28 years, Great Basin founders Tom and Bonda Young had sold their brewery, a pioneer of craft beer in Nevada and the oldest operating brewery in the state. Local Food Group was now in charge of the Icky — and everything else.

“I’m feeling very good about this,” Tom Young said. “We started this business with a great love for beer, food and people. However, there’s a certain time in life when it’s a good idea to step back.”

But stepping back doesn’t mean stepping away. The Youngs are remaining as consultants, for as long as the couple and Estee feel the arrangement makes sense, they all said.

“I think our biggest role is going to be the role of being founders,” Bonda Young said, “being a sounding board for them, offering ideas to them, helping guide the new company,” including guiding Estee’s team, who are food experts, in the ways of brewing.

In other words, Icky instruction ahead.

A deal that was meant to be

PHOTO/PROVIDED TO RN&R: Tom Young, co-founder of Great Basin Brewing Co., a pioneer of Nevada craft beer culture, draws the first beer at the original brewpub in Sparks in December 1993.

In June 2017, Tom Young and other brewing professionals joined beer enthusiasts and state legislators at The Union brewpub and coffee house in Carson City to celebrate then-Gov. Sandoval’s signing of two bills liberalizing the brewing industry in Nevada.

Estee had just opened The Union, and at the celebration, Tom Young asked the chef, “What do you know about brewing? Maybe we can help each other.” And so began a working relationship in which Estee tapped into the Youngs’ beer knowledge and the brewery founders solicited Great Basin menu ideas from the chef.

Things went so swimmingly, Estee recalled, that Tom Young even said, “Maybe one day, you’ll buy our brewery.”

But first, Great Basin would have to endure a planned acquisition by Mammoth Brewing Co. of Mammoth, Calif., that fell through in 2019. Later that year, the Youngs and Estee began discussing a deal between their companies. COVID-19 delayed that transaction, but this past spring, discussions resumed that ultimately led to the merger.

The couple and the chef declined to reveal the terms of the deal. Great Basin and Local Food group both currently have about 115 employees, Estee said, adding that no layoffs were planned because of the merger

New initiatives in beer and food

JOHNATHAN L. WRIGHT/RN&R: Great Basin Brewing Co. consists of the original brewpub in Sparks, above, a brewpub in South Reno and the Taps & Tanks production complex in East Reno.

Great Basin Brewing launched in December 1993 with its brewpub on Victorian Square.

In 1994, the brewery debuted the Icky IPA, its first brewmaster special. That same year, the brewery won its first two medals at the Great American Beer Festival, one of the country’s most prestigious craft beer competitions. To date, the brewery has garnered 16 Great American Beer Festival medals and nine medals from the even more prestigious World Beer Cup.

With craft beer culture flourishing locally, Great Basin decided to expand, opening a South Reno brewpub in 2010. In 2012, the Taps & Tanks production complex and taproom opened on South Rock Boulevard. In 2021, Great Basin will produce about 10,000 barrels, Tom Young said.

Local Food Group seeks to build on this success, Estee said.

On the beer side, plans include experimenting with new flavors and expanding distribution beyond Nevada, Utah, Idaho and parts of California. Tom Young can now more easily assist with this expansion, Estee said, “because he doesn’t have to focus on the restaurants. He can focus on the beer.”

New culinary initiatives range from sourcing more ingredients from local growers and ranchers to using housemade items from the production kitchen, bakery and butcher shop at Liberty Food & Wine Exchange, the downtown Reno base of Local Food Group. Some of these items: pretzel twists, brioche buns, pastas, sausages and doughs made with spent grain.

“We’re working on some really cool food and beer pairings,” Estee said, “some dishes that are specific to the brewery.” At the same time, “Are we going to take away the hits from Great Basin? No, we are not. We are not going to take everything apart — only to find out that it already works.”

Johnathan L. Wright is the food and drink writer for Reno News & Review. Follow him on Twitter at @ItsJLW or on Facebook personally or at @FoodNevada. Sign up here for the Reno News & Review free weekly newsletter highlighting our most recent stories.

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