Jacob Jimenez, assistant brewer at 29 Brews, checks on a batch-to-be. Credit: Brett Newton

It was almost a buffet.

For months, I’d intended to visit Taproom 29, at the Spotlight 29 Casino in Coachella. I had friends who went and reported back to me, but I decided to wait until the taproom was brewing beer onsite to go.

Then they started brewing onsite … and more time passed. However, I finally made it there, with a couple of burning questions in mind for head brewer Ed Heethuis (pronounced “heat house,” apparently the only other certified cicerone in the Coachella Valley): Why in the Coachella Valley? And why Spotlight 29?

Those questions could have also been directed toward Darrell Mike, the chairman of the Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians. Mike has been around craft-beer operations, and he’s grown to appreciate the art and business sides of breweries and restaurants—so when the pandemic took hold, Spotlight 29’s plans for a buffet were scrapped in favor of an opportunity to fill a specific void in the east valley.

Within six months, plans were drawn up, and much of the construction of the tap room and restaurant were completed.

However, Taproom 29 still needed a brewer. At first, Heethuis was contacted to be a consultant in the search for a brewer for 29 Brews, the name of the brewery itself. He certainly has the knowledge base; Heethuis’ journey into craft beer began in 1983 after a move to Claremont. He found himself ordering an Anchor Steam ale. At first, he said, he didn’t enjoy it. Then he found himself at the end of the glass—and ordering another one. That was all it took.

After working as a merchandiser with an Anheuser-Busch wholesaler, he eventually went on to become the head of their craft-beer division. He worked with Craft Los Angeles distribution and opened up the Coachella Valley as part of their territory. Heethuis came highly recommended as a consultant by some of Mike’s close friends, and bringing him on was an easy choice. What wasn’t easy was finding a brewer that met the standards of everyone involved. Therefore, Heethuis became that brewer.

His professional resumé includes brewing at Ritual Brewing Co. under Inland Empire brewing legend Owen Williams, as well as guest-brewing stints at Tustin Brewing Co., Golden Road and Artifex Brewing Co. This allowed him to develop a process whereby he could quickly adapt to different brewing systems. It also gave him the confidence to move to the desert and give 29 Brews a shot.

Taproom 29 is a spacious restaurant and bar right off the casino’s main entrance. It’s set up as a large circle, with the bar toward the middle, and seating of various kinds radiating outward from there. An elevated ring of TVs surround the restaurant; there’s a 360-degree skylight, a wood-fired pizza oven behind the bar, and next to that, the brewhouse itself. Two rows of 10-barrel tanks greet you through glass, with a 5-barrel brewstand sitting behind. This is where Heethuis and assistant brewer Jacob Jimenez—an alum of Green Cheek Brewing (a huge favorite of mine)—do their thing.

And now for the important part: How’s the beer?

The Rez Rage Red might be my favorite of the four. It is malt-forward, but not at all cloying, with a grainy, biscuity malt body, and a little hop bitterness to balance.

To answer this question, I was ushered into a private bar area where I met Heethuis and tribal administrator Anthony Madrigal; I was also briefly on the phone with Chairman Mike himself. They insisted I try a pizza and a flight of the four core beers currently on tap. The pizza was a great accompaniment to the flight, as I went down the line of beers: Chairman Blonde, Rez Rage Red, Tipsy Tortoise IPA, and Peabody’s Russian Imperial Stout.

The first thing I noticed about the blonde was how un-blonde-like it was; it drank more like an American lager. This is by design, as lagers take up more time in tanks, but a blonde ale can be turned over more quickly, freeing up tank space sooner. The Rez Rage Red might be my favorite of the four. It is malt-forward, but not at all cloying, with a grainy, biscuity malt body, and a little hop bitterness to balance. The IPA is a bit of a callback to the West Coast IPAs of the recent past: It’s piney, resinous and citrusy, with a nice caramel backbone and a solidly bitter finish. Another contender for my favorite of the bunch was the stout, which had flavors and aromas of roasted coffee, chocolate and raisin, and all at a far-too-easy-drinking 10.2% alcohol by volume.

These four beers are on tap alongside 21 craft taps from outside breweries such as Enegren Brewing and a brewery whose beer I have been very impressed by lately, Brewery X out of Anaheim.

The beers from 29 Brews also flow at the Tortoise Rock Casino in Twentynine Palms, Spotlight 29’s sister casino. They plan to expand and distribute to other tribes’ casinos around the country through a distribution channel they’ve already set up with some of their other products; 29 Brews is working on Coachella Valley distribution as well. They regularly pour their beers at charity events; the tribe emphasized to me what they regularly have done and do for local sports groups and charities, even during the lockdown.

Heethuis himself is planning on doing educational beer events and beer dinners to help grow the local beer scene. I wish him all the best, and I offered to help where I could—because I’ve been trying to do the same thing for more than a decade now. I’m glad there is someone else to potentially work alongside to raise the bar for Coachella Valley beer, and I look forward to seeing what they do in the future.

I’m also very glad Taproom 29 didn’t end up being a buffet.

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Brett Newton

Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He can be reached at caesarcervisia@gmail.com.