Déjà Brew

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Before Prohibition, Sacramento 
was the beer-making capital of the West, 
and the largest hop-growing region in America. 
Here’s how an unlikely cast comprised of a Princeton 
architecture major, the grandson of a U.S. Secretary 
of Defense, a world-renowned grocer and a man 
known as the “Pope of Foam” conspired to create 
what may very well be Sacramento’s most 
authentically local beer in almost a century. 
The farm-to-fork movement is about to meet 
farm-to-pint.
Drink up!

 

IIt’s 5:40 a.m. on Aug. 3 and the sun is still a good half hour from rising over the hundreds
of walnut trees that comprise the horizon to the east. A handful of twenty- and thirty-somethings, most of whom don’t know each other, are standing in a small group eagerly awaiting direction at the Sierra Orchards farm in Winters, a few miles west of Davis. Even in semidarkness, it’s just bright enough to deduce that it’s unlikely any of them have stepped foot on a farm before.

Some of them are here because they saw a Facebook post asking them to show up before dawn on this Friday and work in a dirt field on a soon-to-be blazing hot day for nothing more than the promise of coffee and doughnuts. Some are here because they say they want to be a part of something they believe in. Some are here because they say they want to be a part of history. One rode his bike here from South Sacramento, waking at 2:45 a.m. and leaving home at 3:15 a.m. for the two-hour pilgrimage on pitch-black country roads.

All of them are here because they love beer.

As they gather, a horn breaks the morning silence as a 1951 Chevy pickup rounds the corner. The back of the truck is outfitted with wood panels from which, improbably, beer tap handles are protruding. And on the top panel, stenciled in black paint, is the name that has brought this unlikely group of volunteer farmers together on this mid-summer’s morning: Ruhstaller.

The man honking is the one responsible for this morning’s gathering, even though he doesn’t know most of them either. Jan-Erik D. Paino, or J.E. as everyone calls him, is the proprietor of Ruhstaller Beer, a one-year-old Sacramento company named for Swiss immigrant Frank Ruhstaller, who ran Sacramento’s largest brewery (and one of America’s largest) one hundred years ago.

In the brief time that the modern incarnation of Ruhstaller has been in existence, it has become a cult favorite among a growing number of craft beer aficionados in Sacramento, in part because of its unique taste, in part because of its impassioned, civic-minded founder, but also because of its story. And it’s the story that has brought most of these volunteers, with only one day’s notice, here to this dusty field.A group of volunteers harvests hops in Winters at dawn on Aug. 3.  (Photo by Max Whittaker)

In short, Sacramento was once one of the country’s beer capitals, not just because of its abundance of local breweries, including the largest brewery west of the Rockies—the celebrated Buffalo Brewery that counted Frank Ruhstaller as an owner—but because the region’s climate, water and fertile soil produced the most, and some would suggest best, hops in the country.

We didn’t just make beer here; we grew it.

But that all ended in 1920 with Prohibition. Like in other cities, Sacramento’s breweries closed or limped along by producing nonalcoholic beverages. Many hop farmers turned to legal crops, while some continued to grow hops for European brewers. But Sacramento’s reputation as a beer capital faded into the history books. When Prohibition ended in 1933, a few hop farmers returned, but the very last one in California—the Signorotti Ranch in the eastern Sacramento County town of Sloughhouse—ceased large-scale commercial production in 1985.

Sacramento’s hop industry was all but dead.

Until today.

Through a series of unlikely events that involved some of the brightest minds in the worlds of beer and food and agriculture, the latest chapter of Ruhstaller’s story involves enlisting the help of these young urban beer lovers to harvest hops on this tiny three-quarters of an acre of land for perhaps the very first Sacramento beer made with local ingredients in generations, and perhaps in nearly a century.

“It’s an unbelievable opportunity,” says Damien Roberts, a student at Sacramento City College who lives in South Sacramento and rode his bike two hours in the dark to get here. “Seriously, I love Ruhstaller.”

And he’s not alone. At the East Sacramento foodie mecca, Corti Brothers grocery—an early champion of Paino’s efforts—Ruhstaller recently became its top-selling beer.

It’s this kind of enthusiasm that Paino’s beer is engendering in increasing numbers. And it’s also his own passion for producing an authentically local beer that will soon give Sacramento a taste of its own history. “This is what Sacramento did better than anyone,” Paino effuses.

So with the advice and aid of others, Paino is now taking the extremely ambitious, expensive and risky step of seeing if he can revive the once-thriving hop-growing industry in the Sacramento region, reclaiming part of our city’s celebrated past, while simultaneously building a business that capitalizes on both the national trend of sourcing local products, as well as the booming craft beer movement that is especially popular with the younger generation of beer drinkers.

His failure or success could end up having a larger impact on the city. The Sacramento region is in a unique geographical position to foster the growth of microbreweries using locally grown ingredients. And if that contributes to a more robust craft beer movement here, the benefits could extend beyond the ability for locals to get a good pint.

In August, the National League of Cities reported that “craft breweries are extremely desirable from an economic development standpoint” because they are growth-oriented exporters and they attract tourists. It also stated that they “help define a sense of place and local identity.”

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