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In some ways, J.E. Paino isn’t the most obvious of candidates to take on this challenge. Born in San Francisco in 1972, he was an architecture major at Princeton who gave up a career in architecture three weeks after graduation and spent years in the construction industry before landing at UC Davis in 2007 at the age of 35 to begin studies for his MBA in real estate and finance. Graduating in 2009, he was recruited by Sacramento real estate developers Rubicon Partners (no relation to Rubicon Brewery), which most notably developed the Citizen Hotel project downtown. The focus of his new job was supposed to be on real estate.
In other ways, though, it almost seems like Paino was born for the beer business. On a recent trip to his native Potrero Hill neighborhood in San Francisco, he discovered for the first time that the very first house his parents brought him home to as a newborn from the hospital now looks directly down onto the plant for the Anchor Brewery Company, makers of the highly respected Anchor Steam beer.
As he got older, he also learned that his Italian great-uncle was a winemaker. By the time he was in college, his parents started some vineyards, and soon he was harvesting grapes, but also working for Sonoma wineries like Benziger and Ravenswood. He had the rare opportunity to learn the winemaking trade from both the farmer’s and the vintner’s perspective—experience that would soon come in handy.
He also had the unique chance to spend much of 2000 helping rebuild Robert and Margrit Mondavi’s roof in Napa, which gave him an unexpected vantage point when Robert would take his daily swim in the buff. “He would go for a swim every morning,” says Paino. “I’d have my tool belt on and there was Mr. Robert Mondavi, 86 years old, still in good shape. You could see him in all his glory.”
The beverage business popped up again at UC Davis, where one of Paino’s school projects was to develop a way to make mixed drinks portable. Another project involved midtown real estate and historic buildings. “To understand Sacramento, I had to understand our history,” he explains. “So I went to the library and got all the books I could on our history.”
Still relatively new to the area, Paino learned about John Sutter and gold and our state government, but he also learned about the rich soil that was so conducive to farming, the water from the Sierras that was naturally filtered as it came down from the mountains, how the Sacramento River fed the crops, and how the city from its earliest days was a transportation hub thanks to the rivers and the Transcontinental Railroad.
But the pieces wouldn’t connect until his boss, co-founder of Rubicon Partners Kipp Blewett, saw an exhibit in Old Sacramento about the history of beer. Blewett, who has an affinity for historic buildings, had long been aware of the 1898 Ruhstaller Building at 9th and J, just down the block from the 1925 building that houses the Citizen Hotel, and he was wondering if there could be some way to connect the dots between the building and Frank Ruhstaller, to create a narrative that made sense for the building. A Ruhstaller-themed restaurant, perhaps.
In fact, in Blewett’s Citizen Hotel—created in partnership with San Francisco’s Joie de Vivre hotel group—its restaurant, Grange, was designed to focus on the budding farm-to-table movement, with most of its food coming from within 100 miles of the restaurant.
So Blewett asked Paino to begin researching the Ruhstaller story between various other projects, one of which included Rubicon’s proposal for a massive indoor-outdoor public market on K Street called the Boqueria that was intended to celebrate the region’s place as a leader in agriculture. Ultimately the City Council rejected the proposal in favor of another project, but it was another opportunity for Paino to immerse himself in the connection between the city and its surrounding agricultural heritage.
In 2010, Paino, whose budding passion for local history landed him a seat on the board of the Center for Sacramento History, was given a copy of a then-new book called Sacramento Breweries by Ed Carroll, a local historian. The book details the birth, rise and fall of Sacramento’s breweries, as well as Frank Ruhstaller’s ascendancy to being the city’s top brewer.
After much research, Paino suggested to Blewett that creating a beer that honored Sacramento’s king of brewers could fill an important niche and, yes, perhaps even have some real estate opportunities (a tap room, a restaurant?) down the road if things went well. “I looked at it as an opportunity for rebranding Sacramento and really getting into touch with what we authentically are,” says Blewett.
Blewett and his Rubicon partner Peter Thompson decided to fund the venture, with Paino as a minority owner who, while still employed at Rubicon, would grow to spend nearly all his time on the nascent company.
The goal from the outset would be to create a beer using as many California ingredients as possible. While there are already a handful of successful local breweries in Sacramento, Paino wanted to take the next step and blend the local history with the local ingredients.
“I think we saw that there was a need for a local beer that really embodies all of Sacramento,” Paino says. “And in the void, we’ve adopted [Chico’s beer brand] Sierra Nevada. Ironically, Sierra Nevada has more taps in Sacramento then any other beer. So there’s clearly a yearning for something local, authentic and craft.”