Déjà Brew

(page 5 of 8)

A grocer’s challenge

Thanks largely to Prohibition, commercial hop farms in California were a thing of the past. Or so Paino thought. But in mid-2011, around the time he was getting ready to release his first batch of 1881, he discovered what proved to be the only commercial hop farm in California—Hops-Meister Farms in Lake County, 100 miles from downtown Sacramento. A relatively new hop yard, the Kuchinski family that owns it harvested its first crop in 2007 and now has about 30 acres of organic hops—tiny by commercial hop-growing standards—and sells mostly to California microbrewers like Ruhstaller, San Francisco’s Almanac Beer, the Marin Brewing Company and San Francisco’s Thirsty Bear Brewery.

Ruhstaller uses recycled farm equipment parts for its tap pulls  (Photo by Ryan Donahue)

For Paino, it was like discovering gold all over again. With the combination of Northern California hops and barley, he believes Ruhstaller sources the highest percent of its ingredients from California—about 94 percent—of any beer in the state. “I don’t think any other brewery could come close to saying that,” he says.

“With the Kuchinskis, you know where the hops come from,” he says excitedly. “It’s a 2,000-foot elevation on volcanic soil with hot summer nights, and they even have a German shepherd named Max that couldn’t have helped but fertilize those hops. We know who [the hops’] parents are. We know what kind of conditions these guys grew up in.”

And so with these California hops, Paino released his second beer, the limited Hop Sac 2011, in August. Despite the much closer proximity, the Kuchinski hops cost twice as much as the “orphan hops” from the Northwest, but the taste and the fact that they were California grown made them irresistible to Paino.

To emphasize the connection to California-grown family farmers, Paino even put their name on the bottles of second batch of 1881, and listed the varietals of the hops—Cascade, Chinook and Columbus. Martin Kuchinski was humbled but thought Paino should list the company’s name, Hops-Meister.

But Paino wanted their names on there. He wanted his customers to know these hops come from real people, not mass-market brokers. But Paino soon found out that names on a bottle wasn’t enough, at least not in some very important eyes.

In January, Paino stopped by Corti Brothers and store manager Rick Mindermann insisted he go upstairs to meet Darrell Corti, whose knowledge about all things food and drink is, in the opinions of some of the world’s experts on food, like Gourmet magazine’s former editor Ruth Reichl, unsurpassed.

At first Paino demurred, a bit nervous he admits now. “No, no, that’s OK,” he told Mindermann. But Mindermann insisted and accompanied Paino through the back door near the butcher’s station, through the hallway covered with awards, old photos and newspaper clippings and up the narrow stairway to meet Corti in his office that was littered with books, magazines and assorted culinary ephemera. They visited for nearly 90 minutes, with Paino taking extensive notes. But there was one thing that Corti said that floored Paino and stood out above everything else.

“He threw down the gauntlet,” Paino recalls. “He said, ‘OK, you’ve got the names Ruhstaller and Sacramento on the bottle, but until you’re using local hops, you don’t deserve those.’ ”

But Paino had done his research and knew that no one in the Sacramento region was growing hops any more. In fact, he had been thrilled to find the Kuchinski hop farm only 100 miles away. He was already proud that he was making one of the most authentically California beers in the state. Then Corti looked Paino directly in his eyes and said, “J.E, you need to do this. You haven’t done Sacramento justice until you start growing hops here.”

“Who do I call?” Paino asked.

“I will help you,” said Corti.

The Pursuit of Hoppiness

Corti suggested that Paino contact Virginia Signorotti, whose late husband George was the man who ran California’s very last large-scale hops operation in Sloughhouse until 1985. The Signorotti family had grown hops on this land bordering the Consumnes River off Highway 16 since George’s father Avelino Signorotti began farming the crop there around 1930, in anticipation of Prohibition’s repeal in 1933, says Virginia.

The property has been divided since George’s death, but the rickety old wooden buildings where the hops were dried and packaged, and which date back to the early 1900s, still stand as the last remnants of this region’s national dominance in the hops industry. Inside one of the buildings, the name of the ranch is stenciled in black letters on a wall; it’s the same stenciling style that George Signorotti used on all the 200-lb. bags of hops that would end up in breweries all across the country.

And so, if you look at a bottle of Ruhstaller today, you’ll know where it got its design sensibility. Every bottle, every keg, and even the 1951 truck are stenciled in the signature Signorotti style, and wrapped in burlap just like a bag of hops. So not only is Paino paying tribute to Sacramento’s legendary brewer, Frank Ruhstaller, but he’s also acknowledging the contribution of one of the state’s last commercial hop growers, George Signorotti.

For over 50 years, the Signorotti family sold hops to brokers who sold them all over the world until 1985, when George shut down 115 of his 125 acres as the hop industry in the Northwest began to dominate.

The only hops he continued to grow were on a small 10-acre field and he grew them exclusively for a man whose name is legend among craft brewers today: Fritz Maytag. Maytag was the great-grandson of the founder of the Maytag appliance empire, and he owned San Francisco’s revered Anchor Brewing Company for decades, saving the company from ruin and building its reputation. As such, Fritz Maytag is widely considered to be the father of the American craft brewing movement. And from 1986 to 2004, he had the exclusive contract to buy the only hops still grown in California—the Signorotti hops.