Déjà Brew

(page 6 of 8)

In Paino’s conversation with Virginia Signorotti, she suggested he speak with Dave Utterback, a sod farmer across the street that had purchased a portion of the Signorotti Ranch after George died. Paino drove out to Sloughhouse to meet with Utterback and discovered a buried treasure in the farmer’s backyard. Utterback had saved some of the original Signorotti hop rootstock—rootstock (or rizome in hops parlance) is the unique root of a plant from which crops are planted each season—and had grown and maintained a tiny patch of hops, primarily out of respect to Virginia and as a tactile reminder of what this land once represented.

Perhaps even more valuable was that Utterback helped grow hops on the Signorotti Ranch when he was younger and had the institutional knowledge about how to grow hops in this region. But at the time, Utterback didn’t express an interest in growing hops for Paino.J.E. Paino and Sean McNamara in front of Ruhstaller’s 1951 truck that Paino uses as a mobile tap for events. (Photo by Max Whittaker)

So the search for a local hop grower continued.

As it happened, at the Winters-based Center for Land-Based Learning, a group that provides hands-on experience for the next generation of farmers, holds quarterly dinners featuring local chefs and food from the surrounding farms. It’s about as close to farm-to-table as you can get. The center was founded in 2001 by Craig McNamara, a lifelong farmer and the president of the California State Board of Food and Agriculture.

He’s also the son of Robert McNamara, the onetime president of Ford Motor Company and the World Bank, but who is best known as the United States Secretary of Defense who served under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson from 1961 to 1968 during the Vietnam War. Here on the farm, Craig is about as far from his father’s world of politics and war as one can get.

For the Center’s dinner on Feb. 26 this year, the two featured chefs were Patrick Mulvaney and Grange’s Oliver Ridgeway, both proponents of locally sourced food, and also both customers of Ruhstaller. And so Mary Kimball, executive director of the Center, invited Paino to serve his beer at the dinner, which he readily agreed to.

These dinners, which at $100 per plate act as fundraisers for the Center’s youth education programs, also attract the farmers who grow many of the foods that are featured. After the dinner, Kimball invited Paino to stand up and speak to the crowd, and with an event filled with farmers, he knew he had the right audience to float Corti’s idea of growing local hops. Right after he spoke, about a half-dozen farmers approached him, asking questions and expressing interest.

One of them was 24-year-old Sean McNamara, Craig’s son. A native of Winters who graduated from Georgetown University a few years ago, Sean has been largely working in construction since graduating, building homes for both private builders and for Habitat for Humanity. He also operates a small olive oil business. Paino and McNamara only chatted for a few minutes, but McNamara didn’t even need that much time.

“My decision to grow hops came about 20 seconds after meeting J.E.,” says McNamara. “I trusted him instantly because of his passion. It also just fits my personality perfectly—it was a challenge; it was innovative. And it contributes to a product that I love—great beer. I knew I was the guy.”

But he didn’t tell Paino. At least not yet.

On top of a full-time construction job, McNamara spent a week doing research and seeking advice first. Even though he’d grown up on a farm, he wasn’t a full-time farmer. He had also once heard the founder of Sierra Nevada, Ken Grossman, speak at UC Davis and he had warned against growing hops (Sierra Nevada has a small, private, eight-acre hop yard where they grow hops for its annual Estate brew). Others had warned about the particular difficulties of growing hops as well. But his father, while counseling him to devise a detailed business plan and start small, was encouraging.

Craig, who studied to be a soil scientist, knew better than most that this land would give Sean a leg up. “The resources here are unique in the world,” Craig says. “We’re one of five Mediterranean climates on the planet. Historically, as Putah Creek flooded, it would bring all your best soils, your loamy soils right here.” Loamy soils are ones that are a mixture of sand, silt and clay and thus are particularly rich in nutrients and retain moisture well, but also drain to allow air to reach the roots. “We’re on something here called the Dixon Ridge,” he explains. “When a creek or river floods, the loam particles fall out first and so this is the richest soil, the deepest soil. This is about 40 to 50 feet of top soil.”

Confident and eager, Sean called Paino about a week after the Center’s fundraiser and asked to meet with him. They met for dinner at Grange in early March and McNamara showed up with a three-inch-thick binder filled with research that he had pulled together. Paino recalls that McNamara was excited, but he also came with a dose of reality. In researching hops, McNamara learned that hops are always harvested in August, which means they need to be planted no later than early April. And because hops would require an elaborate setup with 18-foot-high wooden trellises, wires, string, and irrigation systems, significant prep time was required before planting.

“If we’re going to do this,” McNamara told him. “We’ve got to do it now.”