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And so, on the morning of Aug. 2, Paino quickly posted to his Facebook and Twitter followers: “All hands on deck! Hop harvest will be at 5:30 a.m. tomorrow morning. Be prepared for sun—wear long sleeves, a hat and work shoes.”
Later that day, Paino made his way to the cluttered upstairs office of Darrell Corti again and told him that he was harvesting the hops that Corti suggested he grow the next morning. Corti immediately peppered Paino with questions on how he would prepare the hops for brewing.
As one of the world’s most knowledgeable and influential voices on wine, Corti said something that might be shocking to some. “As fascinating as wine is, beer is more fascinating because it has even more simple ingredients,” he said. “They’re both interesting products, but consider the fact that one is a fruit-driven product and the other is a grain-driven product. It takes a lot more ingenuity to make a beverage out of a dry grain then a wet fruit.”
Then Corti left Paino with some last-minute advice. “The hops are thorny and they’re very sticky. And I don’t know if you know, the oil, it’s very abrasive. So bring gloves.”
It’s 5:40 a.m. on Aug. 3 and J.E. Paino has just pulled up to the smaller-than-originally-planned group of volunteers. Paino and Sean McNamara know that with the sun about to come up, there is no time to waste.
McNamara gathers the team at the base of the first row and gives them a quick lesson in picking hops. He pulls one of the hops off the vine and holds it in his open hand. The hop cones look like tiny green pinecones.
“If you crunch them and they plump back up to size, they’re ready,” he tells the group. “See that yellow stuff inside? If you can smell it, they’re ready for us.” The bright yellow stuff he’s referring to is lupulin, which contains the oils and acids that give the beer its bitterness and some of its flavor. He passes around the hop cones for everyone to smell. Paino and McNamara then hand out burlap and old orange-picking bags and harnesses for the volunteers to wear to help carry the bags’ weight.
To set the mood, McNamara wants to blast music out across the field and, as luck would have it, his father had purchased his very first generator the day before, so Sean cranked up the volume on Yo-Yo Ma’s new album, Goat Rodeo Sessions, a mixture of classical and bluegrass that proves the perfect soundtrack for this moment.
With the smiling pickers casting long shadows on the ground as the sun starts to peek over the walnut trees in the distance, the banjo and fiddle mimic the energy and excitement of a predawn morning on a farm, while Ma’s soaring cello adds an anthemic quality that echoes the sense that everyone here feels, like they’re playing a small part in the agricultural history of this region.
“This is the culmination of years,” says Paino, shaking his head in disbelief as he reaches up and picks a cone off the vines, slowly filling his bag. “All that work. And the fact that these people are here. Some are good friends; some I don’t even know. People have owned it.”
Soon after, these hops, along with those from Utterback’s property, were brewed and bottled locally at the American River Brewing Company in Rancho Cordova. And by Oct. 1, this limited-edition release will be available in only a handful of locations, like Corti Brothers, Taylors Market, Pangaea and at the nine-store local chain Nugget Markets, based in Woodland, which has purchased the lion’s share of the release.
One of Painos’ strategies is to give independent markets and smaller grocery chains some measure of exclusivity. That kind of allegiance, like the one he’s creating with farmers, is what he hopes will help Ruhstaller stand out in a crowded marketplace.
Paino figures that by the end of October, all of Hop Sac 2012 will be gone. Sacramento’s first beer made with local hops in perhaps a century will be a thing of the past.
But from the looks of things, it will really be just the beginning. Already, Sean McNamara has decided to expand to five full acres of hop fields. And Dave Utterback, in response to Paino’s enthusiasm and willingness to purchase all of his hops, too, now hopes to try one or two acres himself. Both McNamara and Utterback say they can see a path to growing even more in coming years if Paino and other local brewers prove there’s a market for locally grown hops.
If demand grows, supply will, too, and Sacramento could be well on its way to reclaiming some small part of its agricultural and brewing history at a time when locally sourced foods and craft beers are speeding into vogue.
Paino seems determined to continue doing his part. Thanks to a partnership with West Sacramento food distributor Tony’s Fine Foods, one third of all Ruhstaller sales now come from outside of Sacramento, from as far south as San Diego and as far north as Redding. Paino also plans to ramp up from the three beers he has now, to four or five next year, including a “Gilt-Edge Lager” based on an actual recipe that Frank Ruhstaller used.
And at some point down the road, Paino hopes to have a physical space, a tasting room of some kind, perhaps downtown or perhaps even on a hop farm, much in the same way that wine tasting rooms sit in the middle of vineyards. And that’s where his position with Rubicon Partners will come in handy. The firm that developed the Citizen Hotel and proposed the Boqueria project has proven itself to be a champion of Sacramento’s historical character and identity. “
I don’t think Kipp anticipated the sense of pride in Sacramento for our roots and what’s authentically ours,” says Paino, referring to the Citizen Hotel. “The Citizen was about Sacramento and the menu at Grange is about Sacramento. It’s an old space, but it’s rough and has texture, and is authentic and unique. To have a facility like that for Ruhstaller, where you could walk in and see and experience the three-dimensional aspect of what Ruhstaller is—and who he was—and what it means to Sacramento, could be told powerfully in a space similar to that.”
And while a tasting room would be a great marketing tool and a powerful way to more fully express the beer’s history and sense of place, Paino knows the beer itself still has some growing to do, and he takes both the family’s name and his responsibility to Sacramento’s brewing heritage very seriously. He knows that’s where his success truly lies.
“On the bottle, under Ruhstaller, we say that it’s Sacramento’s beer,” says Paino. “And it was. And we want to earn that back. How do you define that? I think the biggest thing is when people take it out and they say, ‘Try my beer. Try the beer of Sacramento, the beer of the valley, the beer of the farm, the beer that really defines who we are as a community. It’s proud of its heritage, but it’s also looking to do its own thing today.’ And I feel like that’s success.”