The Quest to Find Sacramento’s Beer

This piece is an idea I’ve floated for more than a year – it took a mind of its own and became something of a commentary and critique of the brewing region I live in… Sacramento. It’s what I believe to be an honest look at our recent history, focusing on how we got where we are and what I see as challenges and opportunities for every involved. Its a snoozer of a piece, 3,000 words long. There’s nothing mind-blowing or damning here, just my own thoughts. If you’re in the area and have feedback on the piece, by all means let me know. I must say strongly, these are my own thoughts and observations and they do not represent any affiliation with any of my employers or organizations. So, if you don’t like it, yell at me directly – my email is Rick [at] PacificBrewNews [dot] com.

Where Did We Come From?

I’ve written before about the recent and not-so-recent Sacramento brewing history – it’s been full of ups and downs, amazing peaks and tragic valleys. While the trend right now in the area is focused on very small startups (nano-breweries) and excessively hopped IPAs (doubles and triples and whatnot), this isn’t where we came from. I won’t rehash the demise of some of our great breweries, but instead will look at the stalwarts of our region’s beer culture.

The iconic Rubicon Brewing Company opened its doors in 1987. At the time there was another brewery in town, Hogshead, which was known by the few passionate beer drinkers that lived here at the time for its shoddy quality of product. Hogshead was a massive disappointment, run by a man name Jim Schlueter that came to the region with a very good brewing background that included time at Schlitz (he also started River City Brewing, which was a short-lived venture in Sacramento and wholly unrelated to the current River City Brewing on K Street). Hogshead was Schlueter’s second brewery in Sacramento and he was known to say “I’d rather brew by tongue than by computer.”  Well, without getting into too much detail, the beers brewed at Hogshead simply weren’t cutting it for the locals. When a group of homebrewers (members of the influential home brew club, Gold Country Brewers Association) saw bright, shiny fermentation tanks being installed at the corner of Capitol Ave and 20th Street the news spread quick – an honest-to-goodness brewery was coming to town!

Headed by Ed Brown and Phil Moeller Rubicon opened with a splash. According to the Brewers Almanac there were 49 breweries in America in 1987 – 13 of which were dubbed “Specialty Breweries”. (Stepping one step back, the beer-drinking public was only five years removed from Grant’s Pub’s opening, which was the nation’s first brewpub since prohibition [meaning, you could drink and eat onsite] – these were the earliest days of modern American craft beer.) Shortly after opening Rubicon made its mark on the national craft beer scene – winning back-to-back gold medals for its IPA when the category was first introduced at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in 1989 and 1990. The little brewery on Capitol Ave. also assisted in the earliest production beers at Bear Republic and hosted many brewery interns that have gone on to have successful brewing careers of their own.

Today it’s easy to overlook Rubicon. While it’s still popular with the neighborhood crowd and is appreciated in out-of-town markets like San Diego and the Bay Area, the local beer community seems to have moved on in search for something fresher and hoppier – and that gets more discussion on Facebook, Twitter or a number of beer-related websites. More on the current state of Rubicon soon…

Shortly after Rubicon opened its doors Sudwerk Privatbrauerei Hubsch came on to the Sacramento scene with its brand of German-style lagers and wheat beers. Many things have changed since its opening in 1999, most notably the ownership – which is hard to diagram. The Davis location of the operation for years had a chummy relationship with the UC Davis brewing program, but  with the university’s opening of a pilot brewery on campus the relationship has changed slightly – although, there’s no doubt brewing students are finding their way to Sudwerk. Regardless, today Sudwerk has what I believe to be the most beautiful brewhouse in the region – but it’s a beast! They also make what I consider the best lagers in the region, overall (hard to beat Auburn Alehouse’s Gold Country Pilsner).

Not far from Rubicon today is Hoppy Brewing Company, which launched its first beer in 1994. The early beers were contract-brewed (not a dig, there’s a ton of great contract beer out there) and the earliest days of the brewing operation saw commercial success. Troy Paski, the founder and owner of Hoppy, eventually opened his own brewery in 1999, having survived a truly tumultuous period of crappy small batch beer produced by many around the nation that nearly sunk the entire industry. The Hoppy brand has seen modest success, but seems to have never captured the euphoric embrace of Rubicon.

1995 saw Sam Petersen open the first of two locations for Sacramento Brewing Company, a brewery that immediately made a splash on the beer scene. Peterson was a graduate of the American Brewers Guild and spent years in the hospitality industry – Sac Brew reflected this knowhow for years. Sam passed away in early 2007 and the company later traded hands. Without Petersen at the helm, and with the national economy spiraling out of control, Sacramento Brewing was forced to close its doors in late 2009 – but not before winning more awards and accolades than any other brewery in the area (including GABF and World Beer Cup honors).

Rounding out the 1990s in our local beer chapter was Beermann’s Beerwerks, which opened in 1999 and closed ten years later. Beermann’s was my first local brewery and much of my thoughts are skewed or biased by that fact. In its run, Beermann’s racked up a number of regional awards and appreciated modest successes locally – they were a staple for the tech community in Roseville for years (home to Hewlett Packard, Oracle, NEC and other high tech firms). Like many closures in this industry, the talent in the brewhouse moved on to discover new successes – most notably Brian Ford (Beermann’s founding brewer) who now owns the massively popular Auburn Alehouse. In 2014 another Beermann’s alum, Andy Klein, will open his own brewery in Roseville (Monk’s Cellar).

Before moving on to the next section, a quick word on the Gold Country Brewers Association, which was founded in 1982! In its hay-day the club won California home brew club of the year honors twice and has built a network of home brewing knowhow that is second-to-none. Through years of dysfunction and infighting, the club never realized its full potential to influence the region’s beer scene like we see in clubs like HAZE, DOZE or Maltose Falcons. There is still hope for the club, it has a healthy membership and some new blood. I mention this club because they, at one time, were great supporters and influencers of our local beer scene. In fact, Scott Cramlett (long-time brewmaster at Rubicon) was a young home brewer in the club when he was offered a gig at the brewery helping Phil out. The importance of our homebrew club cannot be overstated – seriously great talent here.

It would also be folly to not give a not to the enormous beer knowledge that rests between the ears of two regional heavyweights – Dr. Lewis at UC Davis at the Anheuser Busch Endowed Professor of Brewing Science, Charlie Bamforth. I’ve been told by most reliable sources that Dr. Lewis was around for the earliest days of our region’s craft beer boom – and I’ve seen him several times hosting national brewing legends. And of course, Charlie can be seen on TV and heard on the radio enjoying the fine beers created right here in the area – he’s a wonderful cheerleader for the region’s breweries.

All this is to say, we have a much more mature brewing scene than I believe we give ourselves credit for. We have the talent and knowhow that the vast majority of beer towns around the country don’t have – we’ve just never found a way to capitalize on that to fully become the beer city we ought to have been fifteen years ago.

Where We Are Now

Of the brewers mentioned above only one seems to be making moves in 2014 – Rubicon. With the opening of a large production facility in West Sacramento in 2013 they are poised to distribute to markets near and far. The brewery lacks focus in marketing and has avoided much change in the beers’ overall makeup. Where the market locally has moved to embrace more pale, light-bodied IPAs with an intense hop aroma, Rubicon has stuck to its guns in creating a clean, caramel-y sweet, medium-full bodied IPA that is sticky with hops in the finish. A great beer, no doubt, but seemingly dated by today’s standards. For the record, I am not suggesting any brewery chase trends – we see it far too often. Trends change. I love the perpetual focus on quality Rubicon has achieved. I would love to see Rubicon own their history and place in the California craft beer market in their PR campaigns and marketing materials – they have earned the right to be proud of their leadership in the industry. The other stuff, like pint glasses and whatnot, they’re just distractions to the overall quality and historical significance the brewery should be promoting.

Sudwerk today seems to be in a state of change, which is about ten years late if you ask me. The biggest change is in the branding, which has dropped the clumsy Sudwerk Privatbrauerei Hubsch name in favor of the friendlier Sudwerk Brewing Co. They are also coming out with some more hopped-up concoctions, trying to keep up with the Jones’. This is a major disappointment for me. The problem Sudwerk has experienced isn’t the beer, but the overall marketing and market presence (they don’t have one). I would love to see Sudwerk stick to their guns on the lagers and traditional beers, but hire an honest-to-goodness rep and create a name for itself the old-fashioned way (sorry, Facebook and Twitter are great for new brands, but lousy for rebranding purposes, I believe). Just like I would suggest to Rubicon, I believe Sudwerk can and should own their brand and their beer – it’s fantastic, refreshing, light and perfect for a hot summer’s day like we have in NorCal. Sure, create a snappy IPA that is dry and dripping with hops (their current version isn’t cutting it in the market), but let that not overshadow the beauty that is a well-crafted lager.

Where Rubicon and Sudwerk are in states of change, Hoppy seems stagnant. This is too bad, really, as there is no reason NOT to re-brand the dated labels and logos, along with that gawdawful website, while creating beers that will make a splash in the market. There is no doubt Hoppy’s got the talent – Ed’s been brewing for years and absolutely makes clean, easy-drinking beers. I wouldn’t worry about branding if the focus of Hoppy was solely selling drinks across the bar, but with a competent distributor like they have in Mussetter they could really blow it out to the water with a few substantial tweaks. Again, own the history and long-time presence in the area – tell your story in a concise, marketable fashion – or leave the telling to the new upstarts knocking on your door.

The New Generation

Where to begin? I’ve written before (here and in print) about the new guys in town over the past couple of years: Berryessa, Black Dragon, Bike Dog, Jackrabbit, Device, Roseville, Out of Bounds, New Helvetia, Mraz, Goat Hill, Knee Deep, Loomis Basin, Track 7, American River and even Auburn Alehouse. These represent the new wave of brewing in the region and each are clamoring to reach a thirsty audience – the same thirsty audience. Keep in mind we’re about to see Yolo Brewing, Twelve Rounds, Boneshaker and more open shop this year.

No doubting we will have a saturation issue in the region when it comes to beer shelves in bottle shops and grocery stores. This isn’t a bubble, but a paradigm shift. There is little doubt that our region can handle more community pubs that make and sell beer onsite, but the notion that every brewery in the area will have shelf space at the local bottle shop is a bit of a stretch. Yes, the standouts will always have room in the beer aisle, but the idea local bottle shop and bar owners buy just because it’s local is going to be challenged very soon.

Who’s doing it right? Clearly Knee Deep, Auburn Alehouse, Loomis Basin and Berryessa are the leaders of the pack right now. Track 7, American River and Mraz are making waves, too. The others are either too new to know, or just not making the grade at this time. Let’s explore a bit more.

For overall marketing and quality I think Auburn Alehouse is doing the best job right now. Yes, the beers are great, but what I really like is how focused they are in the packaging and marketing of the beer. Clean, easy to read, industrial looking labels adorn every bottle they have with names that for the most part play off the brewery’s historic nature. Brian Ford and crew are straight kicking ass.

Berryessa, for my money, is right behind Auburn in the way they have come to market. They don’t bottle beers, so labeling isn’t a factor, but the beers and passion they have are absolutely top-notch! Chris Miller, the brewmaster, has a serious love of hops and makes beer that is bold, brash and terrific. Bars around the region have embraced the hop-forward nature of the House IPA and Double Tap double IPA. The amber, saison and other beers in the stable never disappoint, either. And if you doubt the passion folks have for the brand, check out the brewery any given weekend. This place is killing it!

Knee Deep is clearly the brand beer geeks clamor for right now – the hopped up elixirs are just what the locals are looking for. That said, the branding is all over the place and the labels look clunky and unrefined; they haven’t really been able to put beer on tap locally (opting instead to build the bottle sales around the country until their new system comes online, which will happen very soon) and simply have too many beers in the Hoptologist vein. If you’re reading this I assume you’re a beer nerd and care little about branding and packaging (“it’s about the beer, man”). I hear ya. As far as the liquid goes, it’s great – phenomenal actually. A bit over the top in terms of ABV, but what isn’t these days? When your pale ale weighs in at 7%… yeah, they pack a punch. For the energy they put into the brewing and distribution, it would do them well to spend a few bucks on a marketing team to create consistent labels that look professional.

Loomis Basin seems to have taken a page from Brian Ford’s book in terms of labeling and branding – they’re clean, highlight the region’s agricultural past and are consistent. Add to that the overall quality of the beer and it’s easy to see this brewery doing well for years to come. The Gowan crew here will be in business for years to come if they can keep it up.

American River is the true rebel in the group, seemingly misunderstood by today’s hopped-up beer geek crowd. That said, I think David Mathis is situating his brewery in a way that reaches a much broader audience than you or I. Make no mistake, the American River beers are flawless. The Coloma Brown and Firebreak Red are among the best beers made in the entire region today and they’re finding homes in big name accounts like Buffalo Wild Wings for a reason – they’re balanced, full of flavor and oh-so-easy to drink while not being overly boozy or heavy. Their initial offering of the Sunrise IPA is perhaps the saddest failure I’ve seen around here for a while – and it wasn’t entirely Mathis’ fault. The IPA was of the “English” variety, which is an uphill battle in these parts, but was absolutely stunning! For my money, it was the best beer he made. But, with little education for the audience it was seen as inferior or underwhelming and was soon replaced with a traditional American IPA, SSB. While the American River brand may not “take off” in the uber-geeky corners of craft beer, it’s easy to see that the potential for overall growth is there for the places looking for craft beer that patrons can enjoy multiple glasses of without palate fatigue or concerning drunkenness.

On the Nano front, I can’t imagine a better story than Mraz. It’s difficult to lay out exactly what Mike Mraz did right in opening his little hole-in-the-wall brewery in El Dorado Hills, but his overhead is by far the smallest I’ve seen anywhere (with possible exceptions for Rapp or Seventh Sun in Florida). This shoe-string budget operation is putting out amazing beer and the plans for the future are brilliant. This is a beer geek’s joint, no doubt. The only issue they’ll have moving forward is the service, which can be clunky and green at times – it truly feels like a ma-n-pop place, for better or worse (Justin is a cool kid, easily distracted by friends and things going on around him, sometimes he forgets there are customers there looking for a bar experience, or guidance with the beer selection). When it comes to beer, however, this place is doing just fine. I look forward to seeing where Mike takes us in the years to come.

I have little doubt Out of Bounds can figure it out, they’re new and still learning their own system and audience, I’m sure. That said, as beautiful as the brewery is and as great as the service is, there is seemingly little motivation to push the beers out of the door. The addition of a sales rep and a well laid out plan for the area will benefit them greatly, especially as their beers improve. I’ve seen the labels, they’re tight and consistent. This place has real potential.

For the ‘most improved’ section in my made up awards I give you Track 7. Admit it, when they first opened there was initial fanfare and an underlying sense that the beers could be better. Well, fast forward two years and damn if they aren’t just that – better, all around! The Panic IPA right now is a darling of craft beer drinkers, for good reason. LERE, too. They’ve got a great logo they place prominently on all their products; they’re moving beer further away from home and the press they’re getting locally is fantastic. It means more to me to see a brewery improve itself than it does to see a brewer come out of the gate hitting home runs – and these guys have been building a better brand since the day they opened. Bravo. I can’t wait to see where they go in years to come.

Who Will Be Sacramento’s Brewery?

When Rhustaller first came to market they had stated aspirations of becoming “Sacramento’s Beer” and for a time I thought they had potential to realize that. Well, years later it seems the focus has all but disappeared. Sure, 1881 and Captain are great beers, but some time back proprietor JE Paino took his eye off the ball. The hop field project has taken on a mind of its own, which is not a good thing. The new beers are marginal at best. What has this cost the brand? Right now, actually, not much. JE still has the potential to reign in the beer production, focus on the flagship (which I believe is still 1881, right?) and let the other projects fade away. The hop fields are terrible, the beers they make are worse. Conceptually it doesn’t work – beer geeks look at the hops growing on the side of the freeway and wonder “do they taste like exhaust?” where casual beer drinkers have little understanding what they’re even looking at. JE has the connections, resources and knowhow to make the Rhustaller brand into something amazing – I hope he does.

No. For now Sacramento’s beer is still Rubicon IPA. Is it the best made in the area? No, probably not. For IPAs I’d grab the Gold Digger from Auburn Alehouse or House IPA from Berryessa, but these guys are still establishing their roots in the region – a region that is absolutely inundated with new beers and new brewery openings. As we move forward I think the local brewery that figures out quality of product, consistent marketing and a strategic plan for growth and distribution can call themselves Sacramento’s Beer – in five years it’ll be fun to see how far we’ve come.

Writer’s Note: I know I did not write about River City Brewing in the K Street Mall. It wasn’t initially on purpose, but by the time I noticed I chose to just let it roll. 

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