Edible Sacramento Spring 2012 : Page 36


Sacramento History Now Sold in Bottles

Amber K. Stott

Sacramento pint glasses overflow in a wave of new, local choices. One such micro-beer is being produced by Ruhstaller and brewed by Sacramento beer legend, Peter Hoey, former brew master at Sacramento Brewing Company. His Ruhstaller ales are as rich and fascinating in flavor as they are history.

I sat down with the well-educated, passionate Ruhstaller proprietor, J-E Paino, to talk about all things beer: its deep Sacramento history, the recent upswing in microbrew's popularity, what it's like working with Hoey, why some beer businesses make it while others don't, and the future outlook on craft brew.

You say Sacramento is the original West Coast brew town–and that the original Ruhstaller beer is even older than Anchor Steam! What's the general history of beer in Sacramento? And specifically, what's the story of Captain Ruhstaller, the namesake of your beer?

First I'll defend the date. If you look at when Anchor Steam was founded, it was 1896, and Ruhstaller was founded in 1881.

The general history of Sacramento: it's less history than what we were naturally good at. If you look at every town or individual, generally they end up becoming what they're naturally better at. If a football player is a naturally better passer than catcher, he turns into the quarterback. If a guy's seven foot tall, he's probably going to be a basketball player and not a baseball player. So we naturally trend towards those things we're really good at.

Sacramento trended to what it was naturally good at. It had the best source of water in Northern California, arguably all of California, in the American River. And it was clean.

Because the Sacramento and American River flooded every couple of years, it would place rich deposits on the river banks, which were unbelievable places for hops and barley to grow. So we had great water and the right climate for hops. Sacramento was the first place on the West Coast where hops grew. Where Sac State is all the way out to Sloughhouse was acre after acre of hops. And barley was a natural grain that just grew well here.

We had three of the four ingredients you need for beer. You still need one more thing to make beer. When the immigrants came to the United States, the Austrians, the Germans, and the Swiss, were naturally bringing the yeast with them.

So the fourth ingredient we had here because we were a German, Austrian, and Swiss colony. So we had people that had the yeast and the know-how to take barley, water, hops and yeast and mix them together and make world class beer.

That's only part of the story. The other part is distribution. We had an ability to make the product and then, very easily by the Sacramento River, take it out to the Pacific Ocean to ship up and down the coast. And then later on we had the train, and the train ended in Sacramento, so we had distribution both by water and by train. This gave us a natural advantage.

We naturally, not by any effort or any decision by the government or anybody else, we were naturally the beer capital of the West Coast. It's just who we were, the way we were born.

Sadly, the government killed the best thing going in Sacramento and replaced it with itself [during prohibition]. Most people's recollection of Sacramento is John Sutter, gold in the foothills, a lot of flooding, tomatoes, cows, the governor's mansion and now we're a government town. That's how the history of Sacramento has been written, and for whatever reason the fact that we were first and foremost a beer town has been kind of erased from history, sadly.

I stumbled upon the history when I was at UC Davis [earning an MBA]. I had some projects where I had to get to know Sacramento a little better. A guy named Andy Ekstrom introduced me to Midtown. A guy named Ed Carroll had written a book on the beer history, and that's where I learned all this.

A guy named Ruhstaller kept popping up everywhere. They gave him the name Captain for a couple of reasons. One, his position in the beer industry, but also he was the captain of the Hussars. They were a militia all over the world, but primarily from the Germanic countries. It started here around the Civil War. It was basically the National Guard. They weren't going to depend on federal government to protect the city; they were going to do it themselves.

So Ruhstaller had a position of respect in town, but also because of his profession. He had come here as a young boy, working in a brewery called City Brewery, and had worked his way up from delivery boy to foreman to end up buying into the brewery. And then he bought into a brewery called Buffalo Brewery, which was most likely named after Buffalo New York because a lot of Germans and Swiss, and even Ruhstaller, traveled through Buffalo on their journey west to California.

Ruhstaller was able to build, with a couple of others, Buffalo up to the largest brewery, not only in Sacramento, not only on the West Coast, but every state West of the Mississippi River. A lot of what we consider today beer towns had smaller breweries than we had in Sacramento.

Buffalo Brewery took up the three city blocks where the Sacramento Bee is. The Bee purchased that, tore the brewery down, and built up the newspaper.

After doing these two breweries, Ruhstaller started a third brewery that he named after himself: Ruhstaller. If you compare the Ruhstaller and how it was perceived in society–we don't know what it tasted like–it was the premium beer, whereas the other two were the Anheuser Busch-es of their day. His was the super high premium beer, the craft beer. Very small volumes. His flagship beer was called Gilt Edge, and the bottles… let me show it to you…

[J-E sets an old, rusty can in front of me with great pride, beaming].

This is the can, and this is one of the first beers that was ever in a can.

The can was so new that it actually had directions on how to open it. This was what Ruhstaller did with his Gilt Edge. He was way ahead of his time with quality and marketing. The idea of being in a can back then was unheard of.

That's how I stumbled upon Ruhstaller. What's also interesting is how I stumbled upon Sacramento.

By understanding him and having met some of his current family members, there is clearly a drive in this family. He went brewery to brewery traveling across the country. He could have settled at any of those breweries and been a foreman and run the whole place, but he never would have owned it, because by then, the East Coast had been around 150 years. But the West Coast was the wild frontier, and Sacramento was a place he could come to become somebody. He could live out his dream of owning his destiny. It wasn't a place that you had to "be" somebody already to go to.

That resonates to me, and I think it resonates to a lot of Saramentans, because Sacramento is still that kind of place. San Francisco, you have to be somebody to go there. You have to have the right resume, that kind of thing. L.A. is a little like that. But Sacramento is still a place you can go to become somebody. That's why Frank Ruhstaller came here.

[At this point in the interview, J-E pulls out a manila folder filled with images he's collected–old ads, old photos of Ruhstaller's legacy around the current city of Sacramento, buildings he once owned. It's clear that he's truly in love with this man, this history, this town.]

Are you originally from Sacramento?

This is primarily about Sacramento for me. I was born in San Francisco, grew up in Houston, Texas, and lived in Charlotte, North Carolina before coming here. I chose to come here, because I just see, apart from the beer, that Sacramento has so much potential here, so many gifts as a city.

I think if we play to our strengths, we could be a city that there is no equal. If we play to who we are naturally, everything we want to be as a city will happen. We want to be recognized, stand out from L.A. and San Francisco. We can do that and be more than just a government service town. We're the bread and food basket of the world–of the world! We have a world class university that people know about all over the world. If you're in the ag industry, you know about UC Davis.

That's why I'm here, because there's so much potential, and I want to be part of it somehow. The beer is one opportunity that just took off. It was a tailwind. There's even a bigger thing going on. You can see it when you go to the beer aisle. The beer aisle used to be primarily the big brewers, and it used to be 12 packs and six packs, and now it's less and less of the big guys, and more the 22 ounce bottles. It's starting to look like the wine aisle.

The craft beer scene in Sacramento is exploding with new opportunities like Sacramento Beer Week. Meanwhile, fine dining restaurants like Grange and Mulvaney's are taking their beer selection just as seriously as their wine selection. What are some of the qualities that make Sacramento a good town to support a beer like Ruhstaller?

I don't know if Sacramento has something that other cities don't have when it comes to that. What's happening is the drinker, the consumer, is doing what the wine drinker did 30 years ago. They finally realize that there's more to life than red, white and rose either from Itally or France. For beer, there's more to life than Bud, Miller, Coors, light or regular. That's what's happening. The beer drinker goes to a place like Mulvaney's and Grange and expects the beer menu to be just as sophisticated as the wine menu.

One of the beautiful things about the wine industry is the romantic side that the French brought us. They value variety and they're okay with the wine tasting different day by day and year by year, and they want it to, because that's part of the experience. The beer drinkers are looking for that same experience. They want beers that are different, that are better for some climates and some foods and some times of the year, and they want variation. They want to know who made the beer down to the brewer, where the ingredients come from and who the farmer is, and they want a three-dimensional experience. Not just in their taste buds, but they want an intellectual experience with the beer, too. They want to know the story and that there's more than just liquid in this bottle, but there's people, there's hand craft, there's a purpose for why this beer is what it is.

I think what's happening in Sacramento is happening a lot of places. We're probably a little bit behind other cities, because we're farmers. Farmers are like a battle ship. We're slow to turn, but when we turn, we turn. One thing that's so true about Sacramento is we're incredibly loyal. When a Sacramentan decides on something, they've committed to that, and so Sacramento is in the process of shifting its perspective on beer. Unlike L.A. or San Francisco, they'll shift on a dime and then shift again, Sacramentans don't do that. We're shifting once and we're not going back.

While craft beer seems to be growing more popular, we're also seeing some back sliding for local beer with the closures of Sacramento Brewing Company and Brew It Up. What do you think contributed to the downfall of these popular spots, and what makes you hopeful that the outcome will be different for Ruhstaller?

I think it's natural growing pains. There's what the consumer wants and what he or she is looking for, and then there's operating a business. Just because you have great beer doesn't mean your business is going to be good. Budweiser proved this because their beer is okay, and they've got a fabulous business. Whether you have a successful business or not, you have to have a successful product. But you also have to execute well.

In the natural evolution of anything, there are business models that we think work and sometimes they work and sometimes they don't. The business model of building a building and having a restaurant and a brew pub, that's a business model that will work sometimes but not all the time.

Brew It Up was a business model that was a brew pub. Sacramento Brewing Company was the same. Those are also restaurants, not just breweries. The reason they came about was because up until the late 80s the large guys, Bud, Coors and Miller, and the distributors, made it very difficult for little guys to survive. In order for them to achieve the economies of scale you need to operate profitably, they had to serve beer directly to the consumer. A guy or girl will only have one or two beers if they don't have food, but they'll have four or five beers if they have food. They had to serve food, and now all of a sudden, these brew masters who want to be in beer business but they're really in the restaurant business, and they're in a completely different business that they don't know anything about, and it's very different than the art of making beer.

That has changed. I think a lot more of these breweries are going to succeed, because the consumer is demanding a local, high quality beer, and the restaurants and grocery stores have shifted and are providing what the people want.

Twenty years ago, people didn't know what good beer was. Now they do, and they're demanding it. You see it in the numbers. The big guys, Bud, Coors and Miller are having negative growth, which is one or two, but at the scale that they're at, one or two is death. The little guys are growing at a huge clip, which is not sustainable. It's an anomaly, which will happen for a little while until we reach equilibrium. I don't know, it could be 10 years, I don't know.

It's a fundamental shift, and more and more the beer aisle is going to look like the wine aisle, and the beer consumer is going to be as intelligent as the wine consumer, and they want new experiences, and they want to be spoken with, not down to, and they want an interactive experience. They're not going to be swayed by fifty million dollar commercials on Super Bowl weekend. The consumer, especially in Sacramento and on the West Coast, is too sophisticated for that.

Local is the new green. I hear that Ruhstaller is as local as it gets, including your hops–which we typically think of as a Washington state product. Where do you source your ingredients, and why is this important to your beer?

We're trying to source everything as locally as possible. The closest hops grown commercially to Sacramento are in Lake County. When I say commercial, I don't mean half an acre in somebody's back yard, I mean a commercial operation where the quality is consistent, where they have product every year, where they have variety, where they can process it, and they can do it cost effectively.

We bought some hops from the Kuchinski Ranch, Marty and Claudia, in Lake County. That's what Hop Sac '11 was. It was a fresh hopped beer. The hops were picked and delivered to us that morning.

We give that beer a vintage because with fresh hops you cannot calibrate the alpha in the beer. With dry hops you can. Beer's supposed to be consistent year in year out, or batch after batch, so a brewer calibrates the alpha in the dry hops so he can make the beer the same. Fresh hops you can't.

So, fresh hops truly have a vintage. If you were a wine guy, you would say it expresses the terroir, or what the farmer did or didn't do, what the weather was like, the soil and the climate and those kinds of things. There will be a Hop Sac '12, but it will be completely different from Hop Sac '11, and we can't control it, and that's the beauty of it. And I think consumers are going to love it because they realize they've been given a gift. All we're doing is assembling the pieces and putting it a bottle or can or glass. And people get to appreciate what the farmer did, what the brewer did, what happened to those hops and how they're expressed.

Hops are now a commodity. There's a lot of farmers that want to grow hops, but the challenge is that it's difficult to do. If you own any land around Sacramento, you can grow grapes and it will cost less to put the grapes in and you'll get more money out than competing with the commodity guys in Washington State. That's consumer driven. The consumer knows the difference between a Napa Valley cab and a Central Valley cab and will pay more for a Napa cab, so a farmer will pull out whatever he's got and plant cab in Napa. But the consumer won't yet pay a premium for a Cali-hopped beer. Yet. So the farmer can't sell it for more here. Yet. It's coming.

Anybody that wants to grow hops, we'll sign a pre-plant contract so they can take that to a bank, borrow money, plant the hops, and we'll buy it from them. We see that as a partnership so they can focus on making the best hops they can, which is very difficult to do.

On the barley side–and the reason we call all our beers "California," like California red ale and a California black IPA is that the primary barley is from California. It's from the McGill Ranch up in the Klamath Basin, close to the Oregon border. They have almost a thousand acres up there.

The reason the ranch has to be up there is that the barley has to go out of California to get malted. There's no malting operation in California. This is the challenge of doing as much locally as possible, because the processing facilities have moved out of state because of environmental regulations. For malting, you take the barley, you pour hot water on it, dry it, repeat dry, repeat dry, over and over again. The water that's the runoff has stuff in it that California deems environmentally unsafe. There's no malting factories in California. And it requires lots of energy, and energy is expensive here.

All malt houses have moved out of state. The primary barley in our beers is from California, California Metcalf. It's a little harder to actually work with. Our brewer pushed back a little bit, because it's not as clean and it's harder to work with in the beer making process. It's a premium barley, and it does cost more. But it gives us not just the authenticity of California, but it is also in our opinion, a better taste. A lot of the taste profile of the Captain comes from that barley.

There's others too, trying to source locally, and that's critical to us. We want to put California in a bottle. We did the Hop Sac and I drank that against the Sierra Nevada harvest ale, and both are fresh hopped beers. Both are very good, but both are different. The difference is one had California hops and one had Washington State hops, and they had different flavor.

The California ones had a little more of California in it, a little more happiness, a little more pep in their step, a little more coolness. And the harvest ale had a little more Washington, a little more mellow, a little less vibrant, it wasn't as colorful. It was good, but different.

We want to, as best we can, to work outside of the brewery to find the best local ingredients we can and put that in a bottle. So far we've been pretty good, and we only want to do more of it.

Tell me about the three beers currently brewed through Ruhstaller. You've already mentioned the Hop Sac. What about the other two? Where are they being brewed?

1881 red ale. That was the first year that Captain Frank Ruhstaller had his brewery, so his first year is our first brew. 130 years apart. It's a California red ale, lightly hoped, good malt structure, nutty nose on it. Our goal was to make a session-able beer that would really compliment food; it would complement the weather and the climate of Sacramento. It would be a beer that Sacramentans could have every day and not grow tired of. It's sophisticated enough where it's interesting, but not overly sophisticated that it overwhelms you–it's not Arrogant Bastard. It's something that was a great sessional beer, and those are hard to do. It's a lot easier to throw a lot of hops in a bin and say let's make a super strong IPA. There's little art there. No balance. No sophistication. We tried to do a sophisticated beer that was appealing to a large group of people under lots of different conditions.

It will be in a bottle, 22 ounce, and we don't know what we'll do after that. We're only going to make 200 cases of it, and we'll see what people think and take it step by step.

I call that our foundation beer. It's our first beer.

The newest beer is the Captain. A Captain is strong, authoritative, a leader. Not from an arrogant perspective, but it's just a good solid beer that we can be proud of. It has the darkness and the nose of strength, but it also has the subtlety of leadership, it's not overbearing, not dictatorship, like a lot of beers that overrule. Instead it compliments. You can sit down and just sip on it. It has a floral nose on it, so we used aroma hops instead of bittering hops. It has more alcohol and more IBU's than the 1881, but not overly hopped or malted or alcohol. It still has that balance that we hope Sacramento can be proud of.

Where can we buy your beers?

Whole Foods in Folsom, Corti Brothers, Nugget, Taylor's, Pangea, Davis Beer Shop, Selland's Market, City Tavern in Davis.

Whole Foods came to us and said, "Have you thought about bottles?" Of course we had, but it wasn't in our business plan until 2015, but we said right away, because of the interest from people that had tried our beers at restaurants and wanted it every night. It was a lot of effort that went into that, and it was amazing we turned it around so fast. We wanted to do something that represented the quality of the beer on the inside on the outside. Our label is baked on.

We don't need to paint the bottle to get you to like it. We're confident in who we are, we're Sacramento, we're Ruhstaller, we're quality. We just are who we are. And that's a little bit what a Sacramentan is–we are who we are. We're a farmer, and if you don't like me, that 's fine. I'm just gonna drive my tractor and get my job done. I'm comfortable in my skin and who I am, and that's what our beer is, what our label is. We're just comfortable in our skin with who we are. We don't need to have funny names or scream and yell. We respect the past, but we're not stuck in the past.

Captain's between a porter and a pale ale.

Hop Sac we'll do again next year also.

That's the genius of Peter Hoey. He's able to steer a beer to places that don't exist.

We do have another couple beers in the works. We're trying not to do one-off beers that get everyone's attention and fizzle off, but beers that will stand the test of time, and people will want to drink them next year and the year after.

Who are the guys behind the pint glass? Who are your brewing partners, and how did your team come together?

Peter Hoey does all our recipes. I was at UCD and went to Charlie Bamforth, the dean of the school of fermentation science there, and I told him that making beer was beyond my capability. He told me I needed to meet Peter Hoey. I met with Peter, and we hit it off. He hasn't disappointed. His beers are balanced because he's balanced. He's an artist, but he understands the economics and the business, and he understands the science behind it, and he's able to make some truly amazing beers.

What's inside the bottle is Peter's masterpiece, and I'm honored that I get to hold those up and carry them around and talk about it. It's beyond what I could do, and beyond what a lot of people can do, and a lot of people have a respect for that. Charlie Bamforth says that making beer is infinitesimally harder than making wine. Wine involves about 1000 chemicals and beer twice that. Wine, you take a grape and squeeze it and let it ferment and two years later you have a product. Beer, you take a bunch of ingredients and mix them up at different temperatures at different times in different ways and ferment them, with a lot of different things to control, so a lot more moving parts, and a much more difficult process than making wines.

Peter, these are his masterpieces and I see myself as a steward of them.

I have a couple of investors who have been integral and supportive from a strategic perspective, and guiding the steps we make, and of course financially, freeing me up to take some of the steps we've made. Brewing beer first is hard, and then going to bottles and larger scale is difficult. They've been great helping me out with that.

Before you created Ruhstaller, what beers were you drinking?

My beer evolution was Coors Light, Red Stripe, came back to Northern California, had a pale ale, and then didn't go back. It wasn't the pale ale, it was just that at that point, a Bud or Coors or Miller just never appealed. Now I'm a beer snob. If a beer doesn't have a nose, if I can't smell it before I drink it, I'm not interested.

Do you always drink it out of a glass?

You know, now I do. Because I want to smell it. I want to see it. It has to have that head. My brother calls it snobbiness. I call it education, appreciation, expectation. You wouldn't question… a wine guy isn't supposed to drink out of the bottle and just chug it down, and so why should a beer guy if a beer is twice as hard to make? It's what the beer deserves. I'm still learning and try beers all the time.

It's what people love about beer. It's an endless experience. There's new places to go with beer that haven't been gone before, like with our Captain. I'd like to think we're the only ones, but we won't be the only ones. Others will do the same.

The advantage here in Sacramento is that we can be taller, bigger, and people will come to Sacramento expecting a higher beer experience, and that will only benefit all of us. I may educate someone about beer, and that person may go to Davis and go to Sudwerk's for the first time, or another restaurant and instead of going to Bud, they'll go to the craft beer.

It's about education at this point. The people that are afraid are Bud, Miller and Coors. And they oughtta be, because the consumer is always right, and the consumer is demanding quality.

Do you see anything in the craft beer movement that's tied to age?

This is what I've heard others say, and I have to repeat what they said. The younger generation grew up going to a coffee shop where they had 25 different options of beans for coffee. Their parents grew up with Folgers. The younger generation is expecting the same thing with beer.

We're not at the places where they sell a lot of beer. We're at places, like Mulvaney's.

The consumer is looking for something different, and yes, I think it's trending young. Especially in Sacramento, there are people who've gone to Europe and had a Belgium beer and they've been expecting it. They've been going to Mulvanye's and Ten22 and Roxy's and they want a high quality beer. They want a beer that makes their food experience better. Just being cold and wet isn't' good enough anymore.

When I bring home a bottle of 1881, what do you suggest I pair it with for dinner?

I'm going to let you decide that. You're the food writer. I love it with a peanut butter cookie at Magpie, but I don't know if anybody else would. I think what I would say is let's all find out together. There's no rules here. It's not white wine and fish. This is a different beer. It's not like every other red ale. Your palate, your nose, how your day went that day was different. Sometimes you need a Captain, sometimes you need an 1881, and sometimes you need a Pliny the Elder.

Beer fits in as a part of a bigger picture in life and now it's starting to hold its own weight, adding value rather than just alcohol, now it's adding taste, complexity. You don't chug this, you sip this. It goes with life. I'm not trying to be stupid, it really does fit in better with who we are. That's why people want it.

For the record, I recently paired my 1881 with roasted garlic potato soup.

Amber K. Stott drinks craft beers, writes, and grows her own groceries in Sacramento, California. She is co-founder of the nonprofit California Food Literacy Center, whose mission is to inspire change today for a healthy, sustainable tomorrow through enduring community food education. She blogs about living la vida locavore at Awake at the Whisk, a lifestyle guide about food that's good for you and good for the planet.

we naturally, not by any effort or any decision by the government or anybody else, we were naturally the capital of the west coast. it's just who we were, the way we were born.

the younger generation grew up going to a coffee shop where they had 25 different options of beans for coffee. their parents grew up with folgers. the younger generation is expecting the same thing with beer.

Read the full article at http://onlinedigeditions.com/article/Sacramento+History+Now+Sold+in+Bottles/1040535/108037/article.html.

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