Sacramento’s craft brew scene returns the city to its roots as a premier destination for quality beer
Rick Sellers takes a healthy swig of Goldfinger, a pale ale crafted by Rubicon Brewing Company, and a smile stretches across his face.
“I love this beer,” he declares.
It’s a Monday afternoon, and the brewery’s patio on Capitol and 20th streets is busy yet relaxing. Most patrons are drinking pints of their favorites—IPA, Monkey Knife Fight Pale Ale or Goldfinger—which seem to add warmth to their bellies on this mildly breezy, chilly summer day.
It is no problem getting Sellers to talk about beer. The co-owner of Sacramento’s Odonata Beer Company started his career as many brewers do, concocting beer in a house with a home brewing kit.
“I started out as a home-brewer,” he recalls. “I made my first batch of beer eight years ago, and it was just in a friend’s garage. It didn’t turn out very good, but it was drinkable; and that’s all I ever wanted in life was to make something that was drinkable.”
Eventually, Sellers started a beer-related blog and podcast, which led to freelancing as a beer writer and finally becoming the beer director for Draft Magazine.
“I told my wife when I got my job at the magazine, I promised her I would never open a brewery,” Sellers laughs. Yet, after years of writing stories about brewers and their passion for making beer, he caught the bug.
In October 2009, Sellers, along with former Sacramento Brewing Company brewmaster Peter Hoey, started Odonata Beer Company. By June 2010, they released their flagship beer, Saison—a Belgian-style ale, which has quickly developed a following.
Sellers says one woman recently climbed to the top of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park toting a 22-ounce bottle of Saison, just to take a photo of it at the top of the mountain.
“The people that love craft beer in the city are truly die-hard about their beer. … The level of support by a small group of people is just tremendous,” Sellers says.
And the number of supporters is on the rise.
“The whole microbrewery scene and craft-brewing scene has definitely grown,” explains Dan Scott, executive director for Sacramento Beer Week. “It’s a legitimate subculture now. There are people around the world that one of their main hobbies is traveling around and finding beer around the world, and Sacramento’s one of their stops.”
The inaugural Sacramento Beer Week featured more than 200 events last February, adding to the plethora of beer-related festivals that occur in the Sacramento area every year, including Raley Field Brewfest, West Coast Brew Fest, California Brewers Festival and the California State Fair Brewfest.
“A city our size, that’s a lot of beerfests. That really is,” Sellers says.
This appreciation for beer is not a new phenomenon for the Sacramento Valley. In fact, beginning in the mid-1800s, beer became a major staple for agriculture, business and culture in the Sacramento region.
At its peak in the 1860s, Sacramento boasted probably 12 to 14 breweries, says Ed Carroll, a California State historian who also wrote Sacramento’s Breweries, a history of breweries from the gold-rush era through Prohibition.
Carroll says the abundance of breweries was a result of the influx of immigrants, mostly Germans, whose culture included a long history of brewing beer. So they built the Sacramento Turn Verein and started making beer. Even today, the Turn Verein hosts numerous celebrations, such as Oktoberfest and Bockbierfest.
Sacramento also became one of the largest hop-growing regions in the world. “By 1890, we had pretty much taken over from New York, which used to be the hub,” Carroll says.
Eventually, the industrial revolution took hold of the beer industry, forcing many small breweries to pull their money together to support Buffalo Brewing, which became the biggest and eventually last brewery standing before Prohibition. Carroll says the industrialization of the beer-making process, the proliferation of major beer corporations and, ultimately, Prohibition killed off much of the craft-beer industry in Sacramento.
However, by the 1980s, craft brews were making a comeback with the help of businesses such as Rubicon Brewing Company.
“[Rubicon] is the oldest brewpub in Sacramento,” Sellers explains. “It’s shooting on 23 years right now.”
He adds that when the Great American Beer Festival, a national competition, introduced the IPA style of beer in 1989, Rubicon won gold medals the first two years. “Before America knew what an IPA was, these guys were making it,” Sellers says.
Today, the brew scene in Sacramento has never been stronger, particularly in the home-brew arena, where Sellers says there are now three home-brew shops and several home-brew clubs in the region. This includes one of the oldest home-brew clubs in the country, the Gold Country Brewers Association, which regularly hosts classes and meet-ups for small-scale brewmasters.
Sacramento also is home to numerous beer judges, which Sellers says is the key reason Sacramento hosts so many beer festivals. “We have more active beer judges than most cities in the country. And we have some of the top-level judges in the world in [this] city,” he says.
With all these breweries and home-brewers working to craft the best beers, it would seem there would be intense competition. But that’s not the case; there is nothing but collaboration, Sellers says.
In fact, Odonata makes its draft beers at Hoppy Brewing Company’s facilities, and Rubicon was the first to sell the new brewery’s Saison on tap.
This network of beer lovers also led to the birth of Sacramento Beer Week. One evening, six Sacramento-area brewers and distributors gathered around a table at Rubicon and decided to create an event to celebrate Sacramento beer, Sellers narrates.
More than hosting events focused on a small group of brew aficionados, both Sellers and Scott explain that Beer Week was established to educate Sacramento—about local businesses, local beer and an emerging local culture.
“The great thing about [Sacramento Beer Week] is it really exposed a lot of people to things they’ve never tasted before. And it introduced a lot of people to bars and restaurants and breweries that they’ve never been to before,” Scott explains.
Sellers says more Sacramento restaurants are showing interest in next year’s Beer Week, which he expects will double in the number of events offered.
“The more the city comes together just to celebrate beer, the better it is,” Sellers says.
From those days in his friend’s garage to his recent success as a brewery co-owner, Sellers’ personal celebration of beer has undoubtedly enhanced the Sacramento brew scene. Yet he is just one of many in the Sacramento area that are collaborating to bring tasty, craft beer to the masses.
After Sellers empties his pint of Goldfinger, he lifts his nose a bit higher in the air. He can smell Rubicon’s brewer at work, brewing a new batch of beer. So he excuses himself and disappears inside to say hi to a friend.