California’s top craft brewers to converge on Sacramento during annual beer summit
California’s annual craft beer industry summit arrives in Sacramento, complete with small success stories—and big challenges
One of the more remarkable aspects of the craft-beer craze is the brew-guzzler’s tireless dedication to hunting down hoppy treasures. We live in this age of stream-it-now TV and get-in-mah-belly dinner delivery, yet some beer fans dedicate hours venturing to places like the far-flung reaches of Rancho Cordova for a fix.
For instance, family-operated Claimstake Brewing Co. sits tucked away in a 5,000-square-foot facility on a side street in a Rancho neighborhood otherwise dominated by pick-and-pull auto-part hawkers and nondescript warehouses. It’s out there. But on Wednesdays, when Claimstake releases special canned hoppy beers, co-owner and head brewer Brian Palmer told SN&R, they’ll sell out several dozen cases “pretty damn fast.”
In fact, Palmer says that he and his father-in-law, owner Mike Ryan, can hardly keep up with demand. “I just never imagined that we would be running out of beer,” he explained—and they don’t even sell beer in the supermarkets.
But while these smaller community breweries flourish, other more veteran Sacramento establishments struggle—or are closing shop. For instance, beer drinkers can’t stop talking about the closure of venerable Rubicon Brewing Co., which operated a brewpub in Midtown for decades.
The industry will unpack these issues and more during next month’s third annual California Craft Beer Summit, when a majority of the state’s estimated 750 breweries will converge on downtown’s convention center for three days of guest lecturers and generous imbibing. The gathering culminates with one of the largest beer festivals in the country, when more than 100 breweries will post up on the Capitol Mall on Saturday, September 9.
Tom McCormick, who leads Sacramento-based advocacy group the California Craft Brewers Association, explained that there’s a “point of differentiation” between the Claimstakes and the Rubicons of the beer world. The former category, which is a smaller “living room” or “nano” taproom, serves neighborhoods and turns a profit by selling fresh beer over their own bar.
“But once the breweries are trying to get product on the grocery store shelf, it changes very dramatically, and that world is becoming incredibly competitive,” McCormick observed.
Palmer with Claimstake described the summit as an occasion to hear sage advice firsthand from the experts at bigger breweries like Firestone Walker and Russian River, and to learn from others’ mistakes when it comes to growth. “It’s also an opportunity to showcase, as a new brewery, what we can do,” he added. “There’s still a ton of people who don’t know who we are.”
At this year’s summit, a prominent theme will be that it takes a helluva lot more capital to compete in the current craft industry, much more than it did even a couple of years ago, McCormick said. And yet, even more players keep entering the fray.
“The future of craft beer is very bright,” he said of this growth. “The question is, ’Who’s going to own it?’”
The concern is that “Big Beer” continues to encroach on indie brewers. McCormick says global alcohol beverage suppliers, such as Anheuser-Busch InBev, which owns Budweiser, will be more aggressive than ever to disrupt independent breweries. For instance, he cited how A-B InBev-owned Golden Road Brewing, based in Los Angeles, plans to open a taproom in Midtown, part of what he described as a scheme to “further dupe the public” into thinking that Budweiser’s offshoot brands are in fact friendly independent breweries.
A consequence of this cutthroat marketplace has been “a lot of sadness,” McCormick admitted. In the past year, elder statesmen of the brew world, such as San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing, have enacted exit strategies and sold to larger “macro” competitors, in this case Sapporo. And here in the Sacramento region, home to approximately 10 percent of the state’s breweries, the closure of Rubicon sparked disappointment and concern among longstanding brew fans.
“I always said that we’d see good breweries fall,” explained Mike Mraz of Rubicon, and also American River Brewing Co, which shut its doors this month, as well.
His namesake company, Mraz Brewing Co. in El Dorado Hills, was one of the first “new wave” spots to open, nearly five years ago, and he says the scene has transformed. “There’s not always an open tap handle for craft beer anymore,” he added.
Mraz explained that, like Claimstake, he never wanted it to be an enormous brewery and is leery of going into debt. When Mraz has expanded, it has been out of necessity, not ambition. The upside is that the lifestyle allows him to be a father to his three kids. And he’s also achieved a certain level of notoriety: Mraz recently brewed an anniversary beer for San Francisco’s Toronado, one of the oldest and most esteemed beer bars in the country (he bottled a Belgian blonde with raspberries, black currants and tart cherries).
In fact, his brew is increasingly popular in the Bay Area, landing on shelves and tap handles even though Mraz does not contract with a third-party distributor. “It could always be better,” he said of his growth and exposure. “But it could also be crazier.”
Ken Hotchkiss, who owns the popular Capitol Beer and Tap Room in Arden-Arcade, and the soon-to-open Capitol Hop Shop downtown on I Street, says he sees new breweries enter the market all the time. They now face a stark choice: “Do they want to be small, like Brian [Palmer, with Claimstake]? Or are they going to try to get big, and compete in the grocery store?”
Hotchkiss emphasized that it’s truly a battle to get kegs on draft at local restaurants and bars. For instance, his two businesses will feature 60 taps, yet he regularly turns away great beer because there’s no room. “It’s difficult now. You can’t put everybody on. It’s just tough.”
It’ll be tougher during the summit. Sacramento is rolling out the red carpet. Hotchkiss says he’s hosting out-of-town breweries at both of his locations on several nights, including a Los Angeles County Brewers Guild party at the Capital Hop Shop on September 8. Empress Tavern is welcoming Urban Roots Brewing on September 7 and will pour collaborations between this soon-to-debut brewery and heavy hitters Alvarado Street Brewery, Three Weavers Brewing Co. and Cellarmaker Brewing Co.
The yearly summit has put Sacramento on the map, and it’s not like the city’s beer aficionados are suffering. Long gone are the days of pilgrimaging to City Beer Store in San Francisco to load up on new and untried brews. Despite the recent closures, it remains very much a golden era of beer-drinking in the River City.
Meanwhile, even more fresh faces arrive. Claimstake will surely be one of the newbies in the bustling summit crowd next month. But Palmer speaks as if the success and growth isn’t going to his head. Sure, his brewery is thriving, which has even forced them to revisit their original business plan. But the ultimate goal is stay small, and “to some day pass this off to our kids and grandkids,” he explained.
That’s how he likes it. “I think our nickname around the community is that we’re a family brewery,” Palmer said. “People know us as ’the family.’”