Five to brew on

Our writer hits up local breweries to sip and ponder his favorite Sacramento beers

No, not the chronic: They’re hops!

No, not the chronic: They’re hops!

It’s been a rough year for the Sac brewing scene. Popular hangouts like the Elk Grove Brewery and Sacramento Brewing Company have fallen prey to the flat economy. But don’t fret, fellow beer lovers: Plenty of local suds still flow in the River City. In honor of the first ever Beer Week, I visited area breweries to find my five favorite locally crafted beer offerings. The worst part about tasting dozens of Sacramento brews? Picking just five. (Hey, it’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it.)

Best dessert in a glass

Brew It Up (801 14th Street) started out in Davis in 1996. In 2003, it moved to its current location, and it’s one of just a handful of the remaining brew-it-yourselfs in the country.

“We can make virtually anything a customer wants,” says production brewer Raul Muñoz, while thumbing through a list of more than 80 beer recipes. “We have access to most commercially available yeast strains.”

Brew It Up currently offers 22 beers on tap, which makes picking a favorite harder than the Octomom picking her favorite child. For lighter choices, try Captain Ron’s Imperial IPA, which smacks you in the face with its grapefruit aroma before its citrus flavor gently kisses everything better. Or there’s the Belgian Dubbel, where Belgian yeast imparts a sweet, fruity aroma and spicy flavor. Going darker, the Scotch Ale’s toasty, smoky flavors make this full-bodied brew an excellent beer.

But it’s the Vanilla Cream Stout that stands out. Generous helpings of Madagascar vanilla give this medium-bodied stout a sweet, creamy flavor, making the brew more dessert than beer. At the end of a hearty dinner—Brew It Up serves steaks, sandwiches, burgers and pasta—the Vanilla Cream Stout is the perfect after-meal choice. Besides, ice cream is fattening, anyway.

Best hop fix

History lesson: Back when India was a British colony, English brewers shipped daily beer rations to their soldiers. But in order for the beers to survive the long ocean journey, beer makers loaded them up with hops, and India pale ales, or IPAs, were born. The extra hops give IPAs their characteristic bitter taste.

More recently in hops history, the West Coast has led the way in an ever-escalating effort to hop beers as much as possible. “There’s been kind of an arms race,” says Rubicon Brewing Company (2004 Capitol Avenue) brewmaster Scott Cramlet. “Consumers like to be challenged.”

Cramlet attributes California’s hop obsession to the abundance of fresh, local produce flavors that tickle and tease our palates. Rubicon threw its hat into the hops ring by brewing Hop Sauce, a double IPA loaded with 40 pounds of hops in every 10-gallon batch. The result? A bitter yet refreshing golden ale with slight pine and citrus aromas. Hop haters, beware: This brew will twist your face into knots. Hop lovers, take note: At 8.5 percent alcohol content, better to drink this one slowly. Either that or be prepared to stumble home.

Best no-nonsense lager

All right, so most of the beers on this list are brewed within Sacramento city limits. But if you’re a fellow lover of lagers, you need to trek out to Sudwerk Privatbrauerei Hubsch (2001 Second Street) in Davis.

When it comes to beer, Sudwerk doesn’t mess around. Just check out its brew names: Pilsner, lager, Hefeweizen, Märzen, dunkel. No cutesy appellations here—just like the Germans do. In fact, they have to be pretty serious about the business; after all, the second floor hosts the UC Davis Extension Master Brewers Program. Sudwerk’s world-class brewing technology attracts beer makers from the biggest names in the industry.

“Modern-day brewers are all engineers now,” says brewmaster Jay Prahl. “They have to understand electrical engineering, biochemistry, economics, physics.”

Anyway, back to the beer. If you like your beers Bavarian style, Sudwerk’s got your brew. Märzen is brewed with five specialty malts, giving it a slightly sweet, nutty, caramel flavor and a dark color that’s beautiful to look at. It’s the kind of beer that would make even your wine-snob girlfriend say, “Damn, that’s a good beer.”

Best flat beer

Brewmaster Brian Cofresi is easy to spot: Puttering around behind the River City Brewing Company (545 Downtown Plaza, Suite 1115) fermenting tanks, the white lab coat makes him more high-school lab teacher than beer maker. If you can pry him away from the tanks long enough for a chat, he even breaks down brewing like a cool science teacher would:

“It’s like making bread,” Cofresi says. “I just use more water.”

River City offers a solid lineup of the standard brewery beers: a sweet, roasted Vienna amber lager; a dark, creamy Black River Stout; the banana-and-clove flavored Hefeweizen; the three-hop, the oak-aged Woodenhead amber ale. If you usually stick with one style of beer, the River City’s beer sampler will make you rethink your choice.

For a rare treat, however, you need to try your beer the old-fashioned way: from a cask. Unlike modern taps that use pressurized carbon dioxide to force the beer into the glass, cask beer is served through a hand-pumped beer engine.

“The sparkler head sprays the beer, creates a head and takes the fizz out,” explained Cofresi. He regularly rotates the cask beer selection. When I visited, he had picked a cloudy, slightly hopped ale.

The strangest part? The beer was almost flat, but still flavorful. Who says you need suds to be satisfied?

Best mad-scientist-worthy creation

Hoppy Brewing Company (6300 Folsom Boulevard) is the third brewery to occupy this site near Sacramento State. Since 1999, Hoppy has served up owner Troy Paski’s home-brew recipes and given them LSD-inspired names like Liquid Sunshine Blonde Ale and Total Eclipse Black Ale. Several varieties are bottled and sold in stores.

Hoppy serves seven regular selections and rotates two specialty—often experimental—beers. And even though they primarily brew ales—it’s not called Hoppy Brewing for nothing—the beers showcase the wide variety of ale styles and flavors.

The most interesting is Stony Face Red Ale, a deep, malty creation that defies attempts to categorize it. No, really—Stony Face’s color, hop profile and malty flavor bumps it out of the criteria for most conventional judging categories.

Caramel and dark chocolate malts give this ale a deep red color and smooth flavor, while nugget and cascade hops give it a gentle, bitter kick.

“Judges have a lot of trouble figuring this one out,” brewmaster Ed Kopta laughs.

See if you can wrap your head around this one.