On how the Sacramento craft beer scene exploded—and will it last?

In less than five years, local breweries have grown by nearly 400 percent

Device Brewing Co.'s Ken Anthony says he’s been making beer nonstop to keep up with demand.

Device Brewing Co.'s Ken Anthony says he’s been making beer nonstop to keep up with demand.

photo by steven chea

Sacramento Beer Week kicks off Thursday, February 27, and continues through Sunday, March 9. Find out more at www.sacramentobeerweek.com.

Rick Sellers says people ask him all the time: “How many breweries are there in Sacramento these days?”

It’s a fair question, because five years ago, there were fewer than 10, but now it’s apparent to even a Coors Light guzzler that the craft-beer businesses is multiplying. What a buzzkill to keep track.

Enter Sellers: He pours at the popular Samuel Horne’s Tavern in Folsom and has worked as beer director for Draft Magazine, plus opened a brewery once, and writes about suds at the website Pacific Brew News. He recently went online to tally up all the new breweries—and that’s when he says things got “stupid.”

In less than five years, local breweries have grown by nearly 400 percent. There are at least 37 within a 50-mile radius of downtown—with more than five poised to open in the coming months. For comparison, Sacramento County boasts fewer than 15 wineries. Comparing wine and beer is not apples to apples, sure, but there’s no denying the speed by which beer is overtaking local palates.

“And I don’t think we’re going to take our foot off the gas,” Sellers told SN&R.

But this big beer bang brings a bevy of questions. Who are these new brewers, and why’d they quit their jobs to roll the dice on beer? Plus, who’s drinking all of it? Is this just a craft-beer bubble? And—perhaps most importantly—is this local beer any good?

The fifth annual Sacramento Beer Week kicks off today, but the research began weeks ago: chatting with local brewers, sampling their suds, enduring workday-morning hangovers. Surprisingly, there’s not a lot of agreement about where this brew craze is headed. Most agree it’s a good thing. But with caveats.

“I don’t think there are too many breweries,” was how Annie Johnson, local homebrewer going on 18 years—and last year’s American Homebrewers Association’s national homebrewer of the year winner—put it.

“But they’re not all created equally.”

Beer’s comeback

Less than a handful of years ago, the local beer community wasn’t marveling in its riches. It was bracing for a death rattle.

“It was miserable,” Sellers said of the years during the recession between 2007 and 2010, a period when many local breweries—Sacramento Brewing Company (both locations), Elk Grove Brewery Restaurant, Beermann’s, Brew It Up! and his own Odanata Beer Company—all shuttered. “We didn’t know who was going to make it.”

Sacramento was an anomaly, turns out. Across the country, the craft-brew industry continued with steady growth during those years, upholding the presumption that the alcohol biz is largely recession-proof. The number of craft-beer barrels produced nationwide, for instance, jumped more than 25 percent between 2007 and 2010, and 300 new craft breweries opened as well, according to the U.S. Brewers Association.

Then, just when Sacto’s beer scene was about to “drain pour”—a beer-nerd term for pouring a bad bottle of brew down the sink—along came the bang.

Breweries such as Knee Deep Brewing Co., first located in Lincoln and now in Auburn, opened in 2010. Track 7 Brewing Co., which operates just south of Sacramento City College, started brewing a year later. Ditto others.

But many beer enthusiasts point to February 11, 2012, when Knee Deep won the gold medal at the esteemed Bistro’s Double IPA Festival during San Francisco Beer Week. The local brewery’s Hoptologist beat out Pliny the Elder—the brew out of Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa with the cultlike following—for that year’s top prize. This not only put Knee Deep on the national map, but in many ways it also prompted locals to stop dreaming and start brewing.

Mike Mraz in El Dorado Hills is one of those new brewers. He says he’d always been a “beer geek,” but thought making your own beer was some kind of “black magic.” That is, until he started doing so out of his backyard in 2006, brewing Belgian styles, then winning awards and becoming known as the “local homebrew guy.”

Buddies with the popular Santa Cruz brewer Tim Clifford, of Sante Adairius Rustic Ales (with whom he still goes surfing occasionally), Mraz made operating a brewery his full-time gig in May of last year.

At Mraz Brewing Company, the self-described “control freak” brews delicate, smart, risk-taking brews while his son Justin runs the taproom, which is open Wednesday through Sunday. The guys haven’t even turned a year old, and they’re already ordering more tanks to expand.

It’s a similar story closer to downtown at Device Brewing Co., where brewer Ken Anthony is so busy that he can hardly brew enough to keep the taproom stocked (although, he proudly explained, “We have not run out of beer once”).

Anthony started selling beer in kegs late last summer and officially opened his brewery taproom in November, located in an industrial area on 14th Avenue off of Power Inn Road in south Sacramento. The UC San Diego graduate, who got into homebrewing down south while embracing that city’s renowned craft-beer scene, had been talking about opening a brewery for six years. When he moved back here in 2011—and drank some of that famous Knee Deep brew and “got inspired”—he pulled the trigger.

Now, he can’t stop. Literally. “The rate at which we gained traction here was surprising,” he says. “I’m brewing it at a frantic pace.” And he’s already planning to expand by increasing some of his fermentation capacity.

Beer is perhaps growing at a more rapid pace than when the first breweries popped up in the late 19th century. The numbers don’t lie: In 2012, Golden State craft brewers amounted to $4.7 billion in economic impact, according the California Craft Brewers Association. The industry also grew by 20 percent that year, with the total number of barrels brewed increasing by a whopping 400,000.

Sellers, who’s been in the beer game for decades, views the explosion in a positive light. “I’m just happy to see the focus on beer again.”

But can there be too much beer?

Here comes the neighborhood (brewery)

Nanobrewery is an inside-baseball term for what’s essentially a smaller community brewery. Local nanobreweries like Device or Mraz produce limited quantities of brew, but enough to serve a niche. Beer lovers like Sellers say that these new community breweries are going to change how Sacramentans buy beer.

Hello, local brew; goodbye, Coors Light?

“I think it’s going to be a paradigm shift,” he explained. “I don’t think there’s going to be a bubble,” he said of the peak-beer hypothesis.

He sees things working out like this: After work on Friday, the average beer mom or dad will cease buying six-packs at the Raley’s or Safeway. Instead, they’ll cruise by places like Track 7 in Curtis Park or Bike Dog Brewing Company in West Sacramento. They’ll have a quick pint, grab a 64-ounce growler to go, and then cruise home and rejoin the family for dinner.

“I think that that’s definitely where we are going,” Device’s Anthony agreed. “I think as more breweries are opening, they’re going to become neighborhood breweries.”

It’s worth noting that there are many Sacramento neighborhoods, including but not limited to Antelope and Carmichael, that don’t have community breweries yet.

If this scenario plays out, it’ll be very much a David vs. Goliath economy. Mraz in El Dorado Hills brews only 250 barrels a year. Device predicts it will crest 300. You likely won’t see their beers outside of California, at least for now. By comparison, behemoth Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. produces nearly 1 million out of nearby Chico.

Homebrewer Johnson says she loves all the new breweries, but that the bubble’s going to burst, because it gets so saturated.

“But it’s hard to say,” she hedged.

A lot depends on a brewery’s ambition. Do they want to pour for just dads down the street, or do they want to compete on the shelves of Total Wine & More, which already are packed rows deep with locals such as Ruhstaller Beer, Out of Bounds Brewing Company, American River Brewing Company and Track 7?

Or do they, like Knee Deep, want to distribute their beer all the way across the country in New York City?

“There’s not too many breweries,” Sellers argued. “But I think there’s obviously a finite amount of shelf space.”

Perhaps restaurants and bars can help? There’s already a proverbial “draft war” going on—where local businesses engage in rounds of one-upmanship by placing as many beers as they can on tap to outdo the competition. Blackbird Kitchen & Beer Gallery, the newly reopened spot on Ninth Street, boasts some 50 taps. University of Beer, the Davis spot opening a new location soon in Midtown on 16th Street, promises nearly 90. This could be a boon for local breweries. Or it could result in a ton of stale beer. Which brings us to perhaps the most crucial issue of all:

Is Sacramento beer any good?

For years, River City beer was limited to a few strongholds, such as Rubicon Brewing Company in Midtown, which a quarter-century ago was winning IPA awards at the nation’s biggest beer festivals and practically inventing styles such as wheat wine. Now, with breweries like the admired Berryessa Brewing Co. in nearby Winters, it’s difficult for staples like Rubicon to stand out.

The good news is, as Johnson said, the modern beer drinker “will drink anything.”

“And I like that anybody’s willing to try things. I think drinkers have evolved,” she added.

That said, she does think that local brewers, many of whom have been open for less than a couple years, still need to “do their homework.”

So far, the new guard of Sacramento breweries is a mixed bag (see page 21 for a chart detailing results from this paper’s debut Beer Issue competition). Meanwhile, members of local homebrew organizations—such as the Gold Country Brewers Association and the Greenbelt Brewers Association—wait in the wings as the next guard of brewery owners. Not to mention Boneshaker Public House in Rocklin, Yolo Brewing Company in West Sac, Oak Park Brewing Company, Big Sexy Brewing Company in Auburn, and Lockdown Brewing Co. in Rancho Cordova, who all plan to open practically any day now. It’s a lot to keep tabs on.

“How many breweries are there in Sacramento these days?” you ask.

Just pour me a damn beer.