Preserved in amber

Ruhstaller’s owner J.E. Paino grows local hops that capture ‘a moment in time’

J.E. Paino

J.E. Paino

Photo by Lisa Baetz

Three beers deep, Ruhstaller's owner J.E. Paino celebrates in the middle of his new, packed taproom in Dixon. The December opening and February kickoff party concluded seven months of work that started when Solano County shut down the facility at Ruhstaller's Dixon hop farm—even after Paino said he spent more than $50,000 obtaining permits and up-to-code remodels.

“The county walloped us,” he said. “But you know what? Getting walloped adds a little flavor. That adds a sliver of terroir.”

Terroir ranks among the top-used words in Paino’s vocabulary. More often applied to wine, it’s French for a growing environment’s impact on flavor. Though the kerfuffle with the county made Paino question his choice of location, he decided to remain in this region due to its perfect climate for “growing beer.” The cozy, newly opened cement-and-wood space allows Ruhstaller to experiment with ingredients and cater to those on the quieter side of the Tower Bridge.

Though Solano County smacked him down, Paino thanks the local government for maintaining the region’s ecology. He said Sacramento was the “Napa Valley of hops” before national brands shifted toward cheaper operations in Washington. After tests confirmed that beer tastes different depending on the hops’ growing-region, Paino doubled-down on capturing our fertile valley’s essence.

“LA has concrete. San Francisco has the Bay. And we have dirt,” Paino said. “The dirt is what makes us distinct. This dirt is the best dirt in the fucking world. So let’s let the dirt guide us.”

As opposed to other brewers’ consistency, some of Ruhstaller’s “wet hop” beers can taste differently at the tap house, in the bottle or after a couple weeks of aging. His freshly harvested hops get added while they still contain maximum terroir, but before they’ve been dried and standardized.

So instead of building a fanbase for same-every-time beers, Paino seeks to popularize his entire approach. Akin to wine-making, he wants to capture “a moment in time” rather than a brewer’s replicable prowess. It’s a gamble, but he thinks a worthwhile one as the modern beer scene resembles the time before corporate consolidation, when local breweries flourished.

“How did they differentiate themselves? Quality,” he said. “How did they do that? They chose better hops. Where did those hops and ingredients come from? Here!”

A proponent of cloudy, unfiltered beer, Paino believes residue contributes flavor. He hypothesizes that beer-tasting took a dive when the glass was invented as people let appearance sway their opinion of flavor.

To renew the focus on taste, Ruhstaller’s brewers have established their “R&D” brewery in Dixon, where they brew two or three one-off batches weekly with different local ingredients to see what those ingredients “want to be when they grow up,” as Paino put it. When they find a winner, they release it as part of their test series and limit information about its contents to promote an “emotional taste-bud” experience when sipped.

Every five to six weeks, a new variety comes out. In Ruhstaller’s Dixon and K Street taprooms, customers can usually try two or three side-by-side as the brewery hones in on what sets Sacramentan beer apart.

“If we take hops from this region and stack them up against any other beer out on the market, I don’t want to say they’re going to be better,” he said. “But they will always be different.”