Sacramento Beer Week highlights new brew movement

A fast-growing movement of local beer companies and ‘gypsy brewers’ has Sacramentans hopping on the indie-beer trend

Track 7 co-owners Ryan and Jeanna Graham pour half-pints of Big 4 Strong Ale during a busy Saturday. It’s BYO-food at this neighborhood tap room; they have the beer under control.<br>ILLUSTRATION BY HAYLEY DOSHAY.<br>

Track 7 co-owners Ryan and Jeanna Graham pour half-pints of Big 4 Strong Ale during a busy Saturday. It’s BYO-food at this neighborhood tap room; they have the beer under control.

Photo By William Leung

For more Sacramento Beer Week coverage, read this week’s 15 Minutes interview with James Anderson of Pangaea Two Brews Cafe on page 51.

Tucked into a neighborhood pocket flanked by tidy homes on one side and railroad tracks on the other, Track 7 Brewing Company’s Curtis Park address initially seems like an odd spot for a brewery.

But with an on-site tap room producing the brewery’s small, rotating menu of artisan craft beers, Track 7 represents a growing Sacramento trend in which the city has shifted from the behemoth, something-for-every-taste brewpub model toward something smaller, more intimate and infinitely more interesting.

When it comes to beer, Sacramento’s experiencing a coming-of-age—both in growth and in a new, refined approach to all things hops.

“What you are seeing now is similar to what is transpiring all around the country,” said Ryan Graham, Track 7’s co-owner. “Regions are increasingly turning insular and embracing local food, local art and local drink.”

This shift into maturity is highlighted this week during the third-annual Sacramento Beer Week, a multivenue event that begins February 24, and runs through March 4, and showcases the latest in locally made beers. In addition to special brews, Beer Week also features suds-related movie screenings, workshops, demonstrations and, of course, ample tastings.

Sacramento’s brewery trend isn’t limited to the central city, however. Up the freeway several miles, you might find a few pretzels at Loomis Basin Brewing Company’s young taproom, and several days a week mobile-food vendors do curbside business outside the tasting room to offer the beer drinkers indoors a meal while they sip—but mostly, this new warehouse-turned-brewery in Loomis is all about the steel fermenting tanks, the spare ambience and the beer.

This setup represents a sharp turn away from the classic brewpub restaurant, so popular yet also so much more troublesome to manage and vulnerable to financial collapse. Indeed, a wave of closures has slammed Sacramento’s brewpub scene during the last several years, closing doors on more than a half-dozen popular establishments and leaving the town’s beer fans dazed, thirsty and confused.

Among the beer houses lost: Elk Grove Brewery, Beermann’s Beerworks, Greenhouse Restaurant and Brewery, Sacramento Brewing Company, Brew It Up! and Odanata Beer Company.

But now a resurgence is under way as a new generation of former brewpub brewers and new microbreweries cautiously survey the ruins of yesterday and attempt to restore life to the area’s craft-beer community.

Loomis Basin was one of the first of this new generation of microbreweries to set up shop, kegging its first beer in 2010. Today, nearly 10 more new micro- and nanobreweries now have beer in their tanks, with some already serving and others poised to officially open any day.

And where many of Sacramento’s brewpubs of yesterday failed, the new crop is voicing what they believe are the two key secrets to success: Start small and stay focused on the beer.

Ruhstaller Brewing Company, for one, doesn’t even have its own equipment. Instead, its owners have opted to bypass such a financial investment for now and test the waters as a so-called “gypsy brewery,” making beer in the surplus tank space of other facilities and providing bars and retailers with kegs and bottles.

And Roseville Brewing Company is starting with a minuscule seven-barrel fermenting capacity, while its owners allow the business to grow in answer to demand.

The people behind Sacramento’s soon-to-be breweries come from different beer-making backgrounds, different educational experience, and different generations—but they all have at least one thing in common: None will be dividing their efforts with a brewpub.

“What I like about the new crop of brewers popping up is that, for the most part, they’re solely focused on making beer,” explains beer writer Rick Sellers, once with Draft Magazine, and previously a co-owner of Odonata Beer Company, which closed last spring. Sellers is also the marketing director for Sacramento Beer Week.

“[Making beer] is what brewers know and do best. They’re focusing on their strengths and not getting distracted by kitchens, menus and the headaches that follow any restaurant venture.”

J-E Paino, the founder of Ruhstaller Beer, which Paino named after a pioneer of Sacramento’s 19th-century beer culture, also believes that splitting one’s energies between brewing beer and managing a restaurant will only weigh down the entire business.

“Some brewers go and open up a restaurant and then, suddenly, they’re in the restaurant business,” Paino says. “I’m not doing that. I don’t want to be in the restaurant business. I want to brew beer.”

It’s not just food, though, that may have distracted some now-defunct breweries from their primary task; financial investment in each location’s venue may have crippled many from the start.

“If you saw some of those breweries that went under,” said Kelly Rue, founder of Roseville Brewing, “they had these great big, beautiful buildings and breweries, and some might have been in a lot of financial trouble with debts to pay off. Others were also restaurants, and that’s a whole other monster. We think it’s best to focus on the beer.”

The rising flood of beer will be coming from such fresh names as Berryessa Brewing Co. in Winters, Black Dragon Brewery and Woodland Homebrew Supply in Woodland, Knee Deep Brewing Co. in Lincoln, and American River Brewing Co. in Rancho Cordova. Set to open later this year: a New Helvetia brewery on Broadway, a few blocks east of the Tower Theatre.

They’re already raking in accolades. Just this month, for instance, Knee Deep took first place for at San Francisco Beer Week’s Double IPA Fest for its Hoptologist beer.

Loomis Basin, in business for a year, is among the largest of this new crop. Founded by father-son team Jim and Kenny Gowan, the little brewery began dispensing kegs last January and welcomed its first taproom patrons in March.

Kenny believes the surge of new beer labels in town will generate excitement about local craft beer and that “there’s plenty of market share to go around in the Sacramento area.”

And, he added, a new brewery’s chance for success is boosted by the fact that “people are now focusing on their microbreweries and the beer.

“We’re seeing the ‘tasting room’ concept more and more, which has been a total shift away from the restaurant-brewery combination,” he says.

Visitors to this new crop of local taprooms will find plenty of stainless-steel tanks to gaze upon — as well as concrete walls and floors, high ceilings, steel beams overhead and giant garage doors. It’s a bare-bone basics, new-brewery model, one increasingly popular and that forges a bridge of frankness and transparency between brewer and patron. Beer is consumed where it’s brewed, and the smallness of the business, its vulnerability and its dependence on local patronage, is plain to see.

“People like that,” Gowan says. “They like seeing the tanks where the beer is made.”

At American River Brewing Co., owner and brewmaster David Mathis describes a similar layout in his new tasting room.

“The moment you walk in, you’ll be looking at the brewery,” he says.

Sacramento’s heyday as a center of beer culture may have existed more than a century ago, when California’s capital was the chief brewing city in the West. Around 1900, at least 16 breweries operated in the downtown area—including the giant Buffalo Brewery, which was owned in part by Frank Ruhstaller, a Swiss immigrant who is now largely to thank for first establishing a taste for beer on the West Coast.

Then, Prohibition killed the party and set Sacramento onto a long, slow road to recovery. Today, the city still lags a few steps behind such barley-and-hop havens as Denver or Portland, Ore., where just half-a-million people enjoy the flavors and colors of more than 40 breweries and brewpubs. Yet the wild popularity of Sacramento Beer Week’s first two runs in 2010 and 2011 seemed to prove that, in spite of collapsing beer breweries, locals have a taste for good beer.

To Sellers, even the fact that greatly loved breweries couldn’t pay their overhead costs does not indicate any lack of enthusiasm locally about craft beer; rather, he says, it was the food that people could have gone without.

“Brew It Up!, Sacramento Brewing and Elk Grove Brewing all had large dining areas that were underutilized,” Sellers says. “When Sac Brew shut its doors, for example, they were making and selling record amounts of beer.”

Mathis says the closures have left a gaping void in a very thirsty market.

“In a place like Sacramento, where people have such a developed and educated palate and taste for good beer, for these places to close their doors was such a shocker to the system,” says Mathis, who has brewed beer at Pyramid Breweries and El Toro Brewig Company in Los Gatos, and whose first beer with American River is set to be an IPA, with an English-American brown ale to follow.

To Paino at Ruhstaller, the past was a glorious time for Sacramento’s brewers and beer drinkers—but the future, he is quite certain, is wide open.

“People are willing to pay money in this town for great beer,” he says. “You might have to pay a dollar extra for a good craft beer, and people will. Economy or not, people are not going back to bad beer.”