New Helvetia Brewing Co. began making beer on Jan. 3 and within days was playing host to scores of craft beer enthusiasts at its tap room on Broadway.
Sure, there weren't enough tables and chairs at first, but the crowds kept coming back for an experience that includes high-quality beer, friendly folks, a building with rustic charm and a fledgling brewery's efforts to reconnect with the city's storied brewing past.
New Helvetia joins the wave of recently launched area breweries such as Track 7, Ruhstaller, Berryessa, Knee Deep and others, with several more slated to open in the months to come. There's even a new publication, Hops to Table, that chronicles the region's burgeoning craft beer scene.
Will more good beer eventually mean too much of a good thing? Many involved in the new breweries say there is plenty of room for growth.
New Helvetia, which refers to Sacramento's original name, pays homage to the once-powerful Buffalo Brewing Co., which dates to 1890 and was among the largest breweries west of the Mississippi.
David Gull, New Helvetia's founder, is a fourth-generation Sacramentan and former real estate developer who handles everything from planning and strategy to standing behind the bar and taking orders. His brewery emphasizes high-quality beer brewed in small batches, the kind of craft beer that's exploding in popularity across the country.
It's local, it's low-key, but it's also about cooperating rather than competing against other craft breweries to build on Sacramento's recent momentum.
"We're a big place a city of half a million people and a region of 2.2 million people, and for a time we had maybe four breweries in the city," Gull said. "That's great for those four breweries, but it doesn't serve the region well. San Luis Obispo, a city of 40,000 people, has four breweries. We weren't catching on and that now is finally starting to change."
Gull added, "People are looking at this market and what we have, and we do have a demographic of educated beer drinkers. There are a lot of us out there, as evidenced by the Sacramento Beer Weeks that are growing in popularity, beer festivals that are happening. Customers are seeking places that are serving great beer."
Brian Cofresi, the longtime brewmaster at River City Brewing downtown who is transitioning to brewmaster at New Helvetia, says Sacramento lags behind many other big-city craft beer markets (Currently, there are around two dozen breweries in the region; the recently closed Pyramid Alehouse on K Street didn't brew on site.)
"For the most part, we believe it can be way bigger than it is now and other markets prove it," Cofresi said. "The San Diego area went from 10 breweries to something in excess of 60. Sacramento is way behind Portland, Seattle, San Diego and other cities. So there is no fear of getting more people involved. It's only going to help us."
In fact, New Helvetia noticed something profound as it got ready to open plenty of assistance from so-called competitors.
"I have received help from pretty much every brewery in town," Gull said. "The cooperation and camaraderie within the craft beer industry is pretty remarkable. Before Beer Week, I got a call from Glynn (Phillips) at Rubicon and he wanted to put some of our beer out front at Rubicon, 10 blocks away from us."
Among New Helvetia's beers so far are Homeland Stout and Fresh Hop Lager, both with relatively moderate 5.5 percent and 4.8 percent alcohol content, and Thunderbeast IPA, an India pale ale that is much stronger at 7.9 percent alcohol by volume.
Nearly all of the beer is sold on the premises at Broadway and 18th Street. The next challenge will come when New Helvetia goes after local restaurant and pub accounts and begins bottling its beer for retail sales.
Brewing beer for bottles is a complicated ordeal.
"Going forward, bottling is going to be happening when feasible," Gull said. "There's a lot to do. It's the label approvals. You have to make sure your marketing is dialed in. You have to make sure the state and the feds have signed off. If it's going to be on a store shelf next to Lagunitas and Ruhstaller, how are we going to stand out? We don't know the answer to that yet."
If the website's sincere yet laid-back vibe is any indication, those next steps won't be rushed. And they're open to feedback.
"Want more info about New Helvetia Brewing?" the website asks, "Let's chat over a pint."
NEW HELVETIA BREWING CO.
Where: 1730 Broadway, Sacramento
Hours: 4-9 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday; 4-10 p.m. Friday; 1-10 p.m. Saturday; 1-5 p.m. Sunday