Sacramento Beer Week is in the books, the hoopla and long lines have died down, and the Sacramento region is getting back to normal. But these days, when it comes to beer in the big picture, normal is pretty extraordinary.
Top-notch beer is everywhere – at beer bars on the grid and in the ’burbs, at once-ailing convenience stores that recognized the value in overhauling their inventory, at restaurants of all kinds, and especially, at the 60 or so breweries that have redefined our landscape from Winters and Davis to Nevada City, Auburn and Plymouth.
For James Scott, a reference librarian at the Sacramento Public Library and a student of local beer history, the craft of making beer is bringing a new sense of artisan skill and labor to the marketplace.
“You walk around the city of Sacramento and so much of the architecture is exquisite and unique. It was made by the hands of an artisan – the Southern-Pacific train station, the Post Office and many other buildings. We know that type of thing is not coming back. But it is coming back with beer,” Scott said. “You know that the brewer (Cory Meyer) at New Glory, for example, is making this tremendously complicated elixir. He’s putting everything he’s got into it. He’s spent a lot of time studying. These guys are extraordinary. It defines them. While a lot of artisan trades are gone forever, it’s coming back with beer.”
To see how far the region’s beer prowess has come, it’s best to look at its past – a lively, sometimes raucous, often tragic and, for more than a few decades, all-but-depleted legacy of beer and brewing. While no one knows what the future holds, Scott believes the past hints at the answer. There will likely be more brewery openings and closings, followed by a consolidation that trims the total number of brewing outlets based on the quality of the beer and/or the experience of drinking beer.
“I’m sure they are driven more by passion than by some sort of business forecast,” Scott said. “I would draw on a comparison of saloon culture in antebellum Sacramento. The Gold Rush starts and all of the sudden you see the proliferation of saloons. There were a hundred or 200 saloons. But you’ve got to be good or you’re just going to fall by the wayside, and that’s eventually what happened. By the 1860s, there were eight to 10 saloons that were the cream of the crop. It’s very Darwinian.
“I would certainly foresee the same thing happening here (with breweries). Are we going to lose 20 or 30 breweries? I can’t imagine that we just keep adding and adding breweries.”
Much of the early brewing history in Sacramento is chronicled in the book, “Sacramento’s Breweries,” by Ed Carroll (2010, Sacramento County Historical Society, 128 pages). As you can see from the timeline that accompanies this story, Sacramento was once a brewing force, boasting the largest brewery west of the Mississippi (Buffalo Brewing) and, starting in 1857, perhaps the largest hop-growing region in the country.
While the breweries have returned, and then some, there is little hope that Sacramento will reclaim its stature as a hop-growing powerhouse. The days are simply too short, compared to the new hop centers in Oregon and Washington state, according to Peter Hoey, an award-winning brewer at the former Sacramento Brewing Co. who now works in sales for BSG CraftBrewing, which supplies ingredients to craft breweries.
Referring to the new and improved beer scene in Sacramento, Hoey said, “I love how normalized good beer has become.”
Indeed, an industry analysis places Sacramento consumers on par with San Diego and San Francisco when it comes to buying craft beer. About 30 percent of Sacramento consumers opt for craft beer, compared to 18 percent statewide and just 6 percent nationwide. The local beer consumer is more engaged, better informed and more discerning than at any time in the city’s history.
Part of that heightened beer awareness comes from people like Mike Moore, a widely respected beer judge. He was no. 97 in 1986 when he passed his Beer Judge Certification Program test. The program has since certified 10,000 more judges.
Moore remembers the early days of the local craft beer comeback when he and his homebrewer friends from the Gold Country Brewers Association would hang out at Rubicon in midtown Sacramento. They witnessed the emergence of Rubicon brewmaster Phil Moeller as a major influence on the industry. Moeller’s India pale ale won the Great American Beer Festival gold medal in 1989 and 1990, the first two years there was an IPA category.
“We thought Phil was a super-genius,” Moore said. “No one had beers that hoppy and no one had beers that clean.”
Glynn Phillips, who bought Rubicon from Ed Brown in 2005, said the groundbreaking IPA was not an immediate hit.
“We were the first ones who had an IPA as the flagship beer,” Phillips said. “When we first put that beer out, everybody was saying, ‘My god, the hops! What are you guys doing?’ Now people taste it and say, ‘Yeah, it’s an IPA.’ ”
“It was the go-to place. There was nothing else around,” he said.
It also attracted aspiring young brewers such as Vinnie Cilurzo, who told Phillips during an interview for Rubicon’s 25th anniversary that Moeller’s IPA inspired him. Cilurzo would go on to open Russian River in Santa Rosa and establish a reputation as one of the great brewers in the world. His Pliny the Elder double IPA, among others, is a coveted beer throughout California and beyond.
“Whenever I talk about it, it gives me goose bumps,” Phillips said of Cilurzo’s comments.
Much of the new attention is on breweries like Track 7, New Glory, Knee Deep, Device and Berryessa. But in the past few months, no brewery has been in the spotlight more than Auburn’s Moonraker, which opened 11 months ago.
Influential RateBeer named it best new brewery in California and ninth best new brewery in the world. Brewmaster Zack Frasher’s beers are on a major winning streak, topping Cilurzo’s legendary Pliny the Younger at the Bistro triple IPA competition in Hayward and then, with a different beer, topping an all-star field at the second annual Track 7 Brewery Invitational.
Moore was the lead judge in Hayward and Hoey was the lead judge at the recent Track 7 event. Both say Sacramento beer has come a very long way and has never been better.