Let’s say you’ve got beer-connoisseur friends visiting from San Francisco or London or Berlin or Brussels, and they ask if there’s a good place in Sacramento to go for a pint.
If you send them to Capitol Beer and Tap Room, you won’t have to worry that Sacramento is going to come up short when it comes to great beer bars. Hidden in the back of a busy strip mall at Fair Oaks Boulevard and Howe Avenue, CapTap, as it is known to regulars, promises a world-class tasting experience seven days a week.
More than likely, your pals will encounter multiple beers they never have tasted or even heard of, and they will engage with like-minded beer lovers working their way through an ever-changing tap list that is closely followed and much-discussed.
Owned by Ken Hotchkiss and his life partner, Patti Aguirre, Capitol Beer has become a major force in the local craft beer industry, attracting serious connoisseurs and newcomers alike. The bar is so influential these days that it can help launch a new brewery’s reputation; if you can’t find a fledgling beer there during multiple visits, it probably means it’s not ready for prime time.
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“It’s safe to say (Hotchkiss) is really one of the guys who sets the bar, and he set it very high,” said Ken Anthony, owner/brewmaster at Device Brewing, who has made Capitol Beer’s anniversary beer the past two years.
“Capitol Beer has pretty much become the beer geek spot in Sacramento,” said Dave Prillwitz, who has tasted and reviewed 8,300-plus beers on RateBeer, the popular website and phone app for beer fans.
Hotchkiss and Aguirre opened the business in the summer of 2012 with big ideas but a shoestring budget. All of the equipment and furnishings were bought second-hand, and the setting in those early days was admittedly sterile. But word spread that this place was serious about its beer.
“When I first started going, there would be like three people in there,” said Prillwitz, who lives nearby. “Now, if you go in the evening, it’s pretty packed.”
Hotchkiss is living the dream as a taste-maker in a city with a flourishing reputation for making and serving high-caliber beer. Hotchkiss had been a tile contractor languishing in the worst recession in decades. No one was building houses. Almost nobody was renovating. “I was approaching 40 and I didn’t want to rebuild in construction,” he said. “I didn’t want to work that hard and kill my body for not a lot of return at that point. I just wanted to go after my dream.”
Hotchkiss borrowed money from friends and family and put together a business plan that blossomed at the right time. Back in 2012, a fledgling Track 7 Brewing was an instant hit, Ruhstaller was helping resurrect Sacramento’s great brewing past, and other craft breweries were poised to jump into the game. Nationally, craft beer was gaining prominence and, while Sacramento was playing catch-up at first, the region has re-emerged as a beer center, a reputation sped along by last September’s inaugural California Craft Beer Summit.
Capitol Beer is now part of a vibrant beer bar scene, joining Pangaea, Final Gravity and Davis Beer Shoppe as leaders in curating high-quality selections. On RateBeer, CapTap enjoys a lofty ranking of its own, cracking the list of the top beer destinations in the world at No. 368.
To appreciate the appeal of Hotchkiss and Aguirre’s place, you have to understand how people these days drink craft beer. Whereas a decade or two ago, it was common for folks to drop by their favorite pub and order the same beer every time for years, that doesn’t happen as much with today’s beer geeks. They want to be wowed, soothed and inspired. They’re also eager to support local, as is Hotchkiss.
In this realm, Hotchkiss has emerged as the arbiter of wow. His list of 20 beers on tap is always changing, often with a mix of styles common and obscure featuring breweries that might either be world famous or new and local. But you will never find Bud Light or Heineken on draft, and you will rarely see the same beer twice in a month. He is constantly scouring brewery websites and talking to beer lovers and distributors to keep tabs on what is hot, what is hard to come by and what might be the next big thing.
Given Prillwitz’s rather amazing tasting inventory, he’s understandably hard to impress. But he said he routinely finds eight new beers a week at CapTap he can add to his RateBeer list.
The bottle shop section works much the same way, with a range of selections and price points. During a recent visit, for example, bottle prices ranged from a $43 barrel-aged pumpkin beer from Portland’s Cascade Brewing Barrel House to Drake’s Pale Ale for $3.50. But the absence of mass-market beer brands may be jarring to some.
“Yeah, it happens,” Hotchkiss said when asked if customers come in for Coors Light or Budweiser. “But we always try to have something that will help them transition into craft beer.”
Capitol Beer routinely announces its beer selections on Twitter and Facebook. When something especially unusual arrives, the place floods with beer geeks. When Pliny the Younger, the famous triple India pale ale from Russian River, makes its annual appearance, Hotchkiss knows better than to advertise it. “There would be a line of 300 people out the door,” he said with a shrug. “We only get five gallons.”
Hotchkiss said he thought about creating his beer business for several years as he installed tile. The business model wouldn’t work if it were not for a new kind of consumer – more curious, more adventurous and more educated than beer customers of decades past.
With increased competition, bars such as CapTap will have to reach out to those who are new to craft beer or curious about trying it in order to grow their customer base. Sacramento Beer Week helps with that, Hotchkiss said. So do local restaurants, which increasingly are turning to craft beer.
“With the restaurant scene, the coffee scene and the beer scene, this is a fun place to be,” Hotchkiss said. “Sacramento is a cool city now.”
Capitol Beer and Tap Room
2222 Fair Oaks Blvd., Sacramento. capitolbeer.com, 916-922-1745. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily