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Sure, 60-plus craft breweries now thrive in the Sacramento area, but let’s remember that our town also was awash in beer during the Gold Rush years. In 1851, more than 200 saloons catered to an overwhelmingly male population of 10,000 (along with 500 women), crowded into the nexus of what is now Old Sacramento and its environs.
“Beer was huge,” said historian James Scott, a reference librarian at the Sacramento Central Library’s Sacramento Room and author of “Sacramento’s Gold Rush Saloons” (History Press, $19.99, 156 pages). “Sacramento was a town of artisanal beer, as it is today, quintessentially farm to fork back then, with all the local hops and barley. Today it’s a case of the same beer in different bottles.”
Not to forget that the Sacramento Bee building has sat on the former site of the Buffalo Brewing Co. since 1952.
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Which leads to our recent stop at Jack Russell Brewery Downtown in Placerville. It moved into the former Carrows, where a 10-month-long remodel turned the space into a good-looking brewpub, opening in April.
The mother ship is the Jack Russell Farm Brewery in Camino, in the heart of Apple Hill Country. It was founded in 1997 by Britisher Terry Bonham, and has been owned by David Coody since 2011.
“Terry Bonham wanted to bring a bit of the English brewing tradition to the States,” said Marley Coody. She’s David Coody’s daughter and a hands-on part owner in the family business. “Our beers are a hybrid of British and American brewing styles. The British don’t filter their beers to get them super-clear, so a lot of ours are slightly cloudy.”
Let’s note that Placerville is becoming a restaurant destination. Consider the Farm Table, Cascada, the Independent, the Levee and the Heyday Cafe. However, Jack Russell Brewery Downtown has something the others don’t – thousands of gallons of hand-crafted beer.
Menu: “It’s a constant work in progress,” Marley Coody said. “We’ll be rolling out some new specials in the next week, while keeping some of the popular items. We’re as organic and fresh as we can be.”
Three weeks ago, the surprisingly lengthy menu showed better-than-average pub grub – three salads, four “pub snacks” (deep-fried pickles, sweet potato fries), six “starters” (roasted beet hummus with artichoke hearts, roasted peppers, Kalamata olives and homemade pita bread), six burgers (one adds a pile of pastrami and is served on marbled rye), six sandwiches (including pulled pork and tri-tip, and a chicken sandwich with fried avocado) and eight sides.
Beer-battered fish ’n’ chips is a staple at most pubs. This one is hand-cut Icelandic cod dipped in pale ale batter and served with house-made tartar sauce and garlic fries.
Price point: Given the quality and quantity, $5 (soup) to $15 (fish ’n’ chips) is affordable. The burgers are $10 to $14.
Ambiance: Natural light pours into the dining room through massive windows to show off the stylish wood and metal furniture and polished concrete floors. The place has an inviting, open feel. The stools along the handsome wood bar are actually comfortable, with a view that takes in stainless-steel vats behind a glass wall. The obligatory big-screen TVs are positioned for a a leisurely afternoon of watching college or pro football. Unfortunately, the spacious outside deck faces busy Highway 50.
Drinks: Forty-five taps pour 30 beers, ciders, meads and wines. We tasted samples of Jack Russell’s signature Strong Blonde (“the Hangtown Original,” 8 percent AVB), Weber Creek Belgian wheat beer (4.8) and delicious honey mead (12.4) before settling on the crisp All American Ale (5 percent). We’ll be daring on our next visit and go for a pint of the aptly named Morticia (12 percent), crafted with nine types of malted barley.
Service: Fast, smart and friendly. Homegrown-in-Placerville barman Ryan Davis was knowledgeable and accommodating, and can fill you in on what’s happening in town.
First impressions: Juicy jumbo mushrooms were dipped in the same house-made beer batter as coats the cod, deep-fried, then splashed with jalapeño-infused cheese sauce and sprinkled with crisp bacon bits and green onion, partnered with a side of eye-opening dipping sauce spiked with Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey. The flavors and textures complemented each other, and the light, crisp coating helped make the appetizer a go-to-again.
We substituted cilantro aioli for the cream cheese on the fried tomato sandwich, a garden of fresh veggies and dressing on a thick brioche bun that was too much bread for the ingredients. Oops – we should have added bacon. Again, the beer batter formed that four-star coating on the tomato slices. On the strength of that alone, we’ll be back for the battered cod.
Try it if: You’re passing through town and want to sample some brews and linger over a decent lunch.
Forget it if: You think strong beer is the work of the devil.
Jack Russell Brewery Downtown
Where: 209 Main St., Placerville
Hours: Food is served 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, and 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. The bar stays open for about an hour after the kitchen closes.
Information: 530-601-4420; the website is under construction