Sacramento has a rich history in brewing lore

02/29/2012 12:00 AM

02/28/2012 2:05 PM

The third annual Beer Week in Sacramento is a good time to find out about the town's rich beer past.

Whether you're looking to learn a little between pints or get a jump on the competition for pub trivia, there's a detailed and well-written book that chronicles the rise and fall of Sacramento's breweries from the pioneer days until the onset of Prohibition in 1919.

The book is not just a history – it has become a business recruiting tool. One businessman was so impressed with what he read that he decided to move to Sacramento and start a premium beer-making operation. More on that in a moment.

Published in 2010, "Sacramento's Breweries" (Sacramento County Historical Society, $14.95, 128 pages) is the work of local historian, musician and beer aficionado Ed Carroll.

Carroll, who has a master's degree in public history from California State University, Sacramento, actually began his research years before enrolling in the history program. He loved beer, was a collector of beer memorabilia and was curious about his hometown's largely forgotten prominence as a beer-brewing hub on the West Coast.

This was in the late 1980s.

"I had nothing to do, so I thought, 'I'll go down to the city library and see if they have anything on Sacramento breweries,' " Carroll said.

He unearthed pieces of information here and there, but there was nothing comprehensive. Every so often, he would return to the library and sift through more documents and read old newspapers. Meanwhile, life went on, he earned an undergraduate degree in English and spent six years working at Beer's Books. Throughout, he was a drummer in local bands. Then a friend persuaded him to pursue a master's degree in public history.

For his thesis, he pitched the idea of writing a history of local breweries. Getting it approved was the easy part. The hard part: two years of research. He found plenty of nuggets and began piecing them together, including the crucial role of Sacramento's German immigrants in the brewing trade – and well beyond.

"I thought, 'Man, this is a really cool part of history.' Those guys weren't just brewing. They were doing saloons, real estate, banking. They were real entrepreneurs."

One name that rose above many others was that of Frank Ruhstaller, a Swiss immigrant who rose to prominence as the founder of City Brewery and Ruhstaller Brewery. Ruhstaller was smart and ambitious, and his brewery operations were ahead of their time.

He passed on those skills to a son, Frank Jr., who began his apprenticeship at age 15 and eventually took control of the Buffalo Brewery, which was started by Herman Grau in 1890.

"On paper," Carroll, writes, "this company represents the pinnacle of German capitalist achievement in Sacramento and, on a larger scale, the entire state."

The brewery used hops grown in Yolo County and water from the Sacramento River. Under the young and dynamic Frank Ruhstaller Jr., the company grew to be the largest brewery in the West, and it shipped its beer internationally.

The contributions of Ruhstaller senior and junior were destined to go largely unheralded by today's bar crowd – until a young businessman, J-E Paino, got the idea to pay tribute to their legacy.

Paino was a business student at the University of California, Davis, when he began working on a Sacramento real estate project for a class. He eventually came across Carroll's work, which led to his founding of a new company called Ruhstaller Beer.

"I was amazed that this was possible," Paino said of Carroll's book. "Ed had documented a lot of the real estate and then he wrote about the different breweries. This guy named Ruhstaller kept coming up. I personally identified with Capt. Frank Ruhstaller. This was a man who saw Sacramento as a place to go to become somebody, not a place you have to be somebody to go to."

Paino, 39, started Ruhstaller Beer in 2009 and released its first beers nine months ago, contracting with three area breweries to use their facilities.

The company's product can be ordered at some of the area's best restaurants and bars, including Mulvaney's, Grange, Magpie, 1022 and Samuel Horne's Tavern in Folsom. It also is available in bottles at Whole Foods, Nugget Market, Corti Brothers, Taylor's Market and Pangaea.

"Ed calls himself a historian, but in my mind he's an archaeologist," Paino said. "Sacramento's past as a beer-production Mecca is just beneath the surface."

There's more history to be made. Beer in Sacramento is thriving once again, thanks to numerous brewery operations, with more to come. The selection of premium beers has never been better.

Says Carroll of the current beer scene, "We have more breweries now than we've ever had. If you don't like it now, you're never going to like it – it's all here."

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