Moksa, Moonraker and Big Sexy show competitive side of Sacramento beer scene

Sacramento has a middling reputation.

When somebody from out of state asks about Sacramento, they’re likely to hear something like, “Sacramento’s great. It’s close to Napa, close to San Francisco and you can ski at Tahoe.”

That’s great and all, but it doesn’t say much about Sacramento itself.

The geographical slight carries into the beer world.

Sacramento’s great. It’s close to Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa, one of the world’s premier breweries, and you can spend a day sampling world-class beer in San Francisco.

Being overlooked has its advantages, usually in the form of shorter lines at our favorite Sacramento area tasting rooms.

Our tasting rooms could be getting busier. The beer world is starting to take notice of the Sacramento area. Rocklin’s Moksa was recently rated the sixth-best new brewery in the world. Auburn’s Moonraker fetches a premium on beer trading sites, with cans being mailed to fans across the country.

Both Moonraker (4.12) and Moksa (4.10) have sky-high ratings on Untappd, the premier site used by fans for grading breweries.

It isn’t just hype drinkers are after. Moonraker and Moksa earned their top marks by making great beer. And that’s where the growth is in the beer scene, as Moonraker, in particular, has ramped up production to meet demand.

As consumers seek out better beer, that leaves some breweries with a problem. What if drinkers don’t like your beer?

Sacramento’s Big Sexy faced up to that last summer, when co-founders James Thompson and Mark Taylor debated how to continue their 2-year-old brewery.

“We looked at a couple local breweries that were starting to break out, that were newer breweries, and asked ‘Are we gonna be able to compete with these guys in a year?’ ” Thompson said. “That’s a tough conversation, especially when your co-founder is making the beer. That’s more of a moment of honesty than clarity.”

They settled on a fairly radical solution: hire the head brewer from a much larger company. They hired Dan Rafferty from Track 7 to take over brewing at Big Sexy. To put it in sports terms, this is a little like the lowly San Diego Padres signing stud shortstop Manny Machado to a huge contract – it doesn’t happen often.

The work at Big Sexy wasn’t, well, provocative. Rafferty spent the first month on the job working on the brewing system and automating the fermentation tanks, so temperatures can constantly be monitored. His work made it possible for Big Sexy to make the same beer consistently – a feat many small brewers struggle with.

Then he was able to cut loose with ideas for brews he didn’t have time for at Track 7. First came a hoppy amber. Then came a tropical IPA called Bringing Sexy Back. And then came his double IPA, Call of the Lupulhu, which is one of Big Sexy’s top-rated beers.

“I had a lot of ideas (at Track 7) but nothing I was able to take to fruition,” Rafferty said. “I think Call of the Lupulhu is something I’ve been homebrewing for years. Here, I just dialed in the recipe a bit and modernized it. That’s the first beer I’ve been happy with on the initial go-around.”

Beer drinkers have been pretty happy as well. Big Sexy’s Untappd scores have trended higher since Rafferty started.

“I try not to (look at the scores),” Rafferty said. “It’s not really any of my business what people think of me or my beers. I know for a fact the beer in quality we’re producing right now is probably the best in the area. We’re using the best ingredients available. A lot of effort and time is going into making a high-quality product.”

But the change is slow. There are thousands of Untappd reviews from years ago that still weigh down Big Sexy’s score.

And there are perceptions. Once drinkers try and dislike a beer, the brewery gets a reputation. People can be slow to give a brewery a second chance – if ever.

Thompson said Big Sexy’s wholesale business is up 280% over last year, though some of that can be attributed to the brewery not meeting demand a year ago. It’s the surest way to try to win back drinkers. Get a steady supply of beer on tap in the area and hope people give them a second chance.

“It’s a slow-moving boat, for sure,” Thompson said. “We did OK for two years. But you don’t gain 30 pounds and expect to lose it in two months. It’s a lot of work to get the word out to people so they understand it’s a different brewery, for sure.”

While the reclamation project is interesting, what it says about our beer scene is even more intriguing. For years, brewers have been able to succeed and grow simply because they were selling local beer. It didn’t have to be good. Moonraker and Moksa have shown the Sacramento area can make great beer. Big Sexy has shown the next move: We’re getting better beer.

Just don’t tell the people driving away from Sacramento. We don’t need any more competition in the can line.

James Patrick has covered the beer scene from Maine to California. (OK, mostly just those two.) He’s worked at newspapers in six states as a sports reporter, sports editor, social media editor and newspaper carrier. He’s as comfortable drinking a High Life as a wild-fermented raspberry sour.