Sacramento’s brewing legacy buried but not forgotten

William F. Borchers of Union Brewery and City Brewery (which produced steam beer) is among the old-time brewers buried at the Sacramento City Historic Cemetery along with his wife, Bridget, and other family members.
William F. Borchers of Union Brewery and City Brewery (which produced steam beer) is among the old-time brewers buried at the Sacramento City Historic Cemetery along with his wife, Bridget, and other family members.

More than a century before Track 7 introduced its popular Panic India pale ale and Bike Dog Brewing drew beer enthusiasts to a West Sacramento industrial park, the region was enjoying its original beer boom. There were breweries scattered all over the grid and tasting rooms were much like today’s, save for the beer selfies and geeky discussions about hop varieties and yeast strains.

Many of the leaders and visionaries who brought beer to Sacramento in the 1800s and helped it flourish into the 20th century are buried at Sacramento’s Historic City Cemetery amid governors, captains of industry, educators and even leaders of the local women’s temperance movement, whose mission it was to put the kibosh on all that drinking.

Volunteer docents and researchers have put together a self-guided tour that includes most of the major players in early Sacramento beer, with enough details to allow visitors to revisit the city’s brewing legacy as they stroll along the pathways and zero in on the hand-carved tombstones.

“The self-guided tour will take you to more breweries than you probably want to see,” said docent and researcher Eric Bradner.“We have over a dozen brewers here. We also have saloonkeepers, brewery workers and restaurant owners, too.”

The breweries of today have much in common with those from the 1800s, said Glynn Phillips, owner of Rubicon Brewing, which opened 28 years ago and is now considered part of the old guard of current craft breweries.

“It was a booming industry before Prohibition. With the new renaissance going on – not only in Sacramento but throughout California – it’s a great time to look back and see how many breweries there were,” Phillips said. “If you look at the history, it’s very similar to what we have now. Back then, they all knew each other and they collaborated. The brewers of today all talk to each other and try to help each other out.”

The inspiration for the brewers tour was the 2010 book “Sacramento’s Breweries” by Ed Carroll, published by the Sacramento County Historical Society. Bob LaPerriere, a physician and well-known history buff, read the book and began connecting the dots at the cemetery.

“It stimulates you because when you are here, you’re the closest to 1800s history that you can be because the people that created it are right below you here, whereas if you walk through Sacramento there’s very little remaining from the 1800s,” said LaPerriere during a recent visit to the cemetery.

“(Sacramento) was one of the largest brewery areas west of the Mississippi. Very, very popular. It kind of faded out, obviously, for a good number of decades until the interest picked up over the last couple of decades.”

At least two of Sacramento’s newer breweries, Ruhstaller and New Helvetia, have made the city’s rich brewing legacy a key part of their business model. Ruhstaller, owned by J-E Paino, not only revived the surname of the city’s most prominent brewer but named several of its beers after elements of Ruhstaller history, including Gilt Edge Lager and Captain, an award-winning black India pale ale that refers to Ruhstaller’s title in a local militia.

In 2011, when Paino brewed the first batch of the new Ruhstaller beer, he took a bottle of 1881, a red ale, to the cemetery and paid homage to Frank Ruhstaller.

“We felt like we needed to make a special delivery. We took the first bottle to Captain Frank’s headstone,” Paino said. “All I know is that when I went back a couple of days later, the bottle was gone, so I think he liked it.”

New Helvetia Brewing was inspired by Buffalo Brewing Co., which opened in 1890 and became one of the most successful breweries west of the Mississippi. The Ruhstaller heirs, including Frank Jr., were major shareholders and key leaders of the operation. Just last month, New Helvetia’s Buffalo Lager won a gold medal at the prestigious California State Fair Commercial Craft Beer competition.

New Helvetia’s brewmaster, Brian Cofresi, is also a student of beer history and believes the growth spurt in breweries is an opportunity for Sacramento to be a brewing force again.

“We’ve been a little behind some of the other beer towns, but we’ve got a bunch of brewers who see the potential to make great beer and make as much of it as we can,” said Cofresi. “It’s exciting times. Sacramento is ready to surge into the national limelight.”

Asked about the quality of beer in Sacramento a century ago, Cofresi said, “They were all full bodied. They used local hops and they were good hops. There was really good beer that we’d all enjoy drinking and there were others that were less than ideal. But if you had just been working 12 hours and you picked one up on the way home, I’m sure it was great.”

Carroll, who has a master’s degree in public history and collects beer memorabilia, was looking for a thesis topic when he began to wonder about Sacramento’s largely forgotten beer history. The book is out of print but is still available for $14.95 at Corti Brothers.

Referring to the recent boom in local brewing, Carroll said, “It’s astounding when you go out and see how much beer is being poured and how many people are catching on.”

Blair Anthony Robertson: 916-321-1099, @Blarob

Early Sacramento brewing visionaries

Here are some of the key figures you will encounter on the cemetery’s self-guided tour of brewers:

Frank Ruhstaller (1847-1907): A Swiss immigrant, Ruhstaller bought City Brewery, which produced steam beer, in the late 1800s. He bought a second brewery and sold its beer under the Ruhstaller label. Later, he merged with Buffalo Brewing, a brewing cooperative that became an industry force and was known as one of the largest producers west of the Mississippi. The beer was sold as Ruhstaller’s, Gilt Edge, Buffalo and several other brands.

Louis Nicolaus (1829-1903): A former miner and butcher, the German immigrant became part owner of Capital Brewery in 1869. In 1888, he became one of the original investors in Buffalo Brewing and later consolidated with Ruhstaller. When he died, he left an estate of $100,000 – worth about $2.8 million today – to his wife and four children.

George Ochs (1822-78): He bought the Ohio Brewery in 1858 and changed its name to the St. Louis Brewery. When he died, his wife, Magdalena (Magdlena on her tombstone), took ownership and ran it for the next few years.

Louis Keseberg (1814-95): After converting an old bar and restaurant to create the thriving Phoenix Brewery in 1853, Keseberg became a force on the local brewing scene. But he could never escape his past. He was one of the last members of the Donner Party to be rescued from its winter shelter in the Sierra, and despite his success, accusations of cannibalism continued to haunt him. Phoenix Brewery is considered the first to introduce lagers to Sacramento, which led to the demise of so-called common beer and ales. When his brewery was wiped out by the flood of 1861-62, he left town to open a distillery in Calistoga for friend Samuel Brannan, the first millionaire from the Gold Rush. Left penniless, he died at the county hospital; his gravesite is unknown. However, his wife and daughters’ remains were moved from the former New Helvetia Cemetery to the Historic City Cemetery in the 1950s before construction of Sutter Middle School.

The Historic City Cemetery is at 1000 Broadway.

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