Rubicon Brewing has been around so long that newcomers to the craft beer scene tend to overlook this 28-year-old local treasure.
It’s not hip. It’s not trendy. And the crowds at its restaurant and pub on Capitol Avenue tend to be older.
How a brewery like Rubicon continues to thrive in an era of tremendous craft beer growth? When all kinds of new breweries are opening in cool places and offering plenty of innovation?
When I visited recently, this was one of the topics I sought to explore with owner Glynn Phillips and the pub’s brewer, Chris Keeton (the new production facility in West Sacramento has a separate brewing operation).
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But first, I couldn’t help but be impressed with the pub’s new summer series of beers called SMASH (for single malt and single hop). The idea, as the acronym suggests, is to use the same malt in the recipe and change only the type of hop. Keeton is doing this with four beers. The first one is brewed with a hop called Huell Melon. They’re calling this beer the Gallagher SMASH Melon, after the comedian best known for taking a sledge hammer to a watermelon (OK, it was funny the first 500 times).
Keeton says he is sourcing some of his hops locally via United Hops Farm.
“They’re growing all of these hop varieties that we want to be using and trying,” Keeton said. “That farm-to-fork concept that has exploded in the restaurants has started to move its way into the brewery world, especially for us in Sacramento. If I can make a beer with ingredients from around here, it’s good for the customers and it’s good for the farms.”
So there’s a quiet kind of quality and innovation that probably flies under the craft beer radar. Yet, the grapefruit IPA that recently won gold at the California State Fair Commercial Craft Beer competition shows that Rubicon is both creative and discerning in its approach to making beer. Called Grapefruit Hopsauce, it is flavored with local grapefruits – tracked down by the brewer himself.
“I’ve knocked on doors, jumped over the fence, picked the grapefruit and come back here and zested,” Keeton told me.
But what about following what’s hot right now? Like sours? Like barrel aging? Like all those crowded craft breweries with dogs and kids in industrial parks?
“It’s something we wrestle with pretty regularly. How do we remind people that we’re still here?” Phillips said. “How many breweries have you been to that have 12 beers on draft and all are quality beers?”
Adds Keeton: “It’s hard for us to look at something that’s popular for a year and redirect ourselves to that because we have 28 years pointing us in a general direction. If we were to turn the corner and go after every trend, we would be turning our back on the history that we have here.”
Rubicon recently lost its longtime brewmaster, Scott Cramlet, to an East Sacramento start-up, Twelve Rounds Brewing, which is slated to open Aug. 1 Cramlet wanted to try new things. The IPA over which he presided at Rubicon was groundbreaking, then mainstream, then old-school, all without changing the recipe. That’s the way it is in craft beer. You have to be good. You have to be new. But you can’t run from who and what you are.
“What do we do?” asked Phillips with a shrug. “We just act like Rubicon. I’m here because I love the business. I’m not going anywhere. I see the Knee Deeps, I see Stone, Bear Republic, Sudwerk, Device, New Glory and Mraz, and I love all their beers. But they’re not making Rubicon beer.”
What is Rubicon beer? There’s the excellent IPA, once a wallop of hops some considered astonishing and now rather mild by today’s 100-plus IBU (International Bittering Units) standards. There’s Monkey Knife Fight pale ale, still lively, balanced and hoppy, and one of the best food-friendly beers going. Those are just two of many beers that the regulars know and love (and don’t want changed).
There’s also the new Rubicon, with the approach to sourcing ingredients that makes these new beers really pop. The SMASH series inspires new ideas and approaches, as well as engages customers in meaningful ways. I encourage you to follow along with the SMASH beers over the weeks to come and taste how each hop variety used in the recipe influences the final product. I’m already looking forward to the second beer in the series, brewed with a hop called Sorachi Ace.
Maybe a fresh look from the new wave of beer enthusiasts is what Rubicon needs. Given its years in the business and the quality beers the brewery continues to produce, that’s certainly what it deserves.