If you’ve been keeping up with the news, you know that Ruhstaller is in crisis mode. Solano County essentially shut down Ruhstaller’s charmingly rustic tasting room at its hop farm near Dixon because of permitting and building code issues. With nine idle employees and tens of thousands of dollars invested in the facility, the company’s future hangs in the balance.
I’ll leave the immediate problem-solving to the brewery’s founder, J-E Paino, who is working to reopen the facility. When I spoke with him last week, he sounded depleted and talked about leaving California. When I asked if his strategy for Ruhstaller still had traction, he responded, “I don’t know.” A second tasting room downtown remains open.
At the risk of piling on, the issues in Solano County have left some people, myself included, wondering about Ruhstaller’s concept and execution. Ruhstaller has the best branding and marketing of any brewery in the region, and Paino is a thoughtful, charismatic pitch man. His vision was admirable. But I talk to a lot of serious craft beer fans, and it’s been a long time since any of them have put Ruhstaller on par with the best local breweries.
Paino is selling a product that doesn’t seem to stack up to the competition. Founded in 2011, Ruhstaller burst onto the scene with a great story, a meaningful connection to Sacramento’s century-old brewing legacy and plenty of style – the logo, the burlap-cloaked bottles, the old clunker of a pickup truck. This looked like the craft brewery that was going to bring Sacramento attention and acclaim.
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Some of those early beers were pretty appealing to craft beer newcomers and, back then, could be found at several of the city’s best restaurants. But the landscape has changed. New breweries have surpassed those beers in quality, consistency, creativity and deliciousness, and the local craft beer consumer is more knowledgeable and discerning in 2016. The story and the marketing have worn thin.
What’s more, Ruhstaller’s beers in cans and bottles are among the most expensive in town. It’s hard to see the value when it’s more expensive than Pliny the Elder. The area’s top beer bars – Pangaea, Capitol Beer and Tap Room and Final Gravity – rarely serve it. Its best beer is a coffee porter released in limited quantities. It produces a nice black IPA called Capt., but continues to promote small batches of “experimental” IPAs when it has yet to prove it has ever produced a regular IPA that has caught on. It came out with a batch of IPAs with the same hop grown in different locales and suggested hops might have a terroir, like wine grapes. No other local breweries are talking about that kind of thing.
“I find it far more rewarding to drink brews that expand the boundaries of styles and ingredients. It appears to me that this is where craft beer is headed,” said Dave Prillwitz, a legend on the RateBeer website, when I asked him about Ruhstaller. “While most Ruhstaller beers are of good quality, locally grown hops don’t necessarily make them any better.” Prillwitz has given most of Ruhstaller’s beers a ho-hum rating.
Early on, Paino decided to keep costs down by not investing in infrastructure. He opted to be a contract brewer – using Ruhstaller recipes and paying to brew occasionally on equipment at other breweries. It’s a legit enough practice, especially in big cities where real estate is at a premium, and some great beers are made this way. But of the 50 or so breweries in the Sacramento region, Ruhstaller may be the only one contract brewing. A big part of craft beer involves a sense of place and community, which brewing on site helps foster.
What’s more, the brewmaster position at Ruhstaller is part time and all but anonymous. This could be a missed opportunity to enlist a star brewer and promote his or her Midas touch. Paino went in a different direction.
In the beginning, he saw an opportunity to revive Sacramento’s once-formidable hop industry by selling the idea that Ruhstaller was using all-California ingredients. That idea no longer seems to resonate because the beer doesn’t stack up to the increasingly stiff competition: Mraz, Knee Deep, Track 7, Device, New Glory, Sudwerk, Berryessa and more. At a recent blind IPA tasting I conducted with some area beer enthusiasts, Ruhstaller came in near the bottom. It’s all about the comparison, and there’s so much exciting stuff out there.
Ruhstaller’s troubles could be a blessing in disguise. It’s an opportunity for Paino to reconsider his strategy, de-emphasize hop growing and invest in a top-notch brewmaster. While the path out of the brouhaha may be murky, the road to re-establish relevance is clear: Brew great beer, and win back those craft beer fans who have moved on.