Tapping into History: Ruhstaller and New Helvetia
Two of Sacramento’s historic beer brands are back on tap as part of a craft beer resurgence that has the city “swimming in beer again,” according to food expert Darrell Corti.
“It’s a new product, even though it has a historic name,” Corti said. “And the beers are actually good.”
The return of Buffalo and Ruhstaller comes from a couple of entrepreneurs who share a love of history. And beer. David Gull of New Helvetia Brewing Company had a family connection to the Buffalo brand. Ruhstaller’s J.E. Paino had a natural curiosity about the Ruhstaller Building. Now, these two beer revivalists are not only brewing modern versions of 125-year-old brands, but they’re staying true to history by sourcing hops locally. Because the only way to get authentic Sacramento flavor is the “farm-to-keg” way.
New Helvetia: Bring Back Buffalo Beer
When David Gull decided to leave commercial development in 2008 to start a craft brewery, he didn’t have to look far for inspiration. Just back a couple of generations. His great-uncle George was bar manager at the Buffalo Club at 1831 S St. His grandfather used to knock on the club’s back door—beer pail in hand—to collect a bucket of brew.
“I thought to myself, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if somebody brought back the Buffalo brand?” recalled Gull, a fourth-generation Sacramento resident. “Then I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if I brought back the Buffalo brand?’.”
Research told him he was onto something, but a trademark attorney advised that using the Buffalo Brewing name could be problematic. So Gull went in another direction, naming his company for John Sutter’s New Helvetia land grant but still following his vision to bring back Buffalo beer.
After four years of work, New Helvetia Brewing Company opened in December 2012, and Buffalo Craft Lager has been on Gull’s menu ever since. But it’s not his great-uncle’s lager. Gull opted for a more modern, Helles-style lager that’s full and flavorful.
“If we were to bring back the original Buffalo beer, it wouldn’t be palatable. A lot has changed,” Gull said. “A hundred years ago, the hops were all grown here. The malt was grown here. And, of course, there was a plentiful water supply. But the hops went away. The malt completely went away. And even today’s water is different.”
Not only did New Helvetia bring back the iconic Buffalo brand, but the brewery also began sourcing fresh hops from farms in Sacramento and El Dorado counties, raw wheat from the Delta and honey from Sacramento beehives. This dedication to local sourcing goes beyond “farm-to-fork,” reflecting Gull’s philosophy that a brewery exists as part of the community.
“Opening a brewery at a location like this on Broadway has its challenges,” Gull said of the 1925 building he occupies at 1730 Broadway, in an area that doesn’t have a lot of foot traffic. “We had to rely on the fact that we were nearby really great places, great neighborhoods—Land Park, Curtis Park, Midtown, Southside Park—and to be able to be at the crossroads of all of these wonderful neighborhoods. It was an ability to bring people together.”
Gull stays involved in the community in a variety of ways. He’s on the board of the Broadway Partnership. He coaches a Land Park Pacific Little League team. He hosts numerous meet-ups and community events at the New Helvetia location. And he even came up with an innovative program called HIMBY: Hops In My Backyard.
“We announced the program on April 1, and immediately I had to assure everyone that it wasn’t an April Fool’s joke,” Gull said. “We had 50 hops rhizomes, and we invited customers to pick one up along with a beer glass and some twine. The first 50 sold out, and we got 50 more. So now we have 100 hops vines growing all around Sacramento.”
In August, the HIMBY participants will harvest their hops and bring them back to New Helvetia to be turned into a seasonal brew ready in time for September’s Farm-to-Fork Week. It’s just one part of Gull’s plan to “make this place burst at the seams.” He’s also planning to expand the brewing facilities, and a kitchen is in the works.
“You can’t just open your doors and expect people to show up. Great beer is just the minimum requirement,” Gull said of the burgeoning craft brewery business. “People in our neighborhood matter. Hopefully, that comes across.”
Ruhstaller: “We Grow Beer”
It’s late afternoon at the Ruhstaller Farm & Yard, and brewery founder J.E. Paino is grinning like a kid on Christmas morning. “We’re getting our hops picker,” he said, gesturing to the huge metal contraption, one of only three in the state. “Its name is Darrell.”
The hops picker is just the latest in a series of changes since 2011, when Paino brought back the historic Ruhstaller brand. Over the past four years, he has started a brewery, hops yard and perhaps a beer revolution. And, to hear him tell the story, it all began with the Ruhstaller Building at 9th and J streets in downtown Sacramento.
“I used to walk by it on a regular basis,” Paino said. “When I heard it was built in the 1890s, I knew if that quality of building was built today, it would be the biggest building in Sacramento. And it had a guy’s name on it. Wow, who was this guy?”
Research gave him the answer. Frank Ruhstaller was a Swiss immigrant who worked in local breweries before buying City Brewery in 1881. So when Paino decided to resurrect one of the most famous names in Sacramento beer history, the name of his first brew came naturally: Ruhstaller 1881.
The first Ruhstaller beer in nearly a century was well received by consumers. But at least one local food expert had some harsh-but-true words for the neophyte brewer.
“Darrell Corti called us out,” Paino recalled. “He said, ‘You guys don’t deserve the words Ruhstaller Sacramento unless you’re living up to what those words mean.’ And what those words meant to him was that we, Sacramento, grow hops and grow premium hops. It matters what the air does, what the soil has, what the farmer does or doesn’t do. It all matters. Darrell knew that, and that’s why we’re here today. He knew that Ruhstaller in Sacramento was more than just a guy, more than just a town. It was a way to brew beer that few places on earth can do: We can grow beer.”
Paino came away from the discussion with a new mission: not just to brew beer, but to grow the hops that impart a unique flavor and aroma. What he didn’t know at the time was that hops take time to mature: three years, usually. And that happens to be the amount of time it’s been since Paino planted a triangle of highly visible farmland along Interstate 80 in Dixon.
This year, for the first time, Ruhstaller can claim all locally grown hops for its flagship brew. It’s right there, on the back of the 1881 bottle, crediting Cascade and Chinook hops grown at the Ruhstaller Farm & Yard and California Common hops grown at Utterback Farms in Sloughhouse. Get used to that. If the beer revolution takes hold, Paino believes, craft brewers will distinguish themselves by designating the vintage and source of hops.
“The biggest challenge is the consumer and the general brewers understanding that a natural ingredient that changes year-in and year-out, and makes a different beer year-in and year-out, is something to enjoy and celebrate,” he said. “Brewers are a little afraid of that. I don’t think the consumer is.”
Paino sees the first signs of a revolution in the beer aisles of such specialty grocers as Corti Brothers and Nugget Markets. Instead of just grabbing a 12-pack of some national brand, many consumers are looking closely at bottles and ingredients. They’re curious, and they’re informed.
“I think the consumer is ready to accept that celebration of variation, that terroir if you will,” Paino said. “When the consumer is celebrating that to a big degree, and you see a lot of brewers doing hop-yard designated brews and vintages on the beers, now that’s a revolution.”
In the meantime, Paino works the entire farm-to-keg supply chain: growing, picking and drying the hops that will make today’s Ruhstaller beers unique to this time and place.
“This doesn’t seem like much of an achievement, but you go and plant hops and harvest them and get a picker and get a kiln. You do all the stuff that’s necessary. It’s a lot of work. And it’s all a good story, but at the end of the day it has to be better beer, and I think it is.”