Technology is not always a straightforward advance into a more efficient future towards new and better processes and new and better products; sometimes an industry must go backwards to re-create itself. That is happening in brewing. The steadily growing craft brewing industry enjoys nostalgia for older, sometimes even ancient times; these days I am never surprised by brewers who reach back into brewing history for interesting technology or for by-gone products.
If you drive down I-80 in a westward direction from Davis you will soon pass a small hop yard on your right. It’s unmistakable because there are so many tall poles strung with wire in such a small space. When I first arrived in California I was surprised to see this unmistakable architecture of hop yards and the kilns used to dry them in the Sacramento area. Hop yards began to disappear in the 1960s as other crops became more attractive. The little hop yard at Exit 69 is a pale shadow of what once existed but, you never know, the industry could make a major comeback in northern California.
J-E Paino owns the Ruhstaller Brewing Company and has planted this small yard to supply his Ruhstaller beers with at least one material that is locally grown. Whether he will also be successful in growing barley for malt locally is another matter but, again, one never knows. I wrote previously in this column about the rise of Ruhstaller beer because it revives one of the outstanding brewing names of the nineteenth century in the American West. Captain Ruhstaller was a Swiss immigrant who built the company and made Ruhstaller Gilt Edge Lager the region’s iconic beer. The company and the beer disappeared, along with many others, during Prohibition. The Captain’s descendants are still in the valley (in Stockton), and, of course, the Ruhstaller Building in downtown Sacramento is on the National Register of Historic Places. There is even a Davis connection to the Oeste family.
I write about this now because last Thursday evening I was invited to a party at the new hop yard and, because J-E is a friend, I attended. I must admit there was another reason too: at the party J-E would offer for the first time in over 90 years Ruhstaller Gilt Edge Lager. Now, the introduction of a new craft beer is hardly news any more and, to tell the truth, I don’t normally get excited about such an occasion.
However, I had some very small part to play in the development of this lager and, along the way, I tasted a number of test brews with J-E; the last one I tasted was spectacularly delicious and when asked to criticize the product I was at a loss for words.
That is not normal.
And so I was more than mildly interested in the event at the hop yard that would bring this iconic and excellent beer back to Sacramento and the Central Valley, its historic home. I would be in at the moment of its renaissance; it would become my house beer.
Well, I’m not too sure what happened on the way to the marketplace but the Ruhstaller Gilt Edge Lager I tasted last Thursday night was not the experimental product I so much enjoyed earlier. Although the beer has a very satisfying golden glow and the splendid and stable white foam of a classic lager, the product is now made with a rough and raw and harsh bitterness that overwhelms the beer; it is just not to my taste (though it may suit you) nor does it suggest to me the kind of lager that Captain Ruhstaller would have made. In fact I can find this kind of excessive hopping and bitterness in an hundred, nay a thousand, micro-brewed beers around the country, all of which have forgotten the brewers mantra of flavor balance. I had high hopes for this product so I’m sad about that.
On the other hand brewers’ nostalgia can sometimes have a quite extraordinary outcome. The photograph with this column is of my brewing lab class visiting the very first craft brewery that ever was in this country. We are at Jack McAuliffe’s New Albion Brewery in Sonoma probably about 1977; Jack is standing on the left and on the right I am sitting on my heels (as far as I know this was the last time I was able to hit this pose). Jack brought flavorful ales to market for the first time in this country since the early 1800s. He established the company from his experience drinking beer while in the Navy in Scotland and as a home brewer; it is true that home brewing remains a crucial driver for new craft brewers and breweries. Jack’s brewery was built mostly from 55-gallon stainless steel drums and had a small production capacity. Though his beers sold well he could not make enough beer to make a living and, in those days, no bank would lend him money to build a brewery big enough to sustain his sales. He closed up and left the industry.
I met Jack again at the 30th Anniversary party of the Sierra Nevada Brewery; unfortunately he had sustained a serious injury and did not look well or prosperous. But it turns out Jim Koch, owner of Boston Brewing Co that makes Sam Adams and a host of other brands, and himself an early micro-brewer, knew the New Albion story and had learned much from Jack McAuliffe’s failure; Jim appreciated how much he and the craft industry owed this pioneer.
Here I quote directly from a piece in Bloomburg Business Week:
“Koch got in touch with McAuliffe and told him he had purchased the trademark to New Albion some years before. He wanted to know if McAuliffe was interested in reviving New Albion Ale with the help of Boston Beer. “The idea was we would give him all the profits,” Koch says. “Hopefully that would make the rest of his life a little better because a lot of us have done very well following in his footsteps.”
How is that for nostalgia and the brewing community at work? Maybe New Albion Ale will become my house brew.
— Reach Michael Lewis at [email protected] Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com