Decoding Sacramento’s craft beer explosion

Scene from the California Craft Beer Summit   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Before I visited the city for the first time this year, I knew little about Sacramento. From thousands of miles away, it didn’t have the allure of ritzy Los Angeles or techy San Francisco, but I’d enjoyed Greta Gerwig’s 2017 Oscar-nominated film, Ladybird (an homage to the director’s home town), enough to look forward to its old-world charm and great coffee.

Over five days, I embarked on a road trip across the northern part of Highway 49 — the 300-mile road that follows the state’s 19th century Gold Rush — visiting family-owned vineyards, Zagat-rated restaurants and community farms. But it was the craft breweries that soon became the most anticipated stops.

Changing times

Consisting of at least 84 breweries, Sacramento region’s “red-hot craft-beer scene” (as described by New York Magazine) is one of the fastest growing in the country. That is no surprise, given that California is the largest craft beer-producing state (with 980 in operation, craft breweries contributed more than $8 billion to the state’s economy in 2017). But it has traditionally been cities south of Sacramento, like San Diego, that have drawn enthusiasts for tasting sessions, microbrewing lessons and pub crawls.

This is changing. With a growing craft beer culture in California, other regions are putting themselves on the map. With years of experience under their belt, they are moving beyond traditional styles and getting more experimental (with newer brews like the Brut style). For others, it's the draw of cheaper operational costs or wanting to be in Sacramento for personal reasons. Like Erik Schmid, owner-and-founder of Folsom-based Red Bus Brewing Co, a quirky, Volkswagen-inspired brewery that has an “open source” policy when it comes to its recipes. Even though there is a growing wine-making culture in the region — north of the famed Napa and Sonoma valleys — Schmid wanted to come back home to open his brewery. The water was an added bonus. “It has a hard, mineral quality, which makes it great for IPAs.”

Heidi Wilder at Fort Rock

Heidi Wilder at Fort Rock   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Heidi Wilder, co-founder of Fort Rock Brewing in nearby Rancho Cordova, was inspired by the years she lived in Bavaria, Germany, to bring home a bit of the region’s beer culture. Located in the Barrel District, Fort Rock makes all its beer using snowmelt from Folsom Lake. “Breweries in the area are pushing the limits on beer and blurring the lines of traditional styles that would make any Bavarian cringe,” laughs Wilder. “We are very much in the Wild West!”

Derek Gallanosa at Moksa Brewery

Derek Gallanosa at Moksa Brewery   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Take for instance, Derek Gallanosa’s Moksa Brewery, which he opened less than two years ago after moving from San Diego to Sacramento to be closer to his fiancé. Within a year, Moksa — which has gained a following for its unique brews like pastry-flavoured stout — was voted the world’s sixth best new brewer by The move to the region, he says, confirmed what he’d already suspected: that Sacramento is on the verge of a craft beer explosion. “Although it doesn’t yet have the beer culture or abundance of breweries as San Diego, this city has a dedicated and passionate craft beer following that will continue to grow.”

Gold rush 2.0
  • Author Justin Chechourka, in his book Sacramento Beer: A Craft History (2018), writes that this is not the first time the city is experiencing a “liquid gold rush.” The 19th century Gold Rush saw the city’s mostly young, male population take to beer, but a Prohibition-induced lull lasted many decades. Diversifying into other beverages during this period later led to the rise of mammoth beer-producing companies — Budweiser, Coors, Miller — which went on to dominate the market. “As a nation, we were basically trained that macro lager equalled beer,” says Chechourka. But by the ’80s, craft brewers like Sierra Nevada and Boston Brewing had broken into the scene, by educating consumers on the wide flavour profiles of craft beer, while home-brewing also emerged as an activity.
  • Since 2013, the number of craft breweries in California have doubled, and while markets like San Diego have become saturated, a growing population and migration from major cities like San Francisco have helped boost Sacramento’s beer scene.

Craft conscious

One result of the growing enthusiasm for independently-brewed beer has been what Julia Herz, craft beer programme director at the Brewers Association, the nationwide body representing independent brewers, calls “craftwashing” — acquisition by big brewers of independent labels. The most recent example is Anheuser-Busch InBev’s (the world’s largest brewing company and makers of Budweiser) move to acquire craft labels like Goose Island and Wicked Weed, while still promoting them as ‘craft’ creations. “The authenticity of craft brewing is tied to small, independently-owned businesses,” says Herz, adding that independent brewers have now started incorporating an upside down beer bottle logo to show consumers that they are not owned by corporate giants.

But Sacramento’s breweries are working hard to maintain their independence, and the region’s beer drinkers are ready to support their local brewers. Head over to Moksa or Fort Rock on a Friday evening, and you will find lines snaking out the doors, while owners share recipes and tips from their latest experiments. “Some weekends we are packed so tightly that people are choosing somewhere else to drink,” says Gallanosa of Moksa. That’s a good problem to have.

The writer was in Sacramento at the invitation of Visit California

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Printable version | Mar 7, 2021 7:41:23 AM |

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