When Sacramento Valley’s early inhabitants found their way to John Sutter’s outpost, brewing was hardly a new concept. As in Europe, the American colonies boasted breweries aplenty and the fine art of home brewing was just another household ritual alongside washing the linens, cooking and tending the garden. Understandably, as dreams of gold and agrarian utopias lured the masses westward, beer naturally came along for the ride. So it was that Sacramento’s pioneer brewers came to ply their trade among the city’s burgeoning population and those en route to the mines.
The story of brewing in the West is complex and commands a much larger space than has been allotted here. Nonetheless, remember that brewing beer (and alcohol production in general) in Sacramento was as essential to local commerce as any other enterprise and much more than most.
Sacramento’s early breweries were situated in shabby wood and canvas structures and often lasted but a few months before their proprietors pulled up stakes in search of greener pastures. Not all succumbed to the perils of gold rush economics, however; a handful of breweries emerged from the confusion of the gold rush to make Sacramento California’s second largest brewing center after San Francisco. Much of this success can be attributed to the skill and resourcefulness of Sacramento’s German population. In their effort to preserve their cultural identity (and turn a tidy profit while they were at it) these stalwarts doggedly set about replicating their native brews in a foreign locale amidst a paucity of quality ingredients.
Beer in early 1850s Sacramento was undoubtedly a palatable concoction, but surely lacked the characteristic quality and flavor ushered in with the commencement of local and regional hop growing in the early 1860s, and the introduction of artificial refrigeration a decade or so later. There were many constraints on Sacramento’s brewers during the 1850s, not the least of which was the absence of fresh hops. Quality hops are imperative to a successful brew. During these times, New York and Europe dominated the hop industry and our city’s pioneer brewer had to make do with hops that made the long dusty trek across country or aboard moldy, unsanitary ships carrying goods and passengers to the gold fields. The upside was that unlike those brewers on the East Coast nestled among the bustle and filth of the big city, Sacramento’s maverick brewer had plenty of good water on hand to offset his use of less than desirable ingredients.
Perhaps the most crucial factor preventing Germans from replicating their native lager was the intense heat of the valley summer. Again, the conditions between the rest of the brewing universe and Sacramento must be understood to grasp the local industry’s evolution. Without the benefit of refrigeration and icy winters like those in the East, Midwest and, to some degree San Francisco, it became a formidable challenge to produce lager (a cold fermenting beer). In contrast, the prevalence of warmer temperatures produced the desirable conditions for ale production, resulting in a brewers’ quandary: to abandon traditional lager brewing techniques or settle for a new interpretation of lager? The result was one of ingenuity and compromise.
Fermenting lager yeast at warm temperatures produced a wholly different beer, now known as California common or steam beer. This style went on to enormous popularity even after true lager production was made possible through a variety of technical improvements. Lager soon joined the ranks of ale and steam and eventually surpassed both styles in popularity and production, nationally and locally.
The final piece of the brewing puzzle was the cultivation of local hops. Around 1857, New Hampshire’s Flint brothers established the state’s first commercial hop yard south of Broadway as part of their many horticultural experiments. Initially the two brothers had a difficult time convincing local brewers that their hops were as good, if not better, than their Eastern and European counterparts, but after a few trials it was obvious that the Flints were onto something. Others took notice and also began to take advantage of the tremendous agricultural potential afforded by the region’s weather and alluvial soil. Now with a plentiful supply of local hops on hand, Sacramento’s brewer could produce the beer he had originally envisaged and most importantly, Sacramento Valley hops earned a worldwide reputation among brewers for their quality and flavor.
Over a dozen or more breweries opened in Sacramento between 1849 and 1865. At the time the typical local brewery was characterized by modest two-story brick buildings with basements (for fermentation) rather than the threadbare wood and canvas affairs favored a decade earlier. Brewing, like the city itself, had become solidified and regulated, allowing brewers to expand production and distribution. The chief result of this evolution was the influx of wealth among brewery operators. They in turn invested in any number of ventures ranging from agriculture and banks, real estate, saloons and, of course, brewery improvements.
Breweries came and went over the next 60 years and Sacramento always managed to support its local brewer despite the encroachment of large national shipping brands including Pabst and Budweiser. Innovations such as artificial refrigeration and the refrigerated rail car, bottling lines, advertising and numerous other technical advancements forced small brewers across the nation to either consolidate to meet the high expenses associated with these changes or to simply close up shop. Rather than fold, several Sacramento brewers consolidated their money and equipment to compete on a larger scale. The result was the Sacramento Brewing Company formed by brewing magnate and firebrand Frank Ruhstaller and his associates in 1892. Soon thereafter, many of these same entrepreneurs masterminded Sacramento’s crown jewel, the Buffalo Brewery, choosing to manage it under the moniker Buffalo Brewing Company.
Alas, all good things must come to an end and local brewing was no exception. Curtailed by the Volstead Act of 1919, commonly known as Prohibition, commercial brewing ceased in Sacramento for the first time since 1849. The world of post-prohibition brewing was dominated by new and expensive technology, leaving no room for the upstart. Brewing in the capital city would never return to the production levels sustained throughout the 19th Century and the modern brewing industry eclipsed the last vestiges of the city’s pioneer brewing roots. Buffalo Brewery attempted to regain its former glory but despite strong financial backing, it eventually lost its footing against the same national brands it had competed against in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries.
Of course, telling the entire complex story of Sacramento’s noble brewing heritage within this confined space is simply not possible but it is important to remember those souls who diligently worked amidst the primitive conditions of 19th Century Sacramento to continue the age old tradition and science of brewing. This city may have drastically changed since its inception, but local beer and brewing culture allows us to remain connected to those parched souls that inhabited our homes and roamed our streets over 150 years ago.