Monday, October 15, 2012

A Beer for Winemakers

Beer break. Or, as California winemakers are fond of noting, it takes a lot of beer to make a lot of wine. Not that they add beer to wine, but during the long hot days of harvest beer looks to be the beverage of choice for cellar rats. Just stop by a crush pad and peek into the recycling bin. Brace yourself, however, for the shock of seeing so many crushed cans of Budweiser. It's enough to rattle your confidence in their palates.

So, we have a suggestion for an upgrade - the Ruhstaller 2012 Sacramento Blue Heron Hop Yard Hop Sac.  Jan-Erik Paino, who owns Ruhstaller, a year-old artisan brewery in Sacramento, didn't conceive of Blue Heron Hop Yard Hop Sac with vintners in mind, but it's a beer whose crafting they especially might appreciate.

A clue is the vintage date on the label, common for wine, rare for beer. That's Paino's way of saying that this is a beer whose nature is meant to be contrary to the standardization and consistency that characterizes mainstream beer. As most any vintner can tell you, Budweiser is popular because it's always the same, for better or worse. In contrast, Paino expects Blue Heron Hop Yard Hop Sac to be a little bit different each year, in large part because this is a "wet hop" beer, as also noted on the label. Customarily, hops are dried right after harvest. Paino skips that step, sending his dewy hops directly to the vat. His reasoning is that this is the best way to seize the nature of the place where the hops are grown - the terroir, as it were, a concept with which vintners can identify. "We want to capture a moment in time in that bottle," says Paino. "We pick the hops at 5:30 a.m., when they're still wet. That way we get all the the oils in the hops and the grassiness in the leaves. This flips typical beermaking on its head. A wet-hop beer changes yearly. It's a winemaker's approach to beer. We want people to enjoy the terroir."

Paino and his beers - his current lineup under the Ruhstaller brand includes three other styles - are pretty much based on the concept of place. The hops and barley he uses are California grown. Last year he was pleased with his inaugural release, a red ale called 1881, named for the year that pioneering brewer Capt. Frank Ruhstaller founded a Sacramento brewery. Paino was happy, that is, until Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti chided him for using "Ruhstaller" and "Sacramento" on his labels without using local hops in his beer. Paino had logic on his side. Though Sacramento once was celebrated for its hop farms, hop growing  in the area ended in the 1980s. Corti's admonishment registered with Paino, however, and he began a quest to help revive hop cultivation about Sacramento. With assistance from Corti, Paino tracked down Sloughhouse sod farmer David Utterback, who had a small stand of hops descended from the last stand of hops in the area, owned by the late George Signorotti.

Then, this spring Paino teamed up with Winters farmer Sean McNamara to plant nearly an acre of hops, believed to be the first new spread of hops in Sacramento Valley since Signorotti's last harvest three decades ago. McNamara calls his plot of hops the Blue Heron Hop Yard. Thus, the 2012 Blue Heron Hop Yard Hop Sac is based on barley cultivated in Northern California's Klamath River Basin and hops grown at Winters by McNamara and at Sloughhouse by Utterback.

Paino has put almost as much effort into packaging the large-format bottle as filling it. Each bottle is wrapped in burlap to mimic the bags into which hops traditionally had been harvested. The burlap is fastened to the bottle with sturdy black wire wrapped about the neck. The printing of the label is vintage letterpress. As to the beer itself, it also is attractive, from its coppery sheen through its smooth and refreshing flavor. It's medium-bodied, balanced and dry, with a citrusy tang and a suggestion of minerality. Paino made just 225 cases, and it is expected to be sold out by the end of the month. Each bottle contains 1 pint, 6 ounces. The alcohol content is 6 percent. I found it at the West Sacramento branch of Nugget Markets, where it cost $8. Other Nugget Markets, Corti Brothers and Taylors Market also stock the beer.


  1. I saw JE on Viewfinder. I was impressed at how the burlap is put around the bottle...Pride Industries!! Awesome.

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