Where to Drink in Sacramento, California

Destinations by | Oct 2015 | Issue #105
Illustrations by Sam Brewster

In 1866, Mark Twain famously called Sacramento “the city of saloons.” Industrious German immigrants began brewing here during the Gold Rush, making the city California’s second-largest brewing center after San Francisco. In 1890, Herman Grau started the Buffalo Brewing Company in Sacramento, naming it after the thriving beer culture in Buffalo, N.Y. Soon Buffalo Brewing was one of the largest beer producers west of the Mississippi. Prohibition halted production for a time, and the brewery turned to making ice and “near beer” before ultimately shutting its doors due to competition from national breweries in 1945.

The 18th amendment didn’t close down all the brewing operations in town, however. During this era, Sacramento was known as the “wettest town in the West.” (Local tour company Alopex Eco Adventures offers a Prohibition Brewery Tour pairing beer samples with stories about the city’s bootleggers and speakeasies.) But the ban on booze did put a considerable dent in local production as farmers diverted their focus from hops to other agricultural products, including rice, tomatoes, almonds and pears.

In the decades that followed, breweries came and went in California’s capital. Just a few years ago, you could count Sacramento’s breweries on your fingers. Then the recession closed a few mainstays, including Sacramento Brewing Company, Brew It Up! and Elk Grove Brewery Restaurant. But when the economy recovered, the beer scene exploded, reacquainting the city of saloons with its beer-soaked heritage. Today, over two dozen breweries make their home in the state capitol.

Two of the longest-running breweries in town are Rubicon Brewing Company and River City Brewing. At Rubicon, which opened in 1987, former brewmaster Scott Cramlet knew how to crank out winning beers, including a gold medal at the 2006 GABF for Winter Wheatwine (Cramlet recently left for Twelve Rounds Brewing). River City, meanwhile, was a downtown favorite for 22 years, but packed up shop this summer with plans to reopen in a suburban Carmichael location.

Other key players include relative newcomers Track 7, Bike Dog, Knee Deep and Ruhstaller Beer (named after Captain Frank Ruhstaller, a pioneering brewer who immigrated to Sacramento in the 19th century). Nanobreweries have joined the scene as well, including Device and Mraz.

Beer lovers also have a number of non-brewery options to get their fix of brew culture in this valley town. Hop on a Sac Brew Bike to pedal among local hotspots, head out on a Dead Brewer’s Tour at Old City Cemetery, or take a ride on the Sacramento Beer Train. Plus, the local culinary and brewing communities frequently pair up to titillate the senses with farm-to-fork events, pairings and beer dinners.

And any time of year is beer festival time in Sactown. The many events throughout the year include Sacramento Beer Week and Capitol Beer Fest in early spring and the California Brewers Festival, the Farm-to-Fork Festival and Sactoberfest in the fall.

105Destinations2Start a tour by stepping back in time at Old Sacramento institution The River City Saloon [therivercitysaloon.com]. This Gold Rush-era saloon was frequently raided during Prohibition, and today, even after a 2007 remodel and renaming, the flocked wallpaper and 1905 Triple Arch Brunswick bar still take drinkers on a journey. Enjoy great deli-style sandwiches, 25-cent Old West Sarsaparilla brewed by River City, and free peanuts (just toss the shells on the floor), in addition to brews.

In Midtown, a cluster of good beer bars makes for easy bar hopping. Sit at one of the communal tables at LowBrau and enjoy the ambiance of this German-style beer hall. The draft menu includes local favorites such as Sudwerk Doppel Bock and Ruhstaller Capt., a Black IPA, plus bottles of Schneider Weisse Aventinus, Aecht Schlenkerla Eiche, Reissdorf Kölsh and more. Sample the sausages, from bratwurst to boar and walnut-feta-chicken, along with Bavarian pretzels, schnitzel sandwiches and duck fat fries.

Next, head to Alley Katz, which offers a rotating beer selection on 60-plus taps featuring California breweries like Coronado Brewing, Drake’s and Almanac. Come to watch your favorite team on 12 TVs in a lively atmosphere, and stay for the pulled-pork sandwiches, grilled cheese and BLTs. Pool tables, darts, foosball and trivia nights complete the sports bar vibe.

Take a seat at the live-edge wood bar along the accordion windows at Magpie Café, which look out across 16th Street to Freemont Park. The spot’s all-California draft list includes stops at Ale Industries in Oakland, Carneros Brewing in Sonoma, and Telegraph Brewing in Santa Barbara. Plus, the farm-fresh menu items, like Manila clams and saffron or pork belly with figs, are worth exploring.

Der Biergarten, a 100 percent outdoor bar, closes when it rains, but Sacramento’s sunny weather means that rarely happens. Play some corn hole and linger with friends at authentic biergarten tables shipped in from Germany. Or feast on traditional German fare, including flammkuchen, sausages and pretzels, while sampling 33 drafts from half or full liter steins. And don’t forget to try BierGarten Blonde, a house beer crafted by Lost Coast Brewing.

The draft list at Midtown hot spot Pour House frequently features local breweries like Knee Deep and Track 7, while the bottle list includes Rogue Mocha Porter and North Coast’s Brother Thelonious. The weekend brunch menu offers beer-battered chicken and waffles, salmon benedict, or omelets, plus bottomless mimosas and other breakfast libations.

Head to Firestone Public House on game day to watch teams battle it out on 22 flat screens with an intense sound system. Pair pulled pork nachos, soft shell crab tacos, baby back ribs, and other American-inspired creations, with one of the 60 beers on tap. Most hail from California and the Western US, like Mraz’s West Coast King and Alpine’s Beer Nelson.

Three miles east of downtown, across the American River, is the Capitol Beer and Tap Room. This 20-tap beer bar and bottle stop is a good place to try favorites from around the region, like American River Coloma Brown and Auburn Alehouse Gold Country Pilsner, among others. Pretzels are the only dining option here, but the bartenders have plenty of menus for restaurants that will deliver to the bar.

Pangaea Bier Cafe, an eclectic neighborhood bar, eatery and bottle shop, offers 30 drafts, including a six-tap sour bar, and over 300 bottles. Belly up to the bar and enjoy eclectic offerings from Almanac’s Horchata Almond Milk Stout to Dust Bowl’s Therapist Imperial IPA. At Pangaea, the menus are designed for pairing. For lunch, try a grilled eggplant sandwich or a Reuben made with house-smoked pastrami. At the popular Sunday brunch, go healthy with a fruit parfait, or indulge in breakfast biscuit sliders paired with a Hoppy Mary (house bloody mary mix with a hop-heavy IPA).

And finally, head to the south side of town to take in the 4,000 square feet of inventory at homebrew shop Brew Ferment Distill. This shop offers all the basics and then some, and hosts a variety of events, from beer cocktail competitions to cheese pairings. During Sacramento Beer Week, several homebrewing clubs show off their systems here for the annual Brew Demo Day.