Behind the Brews: New Helvetia- A Lesson in Beer History

BEER HISTORY GEEK

When you sit down with Dave Gull to talk about New Helvetia Brewing Company be prepared because you’re about to get a history lesson. Gull is the founder of New Helvetia and he’s also a self-proclaimed beer history geek. So it is no wonder that before you can truly understand the history of New Helvetia, you first have to understand the history of another long-lost Sacramento beer maker, Buffalo Brewing Company.

“The story we’re telling is how an industrious Sacramento at the turn of the century built this major brewery on the back of agriculture, infrastructure and a population that knew how to make beer,” Gull says sitting near a Buffalo Brewing sign that hangs in the taproom.

Buffalo Brewing
An advertisement for one-time Sacramento brewing giant Buffalo Brewing Company
History of Buffalo Brewing

Buffalo Brewing Company was founded in 1890 by a man named Herman Grau and quickly became a leader in the industry. “We were home to the largest brewery west of the Mississippi in Buffalo Brewing Company. We were the region that grew the hops, we grew the malt, we had the water coming from the Sierra snow melt and we had the transportation infrastructure to get that beer to market.”

Gull says that market not only included parts of the United States, but the Pacific Rim and into Europe, “In 1900, that’s about as close to world-wide distribution as you can get.”

Ultimately, Buffalo Brewing Company was just another victim of prohibition. Though it survived initially, the company was never able to reclaim its dominance on the West Coast closing its doors in the 1940s. Gone, but clearly not forgotten.

“I thought wouldn’t it be cool if somebody could bring back Buffalo Beer. Remind people of the time when Sacramento wasn’t just a government town, when Sacramento did accomplish big things. Then the lightbulb goes off and I think ‘wouldn’t it be cool if I brought back Buffalo Beer?’ ”

The year was 2008 and Gull decided to open his own brewery. The rest, as they say, was history… well not quite.

A CALCULATED RISK

“My wife told me ‘don’t open a brewery, go get a real job,’ ”says Gull with a smirk. “It took 3 years to get my biggest partner to come along on this idea.”

You can’t really blame her. Up until now, Gull had been mostly home brewing and he admits it wasn’t even great beer. Also at the time Sacramento, like the rest of the country, was in the grip of recession. Several area craft breweries had just closed their doors. Gull says he even had trouble finding a bank willing to take a risk on his brewery idea.

“It wasn’t pie in the sky. It was small, it was difficult, it was hard work and we were going to carry most of that risk ourselves.” Risk he was willing to take for one simple reason: supply and demand. “The city of Sacramento is 400,000+ and we also only had four breweries at that time. Quick math, we were grossly under-breweried  in Sacramento.”

Gull found his funding, and signed his lease to occupy the historic Boyle Bros. Factory just outside of downtown Sacramento in 2011. With the name Buffalo Brewing Company already trademarked, Gull decided to go with New Helvetia.

New Helvetia
The Boyle Bros. first occupied this building in 1926.
MAKING HIS OWN HISTORY

“New Helvetia was the name of the land grant that John Sutter got to establish what became Sacramento. Sacramento was not the name of his colony. His colony was going to be New Helvetia. His idea was to create a Swiss utopia in the wild interior of California,” Gull says giving another history lesson.

While the brewery is certainly no Swiss utopia, it is an homage to the history of the Sacramento region. From the Buffalo Brewery signs and old regional maps that adorn the walls to the names of some of their most popular beers, there’s a history lesson everywhere you look.

Buffalo head
One of the many Buffalo references you’ll find in New Helvetia

“We have a beer called ‘Homeland Stout’. It’s about the neighborhood this brewery is located in. The original subdivision map that created this neighborhood was called ‘Homeland’. We had that map and we thought it was a cool tie-in.” Another beer is named “Rough and Ready” after the foothills town east of Sacramento that succeed from the Union during the Civil War, “That’s a pretty cool story and it’s also a pretty great name for a beer.”

History served as the inspiration for New Helvetia but Gull says the company will not get stuck in the past. “The history side was the spark. But where we go from here is not historic. Where we go from here is now our story.”

BEER ON THE RUN

“This young guy comes in and says “Hey, I just moved down here from Spokane and I was part of a running club there and I think I want to start a running club here.’ ”

Beer and running might not be the first combination you think of, but it was actually one Gull was already considering. He was thinking of starting a running team to take part in area events. Because of that, Gull wasn’t initially sold on the idea of a running club.

“He goes ‘I’m going to start something called Sloppy Moose Running Club. The running club I was a part of The Flying Irish in Spokane they started out really small and they’re up to like 2,000 members.’ And I go ‘why don’t you go ahead and start that then.’ ”

The Sloppy Moose Running Club meets every Thursday at New Helvetia from February to early December for an evening run. It’s nothing too long or too serious; just a way for people who enjoy running and beer to connect.

Sloppy Moose
The orange shirts belong to members of the Sloppy Moose running club

The group has grown from six to seven members initially to a roster of about 2,000. New Helvetia has even begun hosting a 5K during Sacramento’s beer week. This year it sold out all 500 spots. Gull still marvels at how popular the running club has become.

“It’s built a community around New Helvetia that I never could have anticipated. My running team concept could have never accomplished what Sloppy Moose has accomplished.”

ONE LAST HISTORY LESSON

Part of Gull’s appreciation for the area’s history may come from his own family history. His great-grandfather immigrated to the U.S. from what is now Croatia. He eventually settled in Sacramento taking a job with Southern Pacific Railroad.

His great-grandfather may have also passed down interest in area beer. Gull had one more history lesson to share, although he admits this one might be more of a family legend.

“My great-grandfather had a friend who worked at the Buffalo Brewery who worked the overnight shift. He could go on a Friday night with an empty bucket, his buddy would fill it with beer, and he’d walk home with a bucket of beer for the weekend.”

Fact or fiction that’s a story that would put a smile on the face of any beer history geek.

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