“It’s 30 years of history here which is great, but it’s also 30 years of wear and tear and 30 years of maybe some archaic design,” says Ray Ballestero on a mid-March day as he walks through the building that once housed the iconic Rubicon Brewing Company but will soon be home to his Alaro Craft Brewery.
The building located in Sacramento’s midtown had been the Rubicon since Ed Brown first opened it as the 6th brewpub in the state in 1987. The Rubicon would be credited with introducing West Coast IPA to California winning back-to-back Gold Medals at the Great American Beer Festival. The brewery’s legacy can still be seen at breweries from Deschutes to Russian River to Auburn Alehouse. So when it closed in the summer of 2017 it left big shoes to fill.
“It’s not just a local icon, it’s almost a national icon,” says Ballestero. “Ed and Susie, who started this, had a phenomenal vision and they’re responsible for what we’re taking over for and now we’re bringing new energy.”
All around that building, workers were busy updating the bathrooms and kitchens, installing gas lines, new tiles, a new bar, and refreshing much of the dining space. While walking through the brewhouse Ballestero explained how it took a month just to remove the old concrete floor and replace it with a new cutting-edge synthetic acrylic/epoxy blend.
All of which begs the question why didn’t Ray and his wife, Annette, just opt to open their brewery in a new location instead of this iconic one?
“But then you’d lose the story,” says Annette.
“You would lose the history,” agrees Ray. “Yes, it’s been more work. It certainly would have been a lot easier working on the brewery floors with nothing in there.”
It’s clear the history of the Rubicon matters to the Ballestero’s because they’ve been a part of the Sacramento region’s brewing history for 30 years themselves. Ray helped found the Gold County Brewers Association (along with original Rubicon brewer Phil Moeller) and is a well-respected home brewer.
Annette was one of the original owners of River City Brewing Company focused on the restaurant side of the operation. So it only seemed like a matter of time before the pair would open their own beer business.
“Brewing for 30 years, it’s always been on my mind,” says Ray.
“Everyone wants to open a brewery with Ray,” Annette adds quickly.
But Ray admits, it’s just not that easy. “When you have a comfortable day job, it’s kind of hard to go, ‘I’m going to jump out of this to go do this venture.’”
When then Rubicon owner Glynn Phillips announced the brewery was closing because of financial difficulties, Ray says he knew it was finally time.
“The closing of the Rubicon, that was our message, ‘It is time. Let’s bust a move right now.’”
If you’re curious why they didn’t just buy the Rubicon, the short answer is they tried. When that didn’t work out, they ended up buying much of the Rubicon’s assets at auction, but not the intellectual property which means no “Rubicon” and no “Monkey Knife Fight.”
Still, the couple says the most important part was the location itself.
“Doing this passion anywhere else would not be the same as doing it here,” says Ray. “Doing it here, where I’ve been part of the beer community for a long time, I’ve had this influx of people wanting to be part of it and wanting to help. So that part has been fantastic.”
New Look, New Menu
“The Rubicon is a different location. A lot of people came here because of its iconic status because it did define a West Coast IPA,” says Ray. “So it’d be crazy to open up and not have something that was a reference to that time era but still not get stuck in that time period either.”
Alaro will definitely be something different, both in look and feel. While much of the inside structure remains the same, there will be a new bar featuring reclaimed wood. The original Rubicon Brewhouse (originally designed by UC Davis’s Dr. Michael Lewis) has been retained as it is a piece of brewing history, but it has been significantly modernized to increase the quality of the beer.
Perhaps the biggest change Alaro will present will be the menu. Gone will be the standard brewpub fare the Rubicon had been known for and in its place… farm-to-table California cuisine with a Spanish flair. Think tapas.
“I don’t want to say it will all be Spanish food, but small plates,” says Annette.
“And Tapas can be anything you want them to be,” adds Ray.
One thing that is staying is former Rubicon brewer Chris Keeton who will be asked to create both traditional and cutting-edge brews.
“We’re West Coast, we’re California, and we’ve got to stick with that,” says Ray. “There are just some fantastic beers here, it’s all about innovation, creativity, and artistry.”
The Ballestero’s recognize that Sacramento’s craft community has high-expectations for any new brewery, but especially for one opening in a prime location with such history.
“No doubt we’ll have a lot of the same customers come in who will be so happy to have those doors back open. Some customers, they’ll say, ‘Hey, this is different; it’s not what I expected it to be.’ And there are other customers who will come in brand new because we are different.”
The Ballestero’s say while the presentation will be different, they hope Alaro will capture the same community feeling the Rubicon held for 30 years.
“The Rubicon really had that (community experience), it was a gathering place, it was a place to go hang out,” says Ray. “I can feel the vibe already.”
“Everyone is excited,” agrees Annette.
The Ballesteros are no strangers to business. Ray has worked for a nutritional medical practice in Sacramento for more than 25 years. But the couple owns a “fair trade” business in downtown Healdsburg in Sonoma County.
“We buy from 100 different vendors and 50 plus countries and we make sure the artisans are all paid a fair wage,” says Annette. “We make sure there is no sweatshop labor, everything is handmade. We’ve been doing that for 14 years.”
The business carries items like jewelry, home décor, and artwork.
“It’s kind of a cool business,” explains Ray. “It’s mission based and so it helps people in marginalized areas that wouldn’t really be able to generate income otherwise.” They say they’ve seen entire villages grown because of the support businesses like theirs offer.
The Ballestero’s plan to incorporate this “fair trade” philosophy into Alaro. That will include everything from brewery t-shirts to the aprons their employees will wear. “A big part of fair trade is human rights and environmental sustainability,” says Ray. “So that can be brought over to the brewing industry in a big way.”
That includes ingredients. Ballestero says he plans to buy local as much as possible including getting at least some of his grain from a 100-percent organic, no-till grain producer in Alameda. He says by not tilling the farm not only saves water but the soil as well.
“If someone is going to the effort to make grain like that, although expensive, I’d like to start to implement that in slowly and seeing how I can do that and make it cost-effective.”
When you visit Alaro you will likely find fair trade coffee, cheese or chocolate on the menu not only to continue to support these marginalized workers but to spark a conversation.
“The more you’re involved in it, the more you realize, ‘Wow there is a lot of unfair labor practices in the world and a lot of exploitation,’ and that’s just not where we want to go and we don’t really want to support that,” says Ray.
Adds Annette, “We get a second outlet to let people know about ethical products.”
Alaro plans to open in mid-June with at least six beers on tap. Look for an official announcement on an opening date coming soon.