When returning from Lake Tahoe along the normal route back to my hometown, I spotted something rather peculiar: the Swiss flag. Even more peculiar was how it was attached to a sign for a brewery, specifically the Ruhstaller Brewery.
I have, on occasion, had Ruhstaller beer before and was pleasantly surprised. But since they are a Northern Californian brewery, and I living in the South which is dominated by San Diego brews, I never had the chance to frequently sample them. In any case, if I wasn’t set to become a permanent Swiss resident in a few weeks, perhaps I wouldn’t have noticed my new country’s flag. But since today is Switzerland’s national day, I thought I’d have a peek into exactly why Ruhstaller was flying the Swiss flag. Turns out, the original Ruhstaller Brewery was from the 1800s, founded by none other than Captain Frank J. Ruhstaller, a Swiss immigrant from the Canton Schwyz.
I found this a bit odd. Why would Swiss immigrants go to California, as most Germanic immigrants chose the Midwest? Unbeknownst to me, Sacramento was originally a Swiss settlement and ranch, founded by the Swiss pioneer John Sutter. He dubbed his ranch Nuevo Helvetia, a reference to the Helvetica Republic, the name given to Switzerland by Napoleon. Thankfully, the name didn’t stick, as to me, Nuevo Helvetia sounds like a terrible restaurant.
Captain Frank J. Ruhstaller was an epitome of the American dream. By the time of his death, Ruhstaller had invested and owned multiple breweries, was president of a bank, and had plenty of investments in different businesses throughout Sacramento, including his own building in downtown. According to his obituary, Ruhstaller brewery was, at the time, worth $ 500,000. Not too shabby, as that's around 12-13 million dollars today (if online inflation calculators are to be believed).
This Frank J. Ruhstaller is shaping up to be a hero of mine.
Born on November 8, 1846, Ruhstaller moved to the United States in 1862 at the ripe old age of 15. Prior to that, according to the ‘An Illustrated History of Sacramento County’, he studied brewing in the Canton Berne. An interesting tidbit of information, since Bern apparently had the first licensed brewery in Switzerland in the 1600s. Note though, that the brewing history of Bern (mind you one of the largest regions in Switzerland) either links to one source which is inaccessible or just passed on as fact. So I’m not too sure what to think.
What we do know is that Ruhstaller was the foreman of Paul Reising Brewery before he was 18.
How a teenager got the role of a supervisor I will never know. But after his stint in Louisville and St. Albany, Kentucky, he moved to California where he gained employment at the City Brewery. Where, six weeks later, he again was made foreman and held that position for a year. He then bought interest in other breweries, and switched between breweries a bit. Most notably was Pacific Brewery where he spent around three years as the brewer. He then acquired enough funds to buy the City Brewery in 1881, where he stayed til his death. But after he purchased the City Brewery, he helped start the Buffalo Brewery, which became a dominate brewery in the city.
It is a bit tricky to uncover what Ruhstaller was brewing, given that he has investments in multiple breweries. It is also unclear as to when the City Brewery changed its name to the Ruhstaller Brewery. During the late 1890s, there are advertisements for Ruhstaller’s Gilt Edge Steam Beer put on by the City Brewery. On the other hand, other news clippings state ‘Ruhstaller’s brewery’, so I am inclined to think the man was so popular in Sacramento, that people just referred to the City Brewery as his brewery. Plus, both share the same address of 12th and H streets. So at one point the City Brewery did indeed become the Ruhstaller Brewery. Whether that was intentional, or from colloquial pressure, as everyone called it Ruhstaller’s Brewery anyway, remains to be seen.
To complicate matters further, it is unclear if and when these beers underwent a name change. For example, in 1896 there is an advertisement for Ruhstaller’s Gilt Edge Steam Beer (gilt edge being a term for premium). Later on, however, in 1911, there was an advertisement for the Gilt Edge Lager beer. But given the decline of steam beer’s popularity by the 1900’s, and the advancements of refrigeration, it is possible that either the steam beer was replaced by the lager, or was simply the same beer but with a different marketing name.
In any case, thanks to Ruhstaller’s marketing efforts we can at least track a few his brewing habits. Ruhstaller produced a bock beer every year around May. As it seems, the bock beer was a classic and acted as a seasonal that Ruhstaller brewed until his death. There is a small advertisement for something called Ruhstaller’s Salvator, but since this only appeared once around May, I am inclined to think he called his bock beer Salvator for marketing reasons.
Curiously, Ruhstaller’s Brewery would advertise when the Bock beer ran out, and then state that his steam beer was still available. Given that there are ads for his steam beer year round, I’d venture to guess there was enough stock of the beer year round. With all this advertising for the steam beer could mean two things. First, it could be a reflection of the beer’s popularity. Or, secondly, it could mean that the steam beer didn’t perform well, and this was a marketing push to sell more product. Since there are advertisements of its availability, it wouldn’t make sense to brew more of the same beer if it wasn’t performing well. And given that steam beer was a popular style in California at the time, I would imagine this falls into the former case
His last two beers were both porters. There are much fewer advertisements for his ‘brown stout porter’ and his ‘fine old porter’ (shipped on ice, mind you). So much so, Ruhstaller’s ‘fine old porter’ is only advertised after an ad for his steam beer. Given that the American taste buds at the time did not go towards malty, heavy beers, perhaps it was only made once or twice to test how it would perform.
Some brewery records as a cross reference would be great, but for the moment, there’s no solid answers. Still, we do know Ruhstaller was brewing a bock, steam, possibly a lager, and possibly two porters. For a brewery that was estimated around to be worth $500,000 bucks and to only have around 3 - 6 beers is pretty damn impressive.
Cloisture in Einsiedeln, via Wikicommons
Ruhstaller is from the town Einsiedeln, in Schwyz, one of the original three Swiss Cantons. Not much is known about his upbringing, but as stated before, he learned to brew in Canton Bern. The information about the brewing history of Switzerland that is out there claim that Bern had the first public brewery back in the 1600s. I am attempting to track down the source for this now, but it is slow going. One thing we can infer though is that Bern might have been a hub for brewing in Switzerland. For instance, there are plenty of historically protected grain houses and at least one brewery that was in operation since the 1840’s. According to the history of the Schweizer Brauerei-Verband (Swiss Brewing Association), the third president was a brewer from Bern, whose brewery was founded in 1844. So perhaps that is where Ruhstaller had his apprenticeship, but that is pure speculation.
Still, having this level of connection is pretty heartwarming. It’s exciting to uncover Swiss involvement in my home state of California, and definitely helps with the process of emigration. So, I am definitely excited to see where this research will go! Still need to find out more about the brewing history of Switzerland, and to try and uncover more about the good ol’ Cap’n.
An Illustrated History of Sacramento County, California. By Hon. Win. J. Davis. Lewis Publishing Company 1890. Page 324-325.
California Digital Newspaper Collection - https://cdnc.ucr.edu/
Chronicling America, Library of Congress - http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/
One of the joys of running a blog is when you unexpectedly encounter like minded people. People who have the same obsession and used it as inspiration to go down a similar path, and, somehow, make you feel a little bit more normal.
Brian Alberts is the creative mind behind Brewed Culture, a blog which aims to place beer within its context. He is currently working on his PhD in 19th century brewing in America at Purdue University. I stumbled across his blog awhile back and immediately bookmarked the site. This is a person I wish I could sit down and have a pint with.
So for now, via the power of the internet, I had a brief online conversation to get to know Brian a little bit better
Have a favorite beer at the moment?
Officially my favorite beer is Three Floyds’ Zombie Dust, which is definitely deserving, but there are too many great beers out there to nail down just one. Some recent highlights for me have been Brickstone APA (out of Chicago), New Glarus’ Oud Bruin and Cran-bic special releases (only in Wisconsin!), and New Albanian’s Black and Bluegrass ale (southern Indiana, right by Louisville).
I don’t really “discriminate” among beer styles. I’ve encountered bad beer, sure, but no bad styles yet. Right now I’m most interested in Oktoberfest seasonals. Ayinger’s Oktoberfest märzen is far and away the best I’ve had, but on the American side I’m a sucker for New Glarus’ Staghorn.
But I’m also hoping to attend Cincinnati’s “Oktoberfest Zinzinnati” this year, the largest Oktoberfest celebration in the United States, so I’ll make sure to keep an open mind.
What got you interested in Beer history?
Indiana has a fantastic beer scene which hooked me within a couple years of entering grad school. I specialize in the 19th century United States, but my original dissertation topic lost its appeal, so I went shopping for a new one. I wondered whether it was possible to meld a personal interest in craft beer into a historical moment.
Make no mistake, this is very much a “Danger, Will Robinson!” kind of approach. Just because you like something doesn’t mean it’s a significant or lucrative topic of historical inquiry. But I explored it in consultation with my advisor and discovered that beer could really be a gateway into better understanding very significant facets of the antebellum United States. Facets like capitalism and the market revolution, reform movements, and German immigration and ethnicity. What’s more, the U.S. between 1840 and 1873 saw a dramatic expansion of its brewing industry that in some ways resembles the American craft beer explosion we’ve been witnessing since the early 80s or so.
I’m not at the stage yet where I can draw definite lines between the two eras, but the correlation is difficult to ignore. And on top of it all, I’ve seen lots of space in the literature for further study on the pre-1870s American brewing industry. And when you see a lot happening in a historical era and not enough being written about it, that’s a dissertation.
What is your dissertation about, And how do you perform research?
My dissertation uses beer as a nexus point for better understanding how German immigrants navigated a mid-19th century United States that was itself undergoing massive transformations. The market revolution was changing the face of American capitalism, which in turn affected politics and culture. Demand for labor brought millions of immigrants, notably Germans and Irish, into the country. Immigration combined with urbanization and associated issues like crime and poverty spurred both political nativism and social reform movements, specifically the temperance movement.
Beer is connected to all of these issues. Lager beer and its German immigrant brewers helped transform and expand the industry from the late 1840s onward despite a changing economic landscape. They faced periodic resistance from nativist and temperance groups opposed to both their products and their presence. Yet by 1873 the U.S. contained ten times as many breweries as had existed in 1850. A German-American-dominated brewing industry was flourishing, had a working relationship with the federal government, and stood poised to embrace the economic, technological, and organizational developments of the Gilded Age. My dissertation examines this process by looking at two Midwestern cities—Chicago and Cincinnati—as sites which combined proportionally high German populations, large concentrations of breweries, and urbanization patterns tightly connected to the market revolution.
I perform research like many historians do. I look at old paper. For me it’s government records, newspapers, pamphlets (especially temperance pamphlets—if you want to learn about something, find the people who hate it and they’ll go on for days), trade journals, Civil War court martial proceedings, records of beer-related organizations like the United States Brewers Association, things like that. A particularly fun source is a massive book titled One Hundred Years of Brewing, published in 1903 or so by a trade magazine called The Western Brewer. It describes the development of American beer in exhausting detail and is unique in that many of the historical sources its authors used no longer exist today. Read any book on 19th century brewing and you’ll probably see it cited, though I’m of course supplementing it with a number of other source bases.
What is a typical day for you?
I’ll let you know when I have one. The to-do list is always changing, and a grad student like me definitely has it easier than, say, a professor. But generally my time is split between processing the research materials I’ve collected, reading, writing, preparing content for Brewed Culture, keeping up with beer news, and stuff like conference or funding applications. Over the next few months I hope to find a publishing opportunity to work towards, as well as put together a syllabus for an American beer history course I want to teach!
Are there any general misconceptions about the history of alcohol within the US?
I think general audiences are too quick to default to the “progressive” view of history. It’s the idea that things tend to always get bigger and better than they were before. That as we move forward in history, rights expand, technology improves, problems get solved, on and on. The stuff of the past must have somehow been worse or less developed than today, because as a society we move forward, not backward. Most historians rejected that notion decades ago.
But that idea still crops up in relation to beer. I used to mention to people that the U.S. had more breweries in 1873 than they did now (that’s no longer true as of November 2015, but it once was). They’d respond with some comment about how breweries then would have been tiny and with little reach.
Well sure, but the vast majority of breweries today are tiny and serve a local community too! Roughly 75% of American breweries today produce less than 5,000 barrels according to the Brewers Association. That’s well over 3,000 breweries. Add them all together and they’ll produce less than a single MillerCoors brewing complex!
My professional goal for the moment is not so much to clear up individual misconceptions about beer history in the U.S., but rather to establish how critical beer history is in understanding its present identity. That the craft beer revolution, while distinct, is not completely without precedent. That even modern-day giants like Anheuser-Busch-Inbev stand on the shoulders of those who came before them.
Whose research do you think doesn't get enough recognition?
Amy Mittelman wrote a fantastic book several years back, called Brewing Battles. If you read it, you’ll notice how wonderfully specific she gets in the first couple chapters, once she begins talking about the American Civil War, the first government excise taxes on beer, and the brewing industry’s coordinated advocacy to get the U.S. government to reduce the taxes. It stands out to me in relation to the other (still laudable) parts of the book. That’s because Mittelman’s dissertation work at Columbia University focused on that very topic, the relationship between the beer industry and the federal government from 1862-1900. It’s a shame that such an important subject had to be condensed and fit into a larger work, especially when Mittelman clearly knows the subject well.
What deserves more recognition are these intimate connections between beer and broader society. My point isn’t that no such studies exist (take Sharon Salinger’s Taverns and Drinking in Early America, for example) but rather that rising interest in craft beer ought to contain a rising interest in the context and implications of that beer. Several popular histories of the craft beer movement already exist, but audiences and scholars alike should demand closer, deeper studies as we move forward.
That said, exciting new research is already appearing. I can’t wait to get my hands on Peter Kopp’s recently released Hoptopia: A World of Agriculture and Beer in Oregon's Willamette Valley (U. of California Press). Also watch out for a forthcoming edited volume called Untapped: Exploring the Cultural Dimensions of Craft Beer, scheduled for release March 2017 by the West Virginia University Press. Untapped will combine 12 essays from multiple disciplines and looks very promising.
Where do you see the research going in the next few years?
I honestly don’t know because I think the terms of the conversation are about to change. The Smithsonian is currently in the process of hiring a historian for its American Brewing History Initiative, who will be tasked with collecting and curating a new cache of resources devoted to tracking and interpreting the history of the American craft beer movement. The Smithsonian is a leading institution (deservedly so) and American brewing history isn’t the largest subfield out there, meaning it doesn’t have irresistible scholarly momentum of its own. So naturally I think the Smithsonian’s choices for who gets this job, and what specific directives they’re given, is going to set the tone for a lot of what’s to come.
It’s possible that the American Brewing History Initiative, with its focus on craft beer, will treat the movement as a watershed which is changing everything we thought we knew about American beer. They might focus on everything from the 1960s onward and its contributions to later craft beer, and ignore everything before. Alternatively, they could view craft beer as a product of longstanding trajectories and momentum and actively seek out the historical context which steered not only the diversification of late 20th and 21stcentury beer, but also the incredible consolidation that craft beer reacted to. I bet you can tell which of those I’m hoping for, but whichever paradigm the Smithsonian chooses will have a significant impact on public interest, available resources, and the terms of scholarly discussion.
Is there anything people should be more involved with / discussing at the moment?
I would encourage more people in general to take a ‘long view’ with their interest in American brewing. Even the most ardent craft beer fan must acknowledge that the significance of American beer history runs far deeper than Sam Adams or Dogfish Head, deeper even than New Albion or Anchor Steam. And if they think beer just wasn’t interesting before that, well then they aren’t paying enough attention.
Regardless of anyone’s present opinion of Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Pabst, etc, their historical significance for American beer is indisputable. But even they rest upon a historical foundation of intense economic competition, diversity, and controversy which defined the brewing industry before their rise. It’s easy to look at American beer pre-craft and see nothing but bland homogeneity. But, honestly, I see the intensely consolidated beer markets of, say, the 1950s, as the exception rather than the rule. Craft is continuing, not inventing, a tradition of diversity and local influence in American beer and calibrating it to fit a 21st century economic climate. It’s something to celebrate, and also something to put into its rightful context.
"Craft is continuing, not inventing, a tradition of diversity and local influence in American beer and calibrating it to fit a 21st century economic climate. It’s something to celebrate, and also something to put into its rightful context."