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/