Stay connected with all things Sacramento and beyond.
Ruhstaller Brewery and Tap Room’s iconic signs off 80, just outside Davis, signal a welcome spot for craft beer enthusiasts. Commitment to growing quality hops, utilizing creative innovations, and a simple passion for damn good beer are the hallmarks of owner J-E Paino’s fiercely independent local brewing operation, which is beloved by Sacramento and beyond. This free-spirited, local favorite recently slammed into a brick wall of legal stricture and good old-fashioned Californian bureaucracy. A sign reading “Breaking the rules since 1881 – it finally caught up with us – Closed for a bit” stands as a silent monument to California’s often hostile business climate; a disappointing harbinger bearing the doleful news that thirsty beer-loving travelers must temporarily slake their thirst for flavorful beer elsewhere.
We caught up with Paino at Ruhstaller’s Super-Secret Head Quarters, in an undisclosed location, to find out his side of the story and why an emergent legal quagmire in Solano County has him sidelined.
“The farm, to some degree, was an opportunity to be proven,” Paino said. “We had to answer questions. Could we grow hops there? Would people visit us? So forth and so on. We were working towards a long term commitment from ourselves but also from the landowner. We’ve been taking chances from the beginning. Growing hops in an unproven area was a chance. Through it all, we worked with the county. We wanted to stay in the middle of the road, we don’t want to get in trouble.”
In working with the county, Paino was careful to follow the proper regulations as they were presented to him. In light of this self-described experimental environment, he opted to set up temporary structures including a large open umbrella-style array set up as a shelter in lieu of a permanent walled building, and several wheeled structures that fell under the motor vehicle rather than construction permits.
“We didn’t want to get into the long morass of permitting because we didn’t really have a long term arrangement with the landowner,” Paino explained. “This winter we kind of tripped that a little bit.”
As Paino tells it, the county didn’t see it the same way.
“In January, they called us in and said ‘listen, we’ve got some issues,” Paino said. “We’re not hiding, we’ve been here for three years. We have signs on the freeway that say ‘Tap Room, Beer Exit.’ It’s no mystery what we’re doing. If there’s a problem we’re here to fix it. They said, ‘Okay, well here are the issues: The shade structure/umbrella, we’re concerned it’s going to be picked up into the wind and blown onto the freeway.”
Paino, who has a background in construction and architecture, dismissed the claim as “extremely unlikely” and assured the County that the structure was safe. Unconvinced, the county insisted that Paino prove the soundness of the structure under the supervision of an engineer. They then added their view that the electrical wiring was hazardous.
“They said, ‘We’re concerned that someone’s going to stab the extensions with a knife and then put their mouth on it,” Paino said. “That’s a standard that I didn’t think was reasonable.”
With the process bordering on ridiculous, Paino nevertheless agreed and hired an engineer who worked in the civil, electrical and structural fields in addition to being an architect. This, unfortunately, was not enough to save Ruhstaller.
“For the last three months basically, what’s happened time and time again (is) the county has said, ‘You’ve got to do this J-E,’ and as we move closer and closer to that goal, they then move it or change it,” Paino expressed in exasperation. “While we’re doing it, they change the game.”
In fact, according to Paino, while he was working to get clarification on some lines of a letter from his landlord that required his signature for an electrical permit, the county cut off his power.
“I asked four people what (three words in the letter) mean, people in the county and my architect,” Paino said. “They all can’t tell me the same thing. I set up a meeting with the county supervisor to clarify what those three words were; and while I’m doing this, they have PG&E pull the power on us.”
Paino says this pattern of the county setting a standard and then another one continued ladder-like, surprise rung after surprise rung. This continuing frustration eventually led to a meeting with the Solano County Supervisor, Paino, and the county attorney. Paino was then asked to sign a paper indemnifying the county, get specific property permits and pay fees. He was told that after this Ruhstaller would be up and running. “Finally,” he thought. This was it, one last hurdle and Ruhstaller would be free, and overflowing.
“That afternoon I spent three grand on permits and fees,” Paino said.
After paying his architect and hiring a contractor, Paino was down $15,000. When the letter he agreed to sign arrived, Paino asserted it was different than the letter they had discussed at the meeting; an additional stipulation requiring his landlord’s signature had been added.
“I never would have spent fifteen grand if I had known it was someone else’s signature I had to get because I can’t control his signature,” Paino said.
“And my landlord won’t sign. Now, I’ve just spent fifteen grand because I believed and trusted the county planner, the county attorney, the county building inspector, the county head of the building department, and the county supervisor. I trusted all of them, and then they changed the game.”
This story, like that of food-truck entrepreneur Saba Rahimian a.k.a. Granola Girl, (read here) weaves another noose wrung around the neck of business, especially small business, in California. This is the same strangling environment that effectively booted Rahimian from Sacramento to Texas.
“That’s where we’re at,” Paino said. “I just spent fifteen grand which I can’t use. So we’re fucked. We can’t go back to the farm, we can’t have the public back there, we can’t work there. We had to get a generator there which costs me about $100 a day (in) fuel to keep my beer cold, and, meanwhile, I’m working in an undisclosed location trying to figure out who’s really got it out for me. Because somebody really wants me gone.”
Though he didn’t feel comfortable naming anyone, Paino was fairly certain he knew who it was that was trying to snuff out Ruhstaller. Some have suggested that one of the larger corporate beer company may be trying to oust him, a move Paino said he wouldn’t be surprised by, as some of these bigger companies have employed similar strategies in the past to suppress the growing popularity of craft beer.
“There was another force pushing the county, and the county obliged,” Paino said. “They’re losing some of their credibility, and I don’t know if it’s worth whatever they gained from it.”
Despite this major setback, Paino has plans to overcome. He continues his operation out of his Super-Secret HQ and assures me it is safe to say this is not the end of Ruhstaller. Some might call this a silver lining, but the hope that remains for Ruhstaller isn’t a silver lining–a silver lining is clear and definite. The hope here for Ruhstaller is a forest of once sun-drenched hops obscured by corporate, bureaucratic clouds over the Golden State. How bright will it be when the clouds part, and will they part in time for California to save the things that make up the best and most culturally valuable parts of our community? Only time will tell, and for the time being, Paino and Ruhstaller aren’t sure what that future is.
Solano County was not available for commenting.
Stay connected with all things Sacramento and beyond.