Fresh off of a gratifying mention in the New York Times and a featured spot in a beer-oriented documentary by Brew Age, Petaluma’s small but mighty HenHouse Brewing is on a bit of a roll. The big news is that they’ve just gotten federal signoff on a deal that will allow them to ramp up production from around 80 barrels a year (a little shy of 2,500 gallons), to possibly more than 2,000 barrels, a 26-fold increase – all without having to build a brewhouse.
How is this magic to be accomplished?
They’re going to share space with the newly-opened Petaluma Hills Brewing. Technically, it’s what the feds call an “Alternating Proprietorship,” but basically they’ve just agreed to share the same brewing equipment.
Petaluma Hills owner JJ Jay “still has his day job until he hits a certain level of production,” explains HenHouse founder Collin McDonnell. “So he’s got five days of the week when he’s not using his brewhouse. We’re dropping in a couple of tanks and we brew when he’s not there.”
Collin didn’t say how much the deal is worth, but it is a clear financial winner for both sides – JJ gets some income to offset the steep cost of opening a brewery and Collin and his partners get a more affordable way to scale up the business to begin saving for their own location. He said he hopes to be in his own place in about two years, though they may stick with the sharing arrangement longer than that if it continues to work for both sides.
The arrangements highlights the relatively chummy nature of brewing. While they are technically competitors, JJ says small breweries are quick to help one another. “We’re not out to kill each other,” he said. Collin said such partnerships are not unheard-of in brewing circles, but they require a good working relationship between the two teams, and everyone in this case seems to get along well and share a philosophy.
“Both of us founded Petaluma-centric businesses,” Collin said. “We’re doing something that makes Petaluma a cooler place.”
Both breweries offer beer on draft only for the moment – good bottling lines are expensive. Collin said he hopes to use the added production capacity to expand to taps in good bars in the North Bay, San Francisco, and parts of the East Bay, though probably not much farther than that.
It’s not exactly clear when HenHouse beer will start pouring out of the new home, but it should be shortly after the start of the new year.
Petaluma Hills launched last month after months of construction. JJ told me last week that he is very pleased with sales so far and is already thinking of what beers to brew next, though his long-planned tap room is delayed by the complexity of getting permits.
HenHouse launched in 2012 and is one of the county’s smallest breweries, cranking out beer on a 2-barrel system (Petaluma Hills has a 10-barrel system. Nearby Lagunitas has multiple 250-barrel systems). Collin and his partners specialize in unusual styles – their lineup consists so far of a saison, a Belgian golden ale and an oyster stout (yes, with actual oysters in the boil). No IPAs, no wild mouth-puckering extreme beers.
“Our big beef with big, intense beers is that they are demanding your attention,” Collin said. He prefers beers that are complex enough to appreciate, but don’t require that drinkers stop what they are doing. “I don’t like beer that slams you over the head with flavor,” he said.
“We focus a lot on the yeast,” and the flavors that produces, he said. “We focus a lot on that, and we focus on beers with stories.”
– Sean Scully