The Best Breweries Make Great Beer & Great Community

SF Beer Week Opening Celebration 2012 | Photo © Brian Stechschulte

The Brewers Association revealed a set of staggering statistics on Monday this week. Despite a weak economy, dollar sales of craft beer increased 14% in the first six months of 2012, while brewers also pumped out 12% more beer by volume over the same time frame. In addition, the number of breweries across America has climbed to 2,126, which is more than this country has seen since 1887. On top of that, there are 1,252 breweries in the planning stages. If your jaw isn’t resting on the floor yet, check out this graph.

Paul Gatza, the director of the Brewers Association put these numbers into perspective: “Beer-passionate Americans are opening breweries at a rate faster than at any time since the day Prohibition ended for the beverage of moderation. There is nearly a new brewery opening for every day of the year, benefiting beer lovers and communities in every area across the country.”

How does the Bay Area fit into all this growth? Since January of 2011, 16 new breweries have arrived, including Almanac Beer, Triple Voodoo Brewing, Southpaw BBQ, Southern Pacific Brewing, Pacific Brewing Laboratory, Divine Brewing, HenHouse Brewing, Lucky Hand Brewing, Altamont Beer Works, DasBrew, Elevation 66 Brewing, Heretic Brewing, High Water Brewing, Schubros Brewery, Calicraft Brewing and Strike Brewing. Every time I finish a story about a new brewery, I hear about another one ready to launch. By the end of 2012, we can probably expect four or five more to join the growing list. On top of all that, many longtime local breweries are expanding.

Is California’s glass full?

All this growth begs more than just a few questions and concerns. I’m not going to ring alarm bells or pull out a doomsday calendar, but I do wonder how breweries will set themselves apart in an increasingly crowded and competitive marketplace? Can they just rely on making great beer?

Better promotion is one option, which many breweries need to take more seriously, but they also need to foster their community. That includes both fans and their surrounding neighborhood or town. Advancing shared values, responsibilities and a sense of common ownership in the product have been at the heart craft beer since the movement began. It distinguishes craft beer from the colossal corporate brewers.

I have local brewer Collin McDonnell to thank for stressing this point and a few others during a mini stump speech on Twitter last week. McDonnell currently works as a brewer for Drake’s Brewery and launched HenHouse Brewing with a few friends in Petaluma earlier this year. In a span of ten minutes he punched out eight thought provoking tweets.

Beer Review: Oyster Stout from HenHouse Brewing

Photo © Dave McAvoy

One of the best aspects of Bay Area beer culture is that there are so many new breweries starting up, that it’s almost a full time job trying to keep track of them. Not that I am going to complain, since that also means that shelves of good craft beer stores will constantly have new and different beers to try.

One region of the Bay Area that seems to be exploding is the North Bay. Home to heavyweight Lagunitas, Petaluma is not new to the beer world, but there are some new kids on the block. HenHouse Brewing Company opened its doors fairly recently and three of their beers are being distributed around the North Bay, as well as San Francisco and Oakland. One of them is Oyster Stout.

Oysters and Stouts are a historic food and beer pairing, but using oysters in the brewing process only stretches back to the middle of the last century. For those who are intimidated by the thought of oysters in their beer, rest assured. Most Oyster Stouts only use the oyster shells and none of the meat makes it into the beer. Even if the meat is used, the vast majority of the shellfish flavor will be lost in the boil during the brewing process.

Starting off with a quick look at the bottle, the HenHouse labels are clean and attractive. The logo is simple and the label design is fairly minimal, which makes it easy to spot on the shelf.

The beer pours a very dark black color with a finger of frothy chocolate colored head forming atop. The head fades down fairly slowly leaving a nice ring of lace behind. The aroma is a mix of roasted milk chocolate with some light coffee and minerals. It is a fairly simple nose, but it’s clean and very appetizing.

The flavor starts off with some roasted chocolate malts, coffee and a bit of a mineral flavor. I should mention that mineral flavor is often considered an off-flavor in beer, but for this style it’s accepted and comes from the oyster shells, which add depth and a bit of body to the beer.

Through the middle, some sweeter milk chocolate flavors come through, with even a touch of lactose, and a bit more roastiness. The finish is a mix of roasted milk chocolate, light coffee, and a hint of dark fruit. The beer feels medium bodied with moderate carbonation. It is remarkably smooth and sessionable, and has a wonderful dry and roasty finish.

Weighing in at around 4.9% ABV, this is a stout that I could drink quite a bit of. The overall beer does not hit the palate too hard, but is very clean and has a great balance of flavors. Beyond Oysters, this could be paired with many other foods and works equally well as a great end of the day beer that will not leave you hung-over the next morning.

This is without a doubt a good start for HenHouse Brewing Company, and I highly recommend you give them a shot if you are lucky enough to come across their brews in your area.


HenHouse Brewing Embraces Petaluma, Plot Path Away From Hoppy Neighbor

From left to right: Scott Goynes, Shane Goepel & Colin McDonnell / Photos © Brian Stechschulte

Fermentation tanks are reshaping Petaluma’s skyline and chicken egg capital reputation thanks to Lagunitas Brewing. Their popularity and brewing capacity, which currently ranks ninth by volume among craft brewers in the Unites States, casts a long hoppy shadow over aspiring nanobreweries in the city. In spite of the challenge, HenHouse Brewing has begun to craft its own unique identity inside an old egg processing facility just blocks from downtown Petaluma.

“One of the biggest difficulties we have right now is explaining to people the size of our operation. If we’re lucky will do one hundred barrels of production this year, which is what Lagunitas does in four hours.” That’s what Colin McDonnell and his brewery partners, Scott Goyne and Shane Goepel, tell locals who think they’re going to be the next Lagunitas. It’s certainly possible, but they’re charting a different path.

HenHouse Brewing was incorporated in March of 2011 and started shipping beer to stores and bars around Petaluma this past January. They currently sublease space for brewing and storage inside Rogue Research, a firm known for producing dietary supplements, cosmetics and soap.

The facility is well equipped for brewing. Goepel and Goyne currently work for Rogue, which gave them an inside track on the brew space. They spent two years homebrewing there on weekends before teaming up with McDonnell, who’s been honing his skills for the same amount of time at the Beach Chalet, 21st Amendment and Devil’s Canyon, before recently accepting a position at Drake’s

The nanobrewery came to fruition after they approached Rogue about subleasing some space to go pro, who in turn offered them a very affordable lease. There are only a few workable drawbacks to the arrangement. They can only work on weekends. Their two-barrel mash tun, kettle and fermenters have to be wheeled in and out of the production space, then locked in cages at the end of the day to meet licensing requirements. Even after all that, according to McDonnell, “We would have been fools to not take this opportunity.”

Once they had a space to brew, settling on a brewery name was the next big decision. HenHouse Brewing pays homage to Petaluma’s agricultural heritage, but it wasn’t their first choice. McDonnell explained:

“When we were pulling together our corporate application we had all these brainstorming sessions and came up with all sorts of names, from Petaluma Brewing Company to a more pretentious name like Oak Hill Cellars. We eventually settled on a different name and when we were literally folding up the application and putting it in the envelope Shane said, ‘What do you guys think about HenHouse Brewing Company?’ And we were all like, ‘that’s way better!’ It was at the exact last second possible and it worked out great.”

Their mash tun’s former life was spent working as an essential oil extractor.

When it comes to making beer, all three partners bring a different sensibility to the table. Goyne is a certified herbalist and self-proclaimed mad scientist. He leans towards experimentation and sometimes goes to great lengths for ingredients, like kayaking off the Mendocino coast to gather sea salt on an island. Goepel is the tinkerer who dabbles in the minutiae of recipes and McDonnell said he keeps beer moving out the door.

Their first several batches of beer to hit the shelf include a bottle conditioned Saison, Belgian Golden and Oyster Stout for local distribution. They’re also filling a few kegs, but draft is not their primary focus. Petaluma Taps could easily serve every drop of beer on tap they make, but it doesn’t fit their strategy for growth. They would like to see it get in front of a larger cross section of people, so bottles made more sense.

What they decided to produce was carefully considered. They deliberately chose styles that were diverse and underrepresented in the marketplace. Although they’re currently playing with an IPA, they initially steered clear of the style to avoid a quick comparison with Lagunitas right out of the gate.

McDonnell said, “We’re trying to do something that’s interesting and different without being unnecessarily challenging and weird, which is the balance you want to strike. You don’t want to be weird for being weird’s sake. You want to be different and interesting for the sake of standing out in a very crowded marketplace.

Starters for their oyster stout brew day.

They’re next concept just might do the trick. Imagine a double IPA that smells and tastes like a double IPA, but doesn’t contain any hops. It would essentially be a gruit that relies on Goyne’s intimate knowledge of herbs to imitate the aroma, flavor and bitterness profile of the popular style. It includes yarrow, Douglas fir tips, grapefruit peel and juice. It’s an ambitious project that could yield intriguing results.

Their oyster stout currently on shelves only utilizes the shell, but their now experimenting with the meat.

So far Petaluma has welcomed HenHouse with open arms. They’re supplying a steady stream of beer to a few accounts around town and feedback from the community has been positive. According to McDonnell, “People are excited that something new is happening and the Lagunitas guys have actually been super stoked about us. They’ve been really supportive.”

If business keeps on going strong, HenHouse would like to expand next year into a ten or fifteen barrel brewhouse. Right now they’re having fun, but as McDonnell explained, “In this facility we will never make enough money to pay any of us. We’re essentially donating our time to the business. People ask us if we’re making money and I tell them we have great cost savings on labor!”