Crossing a set of railroad tracks and steering into a weathered industrial section of downtown Petaluma, we arrive to find the three brewers of HenHouse Brewing Company hard at work. Their makeshift brewing space is larger than most startups we've seen as of late: tidily organized pallets of boxed bottles, long multi-tiered metal shelves of ingredients. A grain mill sits idly in front of the facility's door, the only overt exterior sign of brewing. Early on, one of the brewers appears with a fluffy, ruby-eyed rabbit, the origins of which (still) remain unclear, and then disappears with it just as quickly.
There is, in visiting small breweries, often a hint of magic involved.
Behind the fringe of a clear, plastic warehouse curtain (the type one normally expects forklifts to be driving through), Shane Goepel stands over the sink with a large knife and a plastic tray full of oysters, shucking. Scott Goyne monitors the brewing process, moving hoses and stainless steel. Collin McDonnell explains the day's plan: a two-barrel batch of their standard oyster stout recipe, utilizing just the shells, with 15 to 20 gallons receiving an experimental, exploratory touch: the whole mollusk.
Though the concept may sound slightly fishy, it traces its lineage at least a century back, to an era in England when oysters were far more plentiful there, and standard bar food. It remains uncertain whether the first "oyster stouts" were called such due to their ingredients or simply because conventional stouts and porters paired so well with them. The late, much-loved journalist Michael Jackson (the Big Poppa of beer writing) once mentioned, "The earthy intensity of stout is a perfect foil for the gamey brininess of oysters." Versions of oyster stout today run the gamut, from conventional (often drier) stouts to those brewed with shells to ones using the entire oyster. Jackson encouraged the latter two.
In the standard HenHouse Oyster Stout, 40 or so shells are boiled for a half-hour to contribute that aforementioned brininess and a touch of calcium carbonate, which raises the pH of the brew slightly (and is often employed on its own in brewing well-roasted styles, like stouts and porters). In addition to using only Sonoma County oysters, HenHouse also adds sea salt that Goyne hand-harvests off the Mendocino Coast. The end result, says McDonnell, "smells like an ocean breeze but doesn't taste like an oyster." It shows plenty of roasted and chocolaty malt character, and it's an especially savory rendition at only 4.9 percent.
HenHouse Brewing Company is a relatively new addition to the North Bay's brewing scene, officially launching at TAPS in Petaluma in late February with a three-beer lineup: the aforementioned oyster stout, a 5.5 percent saison with black pepper and coriander, and a massive Belgian-style golden ale weighing in at 11.7 percent. The launch party at TAPS was elbows-tucked packed with thirsty supporters of the Petaluma startup, and the brewery's name, a last-minute suggestion by Goepel, seems an ideal fit in a city with a poultry-rich history and an annual event calendar that includes the Butter and Egg Day parade. For the launch party, they fashioned their own tap handles out of recycled chicken coops.