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.
While the three partners of HenHouse ultimately share the brewing responsibilities, each brings along his own unique abilities. Goyne is a certified herbalist, with a fine-tuned knowledge of spices and alternative brewing ingredients. Goepel adds an analytical precision to recipe formulation, in addition to a depth of brewing knowledge. (He's also quick to note he serves as head keg cleaner, a thankless but highly vital position.) McDonnell works as a professional brewer by day, bringing crucial knowledge of brewery mechanics to the trio.
At two barrels per batch (just over 60 gallons), HenHouse is still operating on a small scale, with brewing sessions limited to the weekend hours. They currently distribute to about eight locations; Petaluma Market and TAPS are probably the most reliable spots to track them down locally. Outside of the Petaluma vicinity, they distribute to Ad Hoc in Yountville and Betelnut in San Francisco. When I ask to confirm that they're self-distributing (typical of small California breweries), Goepel laughs, "Our distributor right now is a Honda Civic."
"We're at this small stage," McDonnell acknowledges, "where we don't want to stay. But the cool thing about it is that we really get to play with a lot of different ideas and a lot of different concepts, and really educate ourselves—and our consumers—about the brewing process, the brewing science and the brewing art. It's been a really cool experience."
The number of new breweries opening up across the country has grown exponentially, with the Brewers Association reporting 855 breweries in planning as of November (up from 389 in mid-2010). While the craft-beer industry's consumer base continues to grow as well, HenHouse is keenly aware that it's important for them to get to higher ground, and soon.
The experimental batch of oyster stout, in fact, is part of that growth process. While shucking 40 oysters over the course of a brew day is one thing (and, as Goepel highlights, "[it also] means we get to eat 40 oysters on brew day"), shucking a few hundred or more remains an entirely different level of labor and supply constraints. The addition of entire oysters may further enhance the aroma, but it may also give the company a bit more flexibility in scaling up the recipe to a larger brewing system.
Their atypical core lineup (no IPA?) was a conscious choice, and highlights both how competitive the craft-beer market has become and how highly the HenHouse brewers regard their neighbors. Mentioning nearby breweries like Russian River and Lagunitas, McDonnell notes, "We decided intentionally not to launch with a West Coast hop bomb, because there's no shortage of options for one of those. And so we did intentionally decide to focus on what we felt were underrepresented styles."
"We chose the oyster stout [because] we live in oyster mecca," Goyne reflects. "We chose the saison because we love food, and I wanted to incorporate herbs into a beer."
He pauses for a moment. "We chose the golden because it's so delicious."
Ken Weaver is a beer writer, fiction writer and technical editor based in Santa Rosa. His book 'The Northern California Craft Beer Guide,' with photographer Anneliese Schmidt, is due out in June from Cameron + Company.