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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.