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Malt in the Family

Petaluma Hills carves out niche in Petaluma beer barrio

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Lagunitas Brewing Co.'s IPA is the No. 1 selling IPA in California. So it's a bit bold for an upstart brewery to open shop right across the street from the 500-pound Lagunitas gorilla.

J.J. Jay (yep, his real name) started Petaluma Hills Brewing Company in 2013 after a successful run as a homebrewer. At first, Jay resisted the North McDowell Boulevard location because he didn't want to be seen as derivative or as a Lagunitas copycat. But when his then-prospective landlord also offered to invest in the beer startup, Jay went for it.

He and his crew, which happens to be his wife and adult children, gutted the place and built a comfortable taproom and lounge that has an open view of the gleaming brewery. The taproom opened last July. It's not only a great place to drink beer, it's a great place to learn about beer. Beer education is something that Jay promotes to distinguish himself from that other brewery across the street. Jay, who left a career as technical director at Pixar and Dreamworks to brew, can engage visitors as he's working in the brewery a few steps away.

The surrounding neighborhood is reaching a beery critical mass. In addition to Lagunitas and Petaluma Hills, Henhouse Brewing Co. brews in Jay's brewery and 101 North Brewing Co. is on Scott Street around the corner. (Note to Petaluma city planners: Someone, probably carrying beer in his arms or in his belly, is going to get hit on McDowell. How about a crosswalk? Instead of a black and yellow sign for a pedestrian, it could feature a slightly off-kilter dude holding a case of cold ones.)

Petaluma Hills does make an IPA (given the demand for hoppy beers, every brewery must), the fine Line & Twine IPA. But the brewery deserves to be known for its maltier, darker brews.

"For me, the goal was to produce a full-bodied, well-balanced ale," says Jay.

Porterluma was the first beer Jay brewed, and it's still his favorite. With its chewy but refreshing flavors of chocolate, malt and mocha (and low alcohol content), it's one of my favorites too. Also check out the Lampost Ale, a honey-nut brown ale made with black barley, chocolate malt, wheat and honey. It's a complex, deeply flavorful ale. My favorite, though, is the Big House Blonde, a refreshing, spicy and crisp Belgian style blonde ale. It's much better suited to warm-weather drinking than a boozy IPA.

The taproom features many beers on nitro as well as regular CO2, giving beer fans an opportunity to taste the difference between the two. The nitrogenated beers are highly quaffable and go down smooth and creamy.

Petaluma Hills Brewing Company, 1333 N. McDowell Blvd., Petaluma. 707.766.4458.

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