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Small Petaluma brewery back in operation after permit snafu

Published: Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 9:42 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 9:42 a.m.

Petaluma Hills Brewing is back in operation three months after the city shut it down for lacking construction permits, Owner JJ Jay said he received his final sign-off from city inspectors on Thursday.

“It was a very painful process ... it was inspection after inspection after inspection,” he said.

Petaluma building officials couldn't be reached for comment because city offices are closed on Friday.

Jay first began brewing at his new facility in November, and even announced a deal to share his brewing equipment with HenHouse Brewing, a very small nearby producer that was looking to expand. News of that deal, however, caught the attention of city officials, who shut the business down at the beginning of December, saying Jay hadn't had his construction plans approved and lacked an occupancy permit.

Jay admits that he was operating without permits, but blames the city for its slow response on routine permit matters. He submitted his construction drawings in April of last year.

“I couldn't afford to wait,” he said.

Still unresolved is his planned tap room at the brewery on North McDowell Boulevard, directly across the street from Lagunitas Brewing. Jay said city officials seemed uncomfortable with the idea of a tap room, so he withdrew that application temporarily in order to get the brewhouse up and running.

Jay said he is still hoping to get the tap room approved. Not only would it help generate revenue from direct sales of beer, it would be an important marketing tool for a small start-up brewery in a crowded market.

“It will help educate the consumers,” he said. “They can meet the brewer; they can almost claim it as their beer.”

Jay managed to make about 60 barrels of beer, about 1,860 gallons, before the city shut him down. About a third of that is left in storage, he said, so he has been able to keep shipping to bars as far as San Francisco.

The shutdown was much harder on HenHouse, which had stopped brewing at its previous tiny brewing setup in November in anticipation of moving to the much larger Petaluma Hills facility. The small inventory dried up quickly, meaning the brewery had no beer to sell to the dozen or so area bars that had carried HenHouse.

The shutdown “didn't help,” co-owner Collin McDonnell said Friday as he and his crew brewed its first beers in nearly three months. “But more than anything, we're excited to be able to sell our beer.”

Previously, HenHouse was able to produce only about 200 barrels, or 6,200 gallons, per year. By sharing Petaluma Hills equipment, HenHouse could produce as much as 2,080 barrels per year, an increase of more than 10-fold, allowing the company to expand distribution throughout the Bay Area.

The new brewery cost about $500,000 to build, including $30,000 to hook up to the city's sewer system, Jay said.

The project allows Jay, an avid home brewer for more than 20 years, to follow his dream of going pro. He left his longtime job at Dreamworks, the movie company, this week to devote his full time to the brewery.

Jay, 53, spent 11 years at Dreamworks and Pixar as a “character technical director,” a pivotal middle position in converting a physical model into the moving animated character on the screen. He worked on films including installments of the Shrek and Madagascar series.

Jay said he loved his jobs in the movies, but beer puts him on a different creative path. In movies, he said, it is a large team effort but audiences rarely know the names of anyone beyond the directors.

“There is a lot of pride in that” work, he said, “but when I am in a room and they are enjoying my beer, that's mine.”

(You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BeerCountry)

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