Brewery is back in production

The on-again, off-again operation of Petaluma Hills Brewery is back up and running this month, following almost a year of planning, construction, application review and finally a three-month shut-down at the end of last year after brewing six batches of beer without the necessary permits.

The final sign-off on all permits from the city planning department was dated Feb. 27, and the next day beer was being brewed at the McDowell Ave. location — just opposite the much larger Lagunitas Brewery on the same street.

Petaluma Hills applied for its permit to operate a brewing facility and taproom at the 6,000 foot facility last spring, according to Jeffrey "JJ" Jay, its owner-brewmaster. But trying to negotiate the permitting process for the brew house proved daunting and a bit frustrating for the former Dreamworks technical director. "The inspection process took almost three months," he told the Argus-Courier this week. "They'd come out and inspect and find something, then come back and find something else. I had three or four 'final inspections'."

Part of the long permitting process, Jay said, may have been that his initial application combined plans for the brewing facility with a taproom — a public area where visitors could watch the brewing process at work, talk with the brewer and even sample the current releases.

"The construction permit kept getting delayed because of questions concerning what we were going to do with the taproom," said Jay.

The taproom itself was conceived as a marketing adjunct for the brewery. "It's where the customer can come in, meet the brewer, experience at least visually and through aroma and sounds the brewing process," explained Jay.

But questions about the taproom's lighting, capacity, and purpose interfered with the permitting process for the brewery, and finally Jay pulled the taproom from the application to focus on the production itself.

In September Jay started brewing his Petaluma Hills label beers, a number of which are already available in the area at places such as Taps, Speakeasy, McNear's and Central Market.

Then in December, the city red-tagged the facility. "It was quite the surprise — because I knew they knew I was brewing. I think part of the problem, part of what triggered the shutdown, was the alternating proprietorship I did with Henhouse."

Henhouse Brewing Company, another of several small area breweries started by home brewers going commercial, began planning to brew at the property as well. Even though Henhouse would need their own permits and applied for them, said Jay, "The city … thought Henhouse was going to come in immediately and start brewing in an unpermitted facility, which was never the case."

Multiple inquiries to the City of Petaluma planning department failed to clarify the matter — planning director Heather Hines is on vacation, and no one else responded. But at this point, with his facility up and running, Jay is positive.

"I'm fully permitted, the city and I are square on everything on the production side of the brewing," he said. "I met with the city the week before last and started the permitting process on the taproom again."

He hopes to have the taproom open in May, so visitors can experience not one, but two local microbreweries in action. Petaluma Hills is currently brewing at a rate of 960 barrels a year, with a goal of 3,000 barrels; Henhouse is planning for annual production of 2,000 barrels a year.