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Going from red tag to tap room

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It’s been a long journey for the Petaluma Hills Brewing Company, which ended 2013 with their business red tagged by the city. But now, with appropriate permits in place, the brewery has opened a tap room on McDowell Boulevard, just across from Lagunitas Brewing Co., creating a burgeoning beer alley in Petaluma.

“They (Lagunitas) send people over to us when they get too busy, which happens a lot. It’s great for a small brewery like us,” said owner JJ Jay.

Jay said he worked for more than three years to open a brewery, but found the city’s regulatory process daunting and complicated.

“Working with ABC (the state’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control) was so easy compared to the city,” Jay said, explaining that in addition to confusing requirements, the city took months to process his permit requests.

Petaluma’s Economic Development Manager Ingrid Alverde was empathetic, but said the city did everything possible to help the brewery set up shop in Petaluma.

“I can count 15 steps that the city took outside the normal process,” she said, explaining that delays in permits are “nine times out of 10 because the applicant is missing something.”

She added that Petaluma goes beyond what other cities offer when it comes to supporting businesses thanks to Petaluma’s Development Review Committee, which brings together representatives from a variety of city departments together to help businesses navigate the regulatory process. The committee meets weekly and offers applicants specific suggestions after reviewing their proposal.

“That’s very rare, I am not aware of any other cities who do that,” Alverde said.

Jay, who came from a long career as a technical director at DreamWorks Animations and Disney/Pixar, admits he knew little about starting a small business. While working through the process, he began brewing beer last year even though he lacked the proper permits because he could no longer afford the brewery without a revenue stream. Alverde said the city turned a blind eye, because permits were in the works, but had to red tag the brewery in December after Jay announced plans to expand production by partnering with Petaluma’s HenHouse Brewing Co.

Jay said he understood the city’s position and agreed to stop brewing until all of his permits were in place in April. He even commemorated the experience in a beer, Red Tag Ale. Alverde said the committee continued to help Petaluma Hills, which opened its taproom in July at 1333 N. McDowell Blvd.

One of a growing number of craft brewers making a home in Sonoma County, where beer has become a $123 million industry, Petaluma Hills can now share its Belgium style brews with guests who can sit at the hand-made redwood bar and watch Jay and his crew — which mostly involves his wife, daughter and two sons — mash, lauter and boil beer.

“It’s great, I can let people sample the beer at different stages so they can taste the progression in the flavors,” Jay smiled.

Alverde said she encourages all businesses to seek out the expertise of the Development Review Committee, which aims to help businesses mitigate problems before they arise. However, she admits there are improvements to be made.

“Everything didn’t always get communicated clearly with (Petaluma Hills),” she said, calling the committee a “work in progress.”

But, she added, “It is still the best first step for any business just getting started.”

(Contact Emily Charrier at emily.charrier@argus courier.com)