The large white tanks at Lagunitas Brewing Co. can be seen throughout northern Petaluma’s industrial parks, a stark reminder that it produces almost 75 percent of the beer made in Sonoma County.
Fans constantly stream into the Petaluma brewery to taste its legendary India pale ale, which has made the 22-year-old company the fifth-largest craft brewer in the United States. Production between the plant and a new Chicago facility will likely surpass 850,000 barrels this year, about 40 percent more than in 2014.
But just down the road, other smaller brewers are trying to make their mark in an increasingly crowded marketplace, where competition is fierce for everything from supermarket shelf space to the barroom tap and buzz can be easily created or taken away on powerful Internet message boards.
Petaluma Hills Brewing Co. has opened up its own taproom across the street from Lagunitas, and its beer is featured in Oliver’s Markets. A few blocks down, the childhood friends who formed 101 North Brewing Co. are bullish as the brewery is on the verge of going into the black for the first time.
They are part of a outpouring of new breweries that have opened their doors in Sonoma County in the past five years. Though it has long been known as one of the world’s top producers of wine, it is rapidly gaining a national reputation for its beer. There are now 20 craft brewers in Sonoma County, almost double the number from 2011, according to a survey by The Press Democrat.
101 North, which opened in September 2012, especially has reason to celebrate after recently landing distribution deals with Safeway and Costco. Nearly 80 local and regional pubs now serve its beer, especially its flagship Heroine IPA.
“Those guys (Lagunitas) across the way are so much larger than us. We are quite some time away from even being some semblance of their size,” said Joel Johnson, partner and brewmaster.
Johnson, 45, certainly looks the part from central casting of the brewmaster with a soul patch, earrings in both ears and a neck tattoo. But he also has the bona fides to back it up. Previously, he brewed for Bear Republic Brewing Co. in Cloverdale and jokes that he could probably make its flagship beer, Racer 5, in his sleep. Such experience has helped 101 North compete in a crowded market, especially for the hoppy IPAs that are ubiquitous around the North Bay.
“We would like to say in 10 or 15 years we are on our way to being more than just a speck on the map. If we could get up on the top 50 brewery (list) size-wise it would be great,” he said.
Such optimism still abounds as third-generation craft brewers such as Johnson and his partners enter a local industry that has been around since the late 1970s when New Albion Brewing Co. opened up in Sonoma, widely regarded as the first craft brewery in the modern era.
These new entrants — along with more established local players such as Bear Republic, Lagunitas and Russian River Brewing Co. — are enjoying rosy sales forecasts and increased demand as sales of craft beer skyrocket across the United States. Nationwide, production of craft beer jumped 18 percent during the first six months of 2014. A new brewery opens every 16 hours in the United States, said Bart Watson, the chief economist with the Brewers Association, the trade group that represents craft brewers.
The local impact is significant. A report by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board found that the economic impact of craft brewing in 2012 was $123 million, creating almost 500 jobs and another 179 positions indirectly.
While Sonoma County may be best known for its wine, local beer producers are breaking out of the shadow of Wine Country. That was especially evident on Friday when more than 200 beer fans camped out for up to 17 hours to get a taste of Russian River Brewing’s Pliny the Younger, an extra-hoppy triple India pale ale that some claim is the best beer in America. It is on sale only for two weeks in February.
“Wine will always be our calling card,” said Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board. “This just adds to the rainbow of attractions.”
Craft beer’s spectrum is shining so bright even those in the local wine industry are starting to take notice, especially as it attracts millennials in the highly coveted 18-to-34 age demographic.
That’s not surprising given Sonoma County is one of the nation’s top spots for the craft market as result of its history and its concentration of some of the most highly regarded brews in the country, making the region a must-stop beer mecca for tourists.
Following in New Albion’s footsteps, the Hopland Brewery opened in 1983 in Mendocino County as the second brewpub in United States since Prohibition and first one in California. The brewery, which later became Mendocino Brewing Co., attracted a legion of fans, many of whom were homebrewers who later expanded the popularity of full-flavored beers in the 1980s. That group included Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in Chico and Dean Biersch of Gordon Biersch Brewing Co. in Palo Alto.
“Here’s this brewpub and it had this atmosphere that was unbelievable,” said Biersch, describing the Hopland Brewery. In his latest effort, Biersch has tried to recreate such excitement by founding three local HopMonk Tavern brewpubs, an upscale beer garden that focuses on food pairings with beer.
Indeed, niche and specialization seems to be the current trend in the industry, an especially vital point in Sonoma County where second-generation craft brewers such as Russian River’s Vinnie Cilurzo, Lagunitas’ Tony Magee and Bear Republic’s Norgrove family have all made a tremendous mark with their flagship IPAs.
“It’s getting more challenging and you certainly have to differentiate more,” said Watson.
That’s the route that 33-year-old Steve Doty is taking with his one-man shop, Santa Rosa’s Shady Oak Barrel House, which specializes in sour beers and those brewed with brettanomyces yeast, some of which take up to two years to age. His beers, such as his latest release, Funkatronic, are available at the Rincon Valley Tap Room & Bottle Shop.
“There are very few people who are specializing in things,” Doty said. “That’s why I don’t think we are even close to crowded.”
The guys over at 101 North were able to craft their own niche even when they focused on an IPA, especially as Heroine has a more balanced taste compared to some of its more hoppy competitors. They also note that they were lucky to get an 18-month head start over other new brewers in the latest craft beer boom, which gives them an advantage in reaching retailers and bars before the market becomes too saturated. But no one has a good estimate when the peak of craft beer may be reached, which will lead to an era of closings and consolidation.
The company is now waiting for two additional 90-barrel tanks to ramp up production and keep up with retailer demands. It’s a far cry from trying to come up with $1 million in investments to get the brewery off the ground in 2010, especially as traditional lenders like banks are still leery of making loans to these startups.
“The company did not open up with deep pockets at all,” said John Lilienthal, regional sales manager and partner at 101 North, who also worked at Bear Republic.
Even though some of the generation of craft brewers before them are seeing millions of dollars in sales, the partners at 101 North have dreams that are decidedly middle class.
“We all are looking to owning houses one day and having a decent car,” Lilienthal said. “We don’t want a big mansion. We just want to live comfortably.”
You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @BillSwindell.