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.