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Petaluma's 101 North Brewing Co. joins growing local beer scene

Brothers and co-owners Jake, left, and Joel Johnson look at the yeast of a red rye beer as it drains from a fermenter at the newly opened 101 North Brewing Co. on Thursday, April 25, 2013 in Petaluma.

(BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)
Published: Thursday, May 2, 2013 at 5:43 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, May 2, 2013 at 5:43 p.m.

As his first batch of American red rye ale fermented, brewmaster Joel Johnson released a steady stream of yeasty slush from the vast fermentation tank, watching as it settled into a smooth, muddy clump on the brewery floor.

“To me, it looks beautiful,” said Johnson, brewmaster at 101 North Brewing Co. in Petaluma. “The way it's stacking is a really good sign. It means the yeast is healthy and alive. It smells like bread, not dead animals.”

A mix of passion and grit permeate the culture of 101 North, a brewery that released its first kegs of beer in August and its first bottles of “Heroine IPA” last month. This week, it released its fourth beer, “Stigmata Red Rye.”

The name of the brewery, thought up at the last minute late one night over beers, puts 101 North squarely in the heart of Northern California's booming craft beer scene. The 9-month-old brewery is one of the latest to emerge in Sonoma County, where at least 18 craft brewers have bubbled up in a region better known for its fine wine.

Opening a brewery was a dream 20 years in the making for the six Sonoma County brothers and friends, most of whom went to Cardinal Newman High School together in the late 1980s. Joel's brother Jake, class of '89, handles finance and business. John Lillenthal, who graduated the same year, handles sales in Sonoma and Napa counties. John “JB” Brainin is a sales manager in San Francisco.

“Things are going great,” Lillenthal said. “We have a brand that's expanding, we have a brewer with an awesome reputation in the industry. All the pieces of the puzzle are seemingly coming into place.”

The brewery will sell an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 barrels in its first year and expects to sell 3,500 to 4,000 in its second year. It landed a distribution relationship with Morris Distributing in Petaluma, which carries Bear Republic, North Coast and many other brews.

Throughout the last 20 years, their paths have diverged, but the experience each gained helped bring them closer to their goal. At Bear Republic Brewery in Healdsburg, Joel Johnson helped write the recipe for the brewery's popular IPA, “Racer 5,” and he developed the brewery's “Hop Rod Rye,” which is rated “world class” on the Beer Advocate website. Lillenthal also worked at Bear Republic as head cellar man and as a brewer before shipping off to Afghanistan with the Army. Meanwhile, Jake Johnson got a degree in finance.

Eventually, the Johnson brothers decided it was time to get serious. Prompted by their father Johnnie Johnson, an early investor and part-owner of 101 North, they found a brewery space down the road from Lagunitas Brewing Co., and later equipment for sale in Lake Placid, N.Y.

“It took us a long time, not because we're slow, but because we did it as we acquired money,” Jake Johnson said.

The alumni community of Cardinal Newman helped to get the business off the ground, they said.

“They have a lot of friends, and so many of them have given them help ... from attorneys to accountants,” Johnnie Johnson said.

They've also found support in the North Coast brewing community. Tony Magee, founder of Lagunitas Brewing, stopped by for chats, Jake said. And the founders of Russian River Brewery shared their first business plan, Joel said.

Even so, there were many long days and sleepless nights as they were outbid for equipment, and when they did acquire it they welded it together themselves.

“There were times that I would come down here just to get them a motel room so they could shower,”Johnnie Johnson said.

To consolidate living expenses — they're still not paying themselves — a few of the guys went in together on a four-bedroom rental house in Bodega Bay.

Now, 101 North beers are available on tap in more than 50 bars and restaurants around Sonoma County including Sprenger's and Sweet Spot in Santa Rosa.

“Since we got picked up by a distributor, things have been going really well for us,” Lillenthal said. “We're pretty much adding an account a day.”

Their bottle designs and logos are inspired by “gig art” and made by Bay Area artists who design posters for concerts.

“There was definitely an effort to be edgy and provocative,” Joel Johnson said about the Heroine label, which depicts a woman with giant wings walking through flames.

Eight months in, the brewers are already producing the amount of beer they thought they would be making after two years. They want to expand, and are hoping to open a tasting room at their Petaluma brewery within the next few months.

“I'm making a real effort to make beers that are balanced,” Joel Johnson said. “Roll back to a time before the West Coast IPA. I think some of us West Coast brew houses lost our perspective — just more hops, more hops, more hops. I'm kind of over that shocking amount of hops.”

At some point, they're hoping they will be able to pull fewer all-nighters at the brewery and enjoy what they've built.

“You've just got to keep telling yourself 'I'm living a dream, I'm living a dream.' That makes it easier,” Joel Johnson said.

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