Out among the winding roads and rolling fields of the Placer County foothills, where vineyards thrive in the Mediterranean climate and wineries are plentiful, a new kind of bucolic drinking experience has begun to flourish. Instead of symmetrical rows of grape vines, these new establishments offer towering hop trellises, while the smell of fermented grains fills the air.
Beer-wise, there are significant differences between the three Placer County farm breweries. GoatHouse puts out over 40 new small-batch beers a year, while the recently opened Hillenbrand Farmhaus sticks with a core five beers (“I’m not doing anything next, I’m perfecting what I’ve got,” says Hillenbrand), and Dueling Dogs plans to rotate up to a dozen different beers, ciders and meads. One thing that unites all three breweries, though, is that they all started with a parental desire to raise children in the country.
“We were thinking of opening a tasting room in Alameda, with the intention of us leaving and moving to farmland,” says Catherine Johnson, who owns GoatHouse Brewing with husband and brewer Michael. “We always wanted space.” Likewise, both single father Patric Hillenbrand and Dueling Dogs owners and parents Earl and Adriana Stephens bought their land about a decade ago with the intention of raising children in an agricultural environment, but only got around to the farm brewery component after GoatHouse pioneered the concept in the region in 2013.
Michael Johnson was an avid homebrewer since before he was legally able to buy booze. After he and Catherine’s two children were born, there was a new urgency to abandon city life to follow their dual dreams of opening a brewery and moving to the country. “We decided we might only have one shot, and maybe we just do the farm,” says Catherine. “That means relocating our family, that means quitting corporate America, that means a whole lifestyle change, not just starting a new business.”
The Johnsons looked at over 300 properties before finding the 11.5-acre land in Lincoln, which offered space for a brewery and tasting room, plus farmland for hops and crops and living space for the family. Seven years ago, there were few statewide precedents for the GoatHouse model, and their unique concept baffled local officials who tried to categorize the pre-boom craft brewery as a restaurant or bar. “There was no model for what we were doing, no codes, no ordinances, no zoning, nothing,” says Catherine. “There was a lot of confusion about what a brewery actually is.”
Ninety percent of the hops used in GoatHouse beers are grown on the farm, and staying true to their self-sustaining model of “agricultural tourism” means that their brews are rarely available outside the renovated barn that serves as their tasting room. Business has grown steadily since GoatHouse opened in 2013, and although Catherine says it’s still too early to determine the effect of having two more farm breweries in the area, she hasn’t noticed any difference in the few months since Hillenbrand Farmhaus opened.
“They’re trying to go on their own vibe, no one’s trying to cookie-cutter anything,” she says. “People seem to want a unique experience with good beer.”