Cathy and Michael Johnson were on vacation a few years back when they began to take stock.
Married and the parents of two school-age kids, the Johnsons were successful professionals caught up in the proverbial Bay Area rat race. He had his own audio visual company; she worked in marketing for Apple and, among other things, her commute was an excruciating three to five hours a day.
“We were just thinking, ‘Is this it? This is the life for the next 30 or 40 years, until we retire?’ Is there a way for us to change it up?” said Cathy Johnson, recalling a conversation that set them on a path that would soon change their lives.
They brainstormed. They looked at their strengths, their goals, their values. Michael had been a home brewer for many years. Cathy was an avid gardener, made her own cheese and had a degree in economics.
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They came up with a plan that eventually turned into GoatHouse Brewing. In early 2011, the couple purchased 11.5 acres of rural property in Lincoln and left behind their Bay Area jobs.
They rebuilt a dilapidated horse barn and converted it into a well-appointed tasting room and brewery. They planted 11 varieties of hops, a key flavor and bittering ingredient for beer. They got goats (Cathy also makes cheese and hopes to sell it eventually), began maintaining beehives for honey, planted vegetables and pretty much began living an entirely new life.
Gone were the endless hours on clogged freeways rushing to work, to school, to soccer practice. It was replaced by the crisp country air, lightly traveled rural roads, time that seemed to stand still and, perhaps more than they ever realized, plenty of old-fashioned hard work. The commute these days is a leisurely walk from their three-bedroom house to the taproom.
GoatHouse Brewing opened to the public in September 2013 as a one-of-a-kind farmhouse brewery. In addition to the hops, many of the ingredients brewer Michael Johnson uses for creating different styles of beer come from the property, including honey and citrus. The concept is getting raves and attracting plenty of visitors who are drawn to the cozy rural setting, the many styles of quality craft beer and, more than anything, the chance to connect with an appealing way of life.
The explosion of new craft breweries in recent years reflects a boom throughout much of the United States. In a quest for local ingredients, more breweries have begun contracting with farmers to grow hops; one high-profile Sacramento brewery, Ruhstaller, has started a hopyard along Interstate 80 near Dixon. Most notably, Sierra Nevada grows hops in Chico for a minuscule portion of its beer production. But no other brewery in California appears to be as closely tied to sustainable and organic agriculture as GoatHouse.
“I want to make the best beer, and I want to share it with the rest of the world – at least a small part of the world,” said Michael, 43. “I’ll walk through the orchard or garden, pick some of the herbs or vegetables, and I’ll get an idea of the beer I want to brew that day.”
Asked if they are content with their new lifestyle, Cathy chuckled and said, “We tend to joke about it. We say we’re either brilliant or insane – the jury is still out. One minute we’ll do something and think we’re brilliant, and the next minute we’ll say, ‘Oh God, we’re insane.’”
Cathy, 41, is so taken with pursuing her vision, even if some might see it as fanciful, that she keeps a fitting quote by Henry David Thoreau by her desk at home: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”
A recent visit to GoatHouse found plenty of quiet country charm, good conversation and a wide range of beer brewed with precision and a creative spirit. Among the offerings are a fresh-hopped beer brewed with organic peppers from a neighboring garden; a red ale called Hopricot; and a German-style hefeweizen made with honey harvested a short stroll from the tasting room.
The brewery is family-oriented and dog-friendly. Visitors are usually greeted by Georgia, a laid-back 5-year-old rottweiler mix who roams the property and whose favorite trick is napping at the bar.
“You stop for a minute, and you look around, and you see people enjoying our dream. You get goose bumps. We pulled it off,” said Cathy. But those moments of satisfaction are sometimes tempered by frustration. There are all kinds of local regulations and restrictions to deal with. And, of course, there’s one very big unknown – will this dream actually pencil out as a viable, income-producing reality?
At the moment. husband and wife are selling beer, but the word “profit” is not yet part of the conversation. There’s no such thing as a paid vacation – not any more. And they have never done more manual labor and put in longer hours than they have now. It’s just that it’s now their race, not a rat race.
“It’s a great dream, but it’s exhausting at the same time,” said Michael, who has a three-barrel brew system that produces about 100 gallons per batch. “I have been brewing beer since I was a teenager. Now, we’re brewing beer, and people are coming in droves. It’s quite the honor, quite the compliment.”
The kids are in on it, too. When they’re not going to school or playing soccer, they’re farmhands and budding entrepreneurs. Nolan, 12, and 8-year-old Amelia run their own fruit stand. They grow a variety of pumpkins from seed and sell them. They harvest fruit from the trees and occasionally find themselves having to negotiate with Dad about where the citrus goes – into the beer or for sale at the fruit stand.
“It teaches them to take ownership of their little world,” said Michael. “They take care of it and reap the benefits of getting money in their hands from things that they grow.”
“They learn about the value of hard work,” added their mom. “We as a family made the decision that we had to make compromises when we did this. We went from a corporate world to a farm world. We made financial sacrifices to give us a shot. We’ve had our kids along in the decision-making process.”
Despite the long hours, the new callouses on their hands and, for now, the lack of income, the Johnsons say they are happier than ever and have no regrets about taking the plunge and reinventing their life.
“I would hate to have missed what we’ve done,” added Cathy. “Even if we ultimately fail, I am so proud of what we have done as individuals and as a family.”
Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.
Tasting room: 600 Wise Road, Lincoln
Hours: 2-6 p.m. Thursday-Friday; 11 a.m.- 4 p.m. Saturday-Sunday; for times around holidays, check the website.
Information: (916) 740-9100; www.goathousebrewing.com