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New Johnson City brewer plans to grab life by the hops

Nathan Baker • Aug 6, 2015 at 9:12 AM

The newest addition to Johnson City’s blossoming craft beer brewery lineup may have forever stayed a tickle in the mind of a Piney Flats physician assistant had a series of life-changing prognoses not inspired him to act.

“Life is short,” owner John Henritze said Tuesday, sitting in the darkened, sparsely furnished space that will soon be the taproom of JRH Brewing. “Don’t wait for the things you want to do. Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.”

Set to open in the fall, possibly October, at 458 W. Walnut St., JRH will sit mid-field among the city’s brewers in terms of production capacity. Its 10 barrel brewing system will be larger than Johnson City Brewing Co.’s current 1 barrel system, but much smaller than the recently opened Yee-Haw Brewing Co.’s distribution-oriented facility.

Henritze said he’ll open the taproom and limited keg distribution with a stable of four regular brews, including a blonde ale and a stout, and will offer seasonal concoctions throughout the year.

A home brewer since 2009, Henritze said the gleaming stainless steel beer making equipment assembled in what used to be the building’s automotive service bays may never have been ushered from a concept in his mind to reality had it not been for three eye-opening medical diagnoses, each delivered within a year.

First, his wife Jill, whom Henritze said the brewery would not have been possible without, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2011. At the time of her diagnosis, the couple’s son, Fletcher, had not yet turned 2.

“That hit hard,” he said, remembering the physical and emotional challenges of supporting Jill through her surgeries and treatments, caring for their son and continuing to work full-time as a physician assistant.

Soon after Jill’s diagnosis, a close friend was diagnosed with breast cancer, then another friend suffered a life-threatening brain aneurysm.

“It was all so hard to take in all at once like that, and it just reminded me that life is short, you should do what you want to do, not what you have to do,” he said.

Henritze, who himself maintains the symptoms of the Type 1 diabetes with which he was diagnosed as a child, said his new worldview doesn’t give him warrant to shirk his responsibilities to his family and friends, but he hopes to be able to continue to support them as a brewer instead of a medical professional.

“My dad thinks I’m crazy, but I don’t think he really understands how important this is to me,” he said.

To commemorate the three people who inspired him to carryout the brewery dream, Henritze said he plans to brew a JSK-IPA, an India pale ale named for Jill, Sarah and Kelly.

He also hopes to inspire others to not only dream big, but to attempt to fulfill those dreams with a “JRH Dawn Wall,” a wall in the brewery where patrons and fans can send in photographs announcing their accomplishments and have them posted to receive local notoriety.

The concept is named after the Dawn Wall, a near-vertical cliff face in Yosemite National Park that rock climbers accepted as impossible to scale without the assistance of rigging and other assistance until Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson free climbed the 3,000-foot-tall wall in January.

“If you graduate college, bring a picture; if you achieve some goal, we’ll put you on the Dawn Wall,” Henritze said. “It’s never too late to find what you want to do and do it.”

His Dawn Wall, the brewery, will bring new business to an area downtown that hasn’t seen much new activity lately.

Identifying West Walnut Street as an important corridor connecting East Tennessee State University with downtown Johnson City’s core, Dianna Cantler of the Washington County Economic Development Council said JRH’s arrival is a positive sign for the future.

“Any new business coming in there is going to increase property tax values, sales tax revenues, provide an opportunity for growth and encourage others to open businesses along the corridor,” Cantler said Wednesday. “Some people are sitting back and waiting to see what happens on Walnut Street — a big question is still what happens with the mill — and what John and others are doing along there will offer them encouragement to step out and take a look at opening up there.”

Despite the recent boom in craft brewery startups in East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, Henritze said the competition doesn’t worry him, even after ticking off the 10 other breweries already in operation in the area. The craft beer movement is founded on a sense of community and love of small-time beer, he said.

“It’s more of a lifestyle than a business,” he said. “If somebody has a problem, like if I’m trying to set up my equipment and I can’t figure something out, I can go down the street to the next guy and he’ll help you figure it out. That’s the community. There’s a real friendship among brewers that you don’t see in other industries.”

Instead of a bar, Henritze sees JRH as more of a community gathering place. He described the business as “family friendly.”

“We have a 6-year-old who’s going to be basically growing up here,” he said. “It’s not going to be some raucous place where you go to get wasted — we’re not even going to be open that late at night.

“We want people to come here, hang out, have a good time, go home, and then be able to come back the next night and do it again,” he added.

Email Nathan Baker at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @jcpressbaker or on Facebook at facebook.com/jcpressbaker.

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