By Sarah Colson
A bright red wall rises at the far right side of JRH Brewing. After the doors to the Johnson City microbrewery’s taproom open in October, owner John Henritze said he wants that wall to become symbolic of challenging journeys visitors have taken.
Eventually, Henritze said, the wall will be covered with pictures of people accomplishing what they never thought they could accomplish, a theme that has been at the heart of his own journey to brewing.
Henritze’s dream to open a brewery started during the Roanoke, Va. native’s senior year of high school in 1992, after a physics class trip to Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Va. The class was there to observe the physics involved in roller coasters. Henritze and his friends visited a brewery at the theme park and thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool to do this for the rest of your life?”
Despite that experience, there was no degree in brewing at the time.
“The thought never crossed my mind to get a science degree and go pursue that,” he explained. “It was: You have to pick a field and once you get in the field you go in that direction.”
So Henritze earned a degree in exercise science and health promotion from George Mason University and then a degree in physician assistant studies from Jefferson College in Roanoke where he met his wife, Jill. Both became physician assistants and worked for more than seven years at Associated Orthopedics of Kingsport.
In 2009, a friend brought over some home-brewed beer, the kind Henritze used to make in college, and he thought, ‘I should start doing that again.’ Life and career carried on as usual, though, as he and Jill both were successful at one of the top-rated careers in America.
Everything came to a halt, however, when Jill was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2011. Shortly after that, one of their closest friends was diagnosed with breast cancer and another dear friend nearly died of a brain aneurysm. Henritze himself was no stranger to medical problems, having been diagnosed with Type I diabetes as a baby.
With all of this in mind, he finally realized just how short life was and what he wanted to do with it: brew good beer.
“Everything within six months was falling apart,” he said, “and so as all of that is taking place you start to think about life. You start to say, ‘what are we doing on this earth? Why am I here?’ Then I said, ‘You know what? I’ve always wanted to be a brewer.’ So that’s what I decided to do.”
At that time, there were only two breweries in the area, and with his wife’s blessing and help, he applied to brewing school. In 2013 he got his degree in Intensive Brewing Science and Engineering from the American Brewer’s Guild, purchased a “brew magic system” to play around with and then started to make more serious decisions about what equipment to invest in.
“It took me forever to determine what I needed to buy to do it,” Henritze said. “I plan, I think, I re-think, I re-plan, and then I analyze. My wife would say, ‘For the love of God, just make a decision.’”
Henritze settled on four 310-gallon fermenters he hopes will keep up with the local demand. He also plans on getting a distributor, and wants to distribute from Knoxville to Roanoke to supply UT football fans and tie into his family roots in Roanoke. He plans on selling a “Boone Time” blonde ale, “Henry’s Stout,” a couple of IPA’s and a few others to make sure his supply is diversified. He said the stout and the blonde ale have done the best at local home brew beer competitions.
Throughout his journey, Henritze said his experience has often felt more like climbing a mountain than it has executing a strategic business plan.
Last January, months into JRH’s planning and construction, Henritze heard a story that inspired his plans even more.
Mountain climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson reached the 3,000-foot summit of the rock known as El Capitan in the section called the Dawn Wall in Yosemite National Park.
“It’s considered the hardest climb in the world,” Henritze said. “People said it couldn’t be done, and they did it. It took them two weeks and at the end of it they asked them, ‘Why’d you do it?’ Their answer was, ‘Well we wanted to do it to maybe inspire others to find their own Dawn Wall.’
So we are hoping that as people hear the story and come in and see what we’ve done, then it will maybe inspire them to go out and find their own Dawn Wall.”
The Henritzes, John, Jill and their 6-year-old son Fletcher, view the company as a “family venture” and hope the brewery will reflect that sentiment. They plan for the tap room to not be open late into the evening, but to be the type of place families can come and “enjoy beer and have conversations about the things they want to do.”
“The big red wall at the back of the brewery is the JRH Dawn Wall,” he said. “Don’t think that just because you’re doing something now, it’s what you have to do forever.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved helping people when I practiced medicine, but I really wanted to be a brewer. I just wanted to make beer. At the end of the day, that’s what I want to do. So that’s it. That is our tagline: ‘Dedication, Determination, Delicious Beer.’
With several local breweries springing up in downtown recently, News and Neighbor asked Henritze why he thinks JRH Brewing will be successful. His answer was great beer, a unique story and the beauty of friendly competition.
“I expect the beer to be great, number one,” he said. “Also, in the world of craft beer, there is to some degree competition, but it’s not like competition in any other industry. I could right now walk down the street to another brewery and say, ‘hey I have a question about this’ and they’ll answer it. It’s a very friendly field to be in. Everybody says, ‘Gosh, I can’t believe you’re opening up and you’ve got a brewery right down the street,’ and ‘Gosh they’re so big; how are you going to compete?’ Well, just like anybody. Just make good beer. That’s it.”
The brewery is at 458 W. Walnut St. For more information, visit jrhbrewing.com.