Lagunitas – Craft Beer’s Next Phase?

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September 9, 2015 at 9:50 pm

According to Wikipedia: “The Lagunitas Brewing Company is a brewery founded in 1993 in Lagunitas, California, USA. The brewery is known for iconoclastic interpretations of traditional beer styles, and irreverent descriptive text and stories on its packaging. The company is the fifth top selling craft brewery in the US, as of 2014.” Lagunitas is at the forefront of the craft brewing industry an industry founded mainly by rebels and those who were seeking a brew created more, as its moniker suggests, as a “craft” than a manufactured product.

Photo: Lagunitas Brewing Co.

Photo: Lagunitas Brewing Co.

Lagunitas is one of the breakout stars of the industry. Its Petaluma, California brewery grew so fast it caught the attention of local authorities, in the marijuana growing region, who thought more business than meets the eye may be taking place. It was even shut down briefly in its early years during a sting operation when an undercover cop was offered a toke on a joint during one of the many celebrations put on by the company.

Its founder, Tony Magee started Lagunitas after his first batch of home brew spilled over and ruined his stove. His wife suggested that he take the brewing elsewhere. He did and became well known in the industry as a person who according BeerPulse.com “drew a line in the sand between what he perceives as “us” (craft brewers/beer people) and “them” (A-B InBev and MillerCoors).” Lagunitas grew a large following and expanded, eventually opening a Chicago brewery with another on the way in Azusa California.

I just happened to have visited the Chicago Taproom in the Douglas Park brewing facility last Saturday. I sampled the food, which they do source locally whenever possible. I also took the tour of the brewery. The brewery is located in a huge old Ryerson Steel plant. The plant came with several large overhead cranes and thousands of square feet.  Neighboring buildings house film studios where movie shoots and television shows, such as Chicago Fire are filmed.

The tour consisted of a very animated tour guide who told several interesting and funny stories about the beginnings of Lagunitas. Another thing the tour guide mentioned many times as we moved around catwalks above the numerous large fermenting tanks was the growth of Lagunitas. It seemed like they were really into getting big really fast. There are other breweries in the works similar to the Douglas Park facility including one in London, according to the guide.  The thought that came to my mind was, are they still, or should they still be considered a “craft brewer.”

Fermenting Tanks at Lagunitas Brewing in Douglas Park, Chicago

Fermenting Tanks at Lagunitas Brewing in Douglas Park, Chicago

Ironically, a friend I was with bought me a book on the history of craft brewing from the Lagunitas gift shop at the brewery. In it the author has a small bio on Tony Magee where he says how much Tony is fighting the good fight against “the tyranny of fast growth!” Then the news came on Tuesday that Lagunitas sold a 50% stake in the company to Heineken.

Kegs lined up at Lagunitas Brewing in Douglas Park, Chicago

Kegs lined up at Lagunitas Brewing in Douglas Park, Chicago

There are some who feel that the Heineken deal is, in Tony Magee’s words, just “craft beer’s next phase.” Others caught up in the world of small craft brewers doing their thing, sticking it to man in the guise of international faceless corporations, fear it is something more ominous.

Tony Magee  Photo:www.pressdemocrat.com

Tony Magee
Photo:www.pressdemocrat.com

Posts and comments from various sites across the web seem to take both positions. “RIP LAGUNITAS. Can’t believe you sold out to Heineken!!!! LOSERS!!!!!” reads one post and “WTF, you just sold your soul!” reads another. One just referenced the name of one of Lagunitas’ products with “ Lagunitas sucks!” Some have another take. A commenter named Gary on a social media site said “I have no problem with your deal with Heineken. A lot of silly over-reaction in these comments. The deal with Goose Island and AB hasn’t done them any damage. In fact, I think it has worked out well for Goose Island. The deal will help people around the world enjoy Lagunitas. What’s so bad about that?”

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Of course, all of this is nothing new in the craft brew world. As Gary mentioned, in 2011, Chicago-based Goose Island was bought out by Anheuser-Busch in a deal worth $38.8 million. Later, in 2014, Anheuser-Busch InBev purchased New York-based craft brewery Blue Point Brewing Co. Also, many other industries started out in a similar fashion to the craft brewing industry. Nothing more than small entrepreneurs, working in sheds and garages, growing and then consolidating into behemoths. The auto industry started out this way, as did the computer and software industry. But, some would add that along the way both of those industries lost that early spirit and became faceless profit-first corporations seen in so many television shows like The Office and in Dilbert cartoons.

One thing is certain though, the craft brewing industry has come of age. It has caught the attention of the beer drinking public who had, until recently, been content with Bud, Coors, and Keystone Light. The industry giants have taken note, too that there is much more to beer than putting out a product just to make a profit. The newfound pride stemming from hometown and regional beer brewers and styles and beer brewing as a “craft” instead of something that is just manufactured has changed the large corporate brewing world in a good way.

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As a side note, an analogous story in the local food movement would someday see ConAgra using products from small local farmers and buying a 50% stake in small craft cannery that grew beyond its ability to distribute its product. Craft brewing is really a part of the local food movement and hopefully will continue to be supported by the people who made it grow. It would be a shame if the Heineken deal is a sign that craft brewing is following earlier industries and will become just another bunch of giants chasing profits.

Photo: Lagunitas Brewing Co.

Photo: Lagunitas Brewing Co.

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