Chicago craft-beer fans always hoped that one of their favorite beers with a Chicago heritage would finally come home from California. Well, it’s happening: Lagunitas Brewing Co., currently of Petaluma, CA, is coming to Chicago. As you read this, the company, founded in the Bay Area by former Chicagoan Tony Magee, is building a new brewery and brewpub between 17th and 18th Street along the west side of Rockwell Avenue in Douglas Park. And it’ll be right near historic Route 66.
Welcome to the Mother Road, Magee and company!! Here’s hoping your arrival will mean the creation of a Route 66 Special brew – you’d have a better claim to it than most.
Magee may not realize it, but it’s highly fitting that Lagunitas Chicago should be rising where it is, barely three blocks off the route. In the southern half of Chicago, you’re never far from a connection to either Route 66 or to Al Capone. The intersection of Rockwell and Ogden has both. Ogden Avenue is Route 66 between Jackson Boulevard on the Near West Side and Harlem Avenue in southwest suburban Berwyn. And the south side of Ogden between Talman and Rockwell Avenues, near Douglas Park, is where Edward J. ‘Fast Eddie’ O’Hare was assassinated – allegedly by some of Capone’s minions – on November 8, 1939, just before the big man himself was due to be released from federal prison.
The St. Louis-born O’Hare was an attorney and the millionaire president of Sportsman’s Park racetrack (which Capone controlled: it was formerly his Hawthorne Kennel Club dog track). O’Hare was also an FBI informant whose leaks helped put Capone behind bars. On that fateful afternoon in 1939, O’Hare was driving up Ogden in his Lincoln Zephyr coupe, headed home into the city from the track. Just past the corner of Ogden and Talman, a black sedan pulled up alongside his and rained bullets into O’Hare’s car. O’Hare died, and his Lincoln rolled to a stop against the curb in the middle of the block, in a spot approximately between where the parking lot of a church is now and the two-flats immediately to the east of that lot. Capone, of course, was the protégé of Johnny Torrio, who at the start of Prohibition got the bright idea of renting existing Chicago breweries from their legal owners and illegally manufacturing beer there. When Torrio hurriedly retired to Italy a few years later after an attempt on his life came too close to succeeding, Capone took over Torrio’s bootleg beer empire. The rest is history.
Magee himself is no less colorful a guy, though in a far different way than Capone. Magee learned to brew beer by reading everything he could lay his hands on, picking a lot of well-schooled brains, and scoring some serendipity in meeting the right brains in the first place (one guy from whom he bought some of his serious initial equipment was a wealth of knowledge). His company motto is Beer Speaks, People Mumble. His beers have funky names like Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ Ale, Wilco Tango Foxtrot aka WTF (subtitled A Malty, Robust Jobless Recovery Ale), Hop Stoopid, The Hairy Eyeball, Lagunitas Sucks Brown Shugga Substitute, Lucky 13.alt, Lagunitas Censored, and Undercover Investigation Shut-Down Ale (some of those strange/sardonic names don’t always work, but Magee keeps trying). His brew recipes are creative, to say the least, often going against type and style, which keeps him from winning certain beer awards that have judges fussy about categorizing beers by style. His blog posts and tweets are full of rambling philosophical discourse about all things beer and other interests, many of them intellectual or offbeat.
And he lists the company’s address as:
Lagunitas Brewing Co.
1280 N. McDowell Boulevard
Petaluma, CA 94954
USofA, Earth, Sol, Milky Way, Local Group, Virgo Super Cluster, Space
This is not what you’d expect from a beer mogul whose company ranks in the top 10 of California craft brewers and is no slouch in national rankings, either, though he does also wax eloquent – even occasionally obsessive – on the subject of hops. You can see a sample of his erudite and/or out-there scribblings by reading his tweets (with self-deprecating humor, he calls it twitting) at @LagunitasT or skimming an excerpt of his book, The Lagunitas Story, which debuted last year and is now available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle version.
Tony Magee grew up in northwest suburban Arlington Heights and studied music composition as his future wife studied law. Magee left the Chicago area for California in 1987 and settled in the town of Lagunitas in Marin County. After knocking around for a while and working as a printing salesman, he began brewing in a kitchen in 1993. During the early lean times, his sales income got plowed back into the beer business, but Magee hung in and gathered likeminded others around him. The brewery that resulted later moved to Petaluma in next-door Sonoma County. It’s a family business: both his wife and his sister are involved.
Lagunitas will celebrate its 20th anniversary this year by opening the new Chicago facility. Significantly, the company’s trademark couch, which long sat inside the Petaluma brewery’s taproom, arrived here in February – a symbol of Magee’s commitment to the new establishment. There’s even a video of its arrival on the Lagunitas blog.
The Tap Room & Beer Sanctuary is actually a brewpub that will be on a 20-foot-high mezzanine with clear walls on all sides, overlooking the first-floor plant. From that glassed-in perch, customers will be able to sit back, enjoy a brewski, and watch the brewery going up around them. Currently, the tap room is expected to open this summer, maybe in August. The original plan was to open it in April or May, but back in February, problems with a sprinkler system that building inspectors wanted caused a delay. After some discussion, Magee found a solution that was acceptable to the inspectors, and work has continued since. A 3D color schematic of the initial design can be seen on the blog; the latest floor plan for the ground floor is below.
Lagunitas’s new addition will be in a huge ex-warehouse on the former Ryerson Steel plant campus, which is historic on its own. And we do mean huge: the interior is 300,000 square feet with 50-foot ceilings, and the square exterior is 545 feet on a side – a whopping 15 million cubic feet of space, but it’ll deliver to all customers east of the Mississippi. Lagunitas expects to use every inch of that space. According to his latest tweets/twitts, Magee plans to install “2 brewhouses, 120-750bbl ferms [fermenters], 10-1,000bbl brite tanks, 3 packaging lines, 2 keg lines, a Tap Room & Beer Sanctuary, & a buzz shack,” whatever that last thing is. That’s larger than his initial plans, so Magee must feel very positive about his investment.
The brewhouses will be identical to the 250-barrel ROLEC-manufactured system that will soon be operational at Lagunitas’ existing facility in Petaluma. Some of the pumping equipment began coming in February; the brewing equipment isn’t due to begin arriving until July. The Chicago plant’s system – which will be the largest in the city, according to some industry sources – should be operational by October. Not long after that: beer!
Lagunitas is currently distributed in 32 states; the new brewery will mean shorter delivery distances to the Midwest and East and probable distribution to all 50 states. Per Magee, the expected transportation savings are financing the expansion, which will make Lagunitas a powerhouse competitor to another hometown craft brewer, Goose Island Brewing Co. Goose Island is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
Are there other beers named for Route 66? Yes – but as far as we can tell, none of them are made anywhere on or near the route itself. They’re just made by fellow route roadies who are fans. Lagunitas will be able to make a far more substantial claim. Let’s hope Magee takes the hint.
More on Lagunitas Chicago later as we get more updates.
Until next time,