Founder Chat: Tony Magee of Lagunitas Brewing

Lagunitas Sucks.

The founder of the nation’s second largest craft brewing operation, Tony Magee, said so himself. The statement is something he embraces and hopes holds true, too. According to his reasoning, you’re always improving and you’re bound to make mistakes along the way; but by definition – if you are to improve – it must mean that you ‘suck’ at the moment.

It’s that kind of no-bullshit-brutal-honesty (and mild self-loathing) that has been the backbone of the Lagunitas brand from the beginning. But don’t be fooled, the business savvy that’s helped build Lagunitas Brewing is really what’s impressive here. Just read Tony’s new memoir, So You Want to Start a Brewery?: The Lagunitas Story. The road to get the Petaluma, California-based brewery to where it is today has been no small feat. And Tony will tell you himself, in the matter-of-fact but friendly way that only he could. He never doubted he could do it, despite the improbable journey he’s taken since 1993. He’ll also tell you that Lagunitas really is a ‘Chicago’ brewery. And, in a way, it was this city that influenced the West Coast craft movement and in turn, built one of the world’s top beer brands.

But I digress. We caught up with Tony Magee, graciously sharing beers with us one October Tuesday evening, and fell witness to his incomparable bravado and hospitality.

So, I imagine you’ve been keeping busy promoting the new book?

It’s not all really about selling the book, we’re just trying to get our story out there, ya know? I often think we’re not really in the beer business. We’re in the tribe building business. That’s what brands really do, when they’re good. There’s a ‘tribe’ that assembles around the notion of something that it all represented. And this story matters. That’s really the reason for doing the book; for people to decide whether or not our tribe is interesting to them or not. 

Well, I’ve been reading the book. It’s very interesting, and entertaining.

Well thank you. I wrote every word of it myself: I’m happy with that.

There are so many parts of your story that I was unfamiliar about.

See, that’s the thing. Bands move along, and things in culture move along – and it’s all subterranean. They’re all below the horizon. Until, all at once it appears, and everyone starts to become aware of it, “This is the greatest new thing!” Well, it didn’t just happen; No, there’s 20 years below ground trying to get that that point. Like, the band that’s playing at AllState Arena – they started out playing clubs. So, we just want to tell the story of Lagunitas’ ‘club days.’

You essentially started a commercial brewery after only brewing for a few weeks. How did you recognize this as a viable career option with such little experience?

Well, my background is as a musician. There is so much in common with that and brewing. Between music composition and writing beer recipes. The business of music and beer seemed to be identical. It felt like the same kind of ‘artistic’ pursuit for me. They both have the same M.O., trying to connect people of a common ground. So, I wasn’t very daunted by the idea of starting a brewery, it seemed second nature from the first day. 

You described what you did leading up to Lagunitas as a “good, long and therapeutic fall down the stairs.” 

Yea! [laughing] It was just that chaotic of a road, ya know. It was all preparation.

… talking to these guys on the East Coast, I say: “I come to you from the future, and here’s what the future looks like.”

So, you were part of the beer renaissance on the West Coast, now you’re playing of part of the renaissance in Chicago. Do you notice any parallels? 

It’s identical. There’s this sort of ‘march’ towards the future. Every community that encounters craft beer, encounters craft brewers who are able to engage them. And then craft brewing is becoming part of that community again. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about how it worked in Portland, Seattle, San Francisco or how it’s working around the rest of the country now. Sometimes I’ll talk to distributors on the eastern part on the U.S., and they don’t know what to do with all this craft beer! Well, the distributors on the West Coast – they did that 10 years ago and they know what craft beer means in their market. And retailers there understand it, and consumers understand it. So, the best way to express it when I’m talking to these guys on the East Coast, I say: “I come to you from the future, and here’s what the future looks like.” – The future has bars where it’s hard to find more than one or two major brewer’s light beers on tap. You’ll find bars that have more than just one IPA on tap. They wanna have the best beers they think they can find; and consumers are crazy enthusiastic about variety.

These things that seem like turmoil, or what’s exciting here, all happened a decade ago on the West Coast. The West Coast is now entering a different phase, and the eastern part of the United States will get to. But, everything happens in the same organic process: the process of unveiling and discovery.

How do you see Lagunitas as part of that craft expansion that is happening in Chicago? 

Whether it’s us, or somebody that just opened up yesterday, all of us are talking to all of our best friends; us maybe on a larger stage, and these new guys maybe on a smaller stage. But we’re just looking to start a conversation, a conversation about beer as social media. People look at Twitter, Facebook and the rest of this stuff as “social media” as if social media never existed before. And it did! It just operated in other ways. And beer is, no matter how you slice it, the original “social media.” 

Pubs, you go to your local pub. Well why do they call them ‘pubs’? Because they started out as ‘public houses.’ It was the one place in the neighborhood where they served beer and people could gather and share the news, their stories. So, beer was the medium that was most shared in these spaces; more so than wine, whiskey, anything. Beer is the original social media. So, I’m just hoping that we can be part of that communication that happens around beer.

That’s maybe the best thing about beer, right? Its social aspect.

Ya, you know, you can go to BeerAdvocate and you’ll see some guy from Queens and someone from Brownsville, Texas talking about some beer that they both tasted the day before. There’s this common language in it. And then you have beers like Pliny the Elder that everybody speaks so highly of – way more people talk about it than have ever tasted it, because by definition it’s limited. But everyone has it in common as an ‘idea.’ The idea is bigger than the reality; that’s how craft beer works.

I heard they found the oldest brewery in the world, it was in Northern Turkey. It was a bit of rock that was hollowed out and had grooves in it with calcium oxalate, which is like the fingerprint of beer. This was a proto-brewery from 25-fuckin-thousand years ago! Beer is more human than I think anything anybody can really point to. There are some socio-economic guys who consider beer – the alcoholic beverage of grain fermented by, at the time, wild yeast – the central motivation for the founding of civilized society. It began the whole division of labor. You had the brewer, then he needed a farmer, then they needed someone to hunt to feed those guys, then they all needed someone who could build a house, and so on. Beer was the central organizing factor.

To that point about beer as the original gathering ‘medium’: do you think any of that simplicity gets lost with all of these hard-to-attain, crazy one-off beers? In that, people just want to get their hands on this limited beer, rather than just enjoying its social aspect?

It’s the cult of personality, ya know? It’s like when someone vacations to LA, and they think they’re gonna get to see Johnny Depp drinking at the bar. But how many actually do, right? It’s just how things work. Everybody wants something that’s been thrown into the spotlight.

I mean, there are lots of IPAs, for example. And I’m not saying this to brag or anything, but ours is No. 1 or 2, depending on which month you’re looking, in the country. But, is our beer more talked about than Pliny the Elder? Pliny – it’s a lovely beer, brewed right up the street from us in California. But sometimes, there’s a little disconnect between quality and appearance. I think, to your point, it’s all just about how the market works. It’s Darwinism, really; sorting out which beers have the evolutionary advantage. 

Yea, I wonder sometimes whether or not the market’s getting inundated. I think that will be a very interesting to see if/when it reaches a tipping point. 

To you, yes. It’ll be interesting to you. We founded in 1993 and were really part of the world by ’95. By 1996, craft in the U.S., or at least the West Coast, sorta hit the skids. Supply overwhelmed demand and made for a very messy market. There were brands, when I founded, that seemed like the future of craft beer: almost fuckin gone. Redhook‘s E.S.B. – that was one of the biggest beers there was on the whole West Coast! It’s hard to find now. Portland Brewing Company – they had MacTarnahan’s Ale, the shit was everywhere. So, things that sometimes seem like large entities can end up being this ephemeral beer.

Yea, for us, I think a good example of that, that we hear often is Pete’s Wicked Ale. You’d think it was the first craft beer the way it’s referenced.

Not even close. I mean it’s interesting you say that and I don’t fault ya; you only know what you’re exposed to. Ya know, Anchor Brewing was founded by Fritz [Maytag] in 1960. That’s 20 years before Widmer even opened in Portland. And 20 and a half years before Sierra Nevada. Twenty-one years before Portland Brewing opened. There were probably 30 breweries at that time on the West Coast. And then, Pete’s Wicked Ale was born. But you’re right, it comes and goes.

How much of some brands ‘falling off’ has to do with price points? I found that really intriguing that you mentioned pricing your 6-packs as one of your hardest business decisions.

Sometimes, you just make the decision as humans, “I want to treat myself well,” ya know? For a buck more you can drink the best beer in the world! You start a brewery and put your beer on the shelf and say “But, my beer costs $1 less.” Yea, but now you’re like everybody else. You stop being ‘special.’ A lot of breweries got very aggressive and selfish…stupid, greedy and in a big hurry. It’s that impatience that really hurts them. It’s all about that impatience. And today, when I see breweries taking private equity money as a way to grow more quickly: I see impatience. 

Yea, you pressed to avoid doing that with Lagunitas.

Yea well, we just didn’t do it. And so we saw our way through with a certain amount of patience. Patience is an ephemeral thing – it’s hard to put a value on it. But things that grow too quickly often grow way ahead of themselves. It’s those things that get too big too fast that just burn out.

One of your mantras in the beginning was to think ’10 years ahead.’ How are you still operating that way with Lagunitas, today?

Well, this brewery has way more capacity than we need today. Between Chicago and Petaluma, it’s about twice what we actually need. But, we can have this extra capacity and still make money. We’re still confident. It’s not like you’re only profitable when your space is packed. When you’re small it’s that way. But then you get a little bigger and that’s just not the case anymore. So, the idea of this [Chicago] brewery is thinking 10 years ahead; to make sure we’ll have the capacity to make the beer that people are hoping to enjoy. And if craft breweries go along planning like a lot of us do, then someday Bud and MillerCoors will make that beer like some of us are making. And we’ll all have done the work to establish the idea of the value of ‘special beer.’ So, this is about thinking ahead; making sure that we are able to fulfill the promise to make great beer. 

One of the things that I loved when I learned you were opening up here in Chicago, was that you’re originally a Chicagoan. I imagine I know the answer to this, but describe how much it’s changed here from a beer perspective.

Yea – I was gone 25 years! Chicago? It’s completely changed. Totally different. You know, though, when we came back here about 6 or 8 years ago to start selling our beer, the city was just beginning to change. Revolution was here… Metropolitan was working hard; and some of the other local guys were here too. And it was just about to become the thing where so many new breweries were opening. I think the year we announced we were opening here, 18 new breweries were opening in the city. It was a moment of change. It became different than the year before, and different than the year after.

But Chicago when I left…I mean, I liked Old Style; I liked Old Milwaukee and High Life. Those were the beers I drank. So, it was a bit of a desert in one way, but the city of Chicago had that beer-drinking culture. People liked beer and drank beer here, it’s just that the beers then were all kind of…tepid.

Do you have any plans to do any Chicago-specific beers? Something that’s first brewed here?

People ask that question a lot. The answer is no – because even in Northern California, we didn’t make “San Francisco beers.” I wrote the recipes for the longest time, and only recently I handed that off to my Brewmaster, because he learned the vocabulary that really represented ‘our band’s sound,’ so to speak. So, we’ve always just brewed the beers that we brew, they just happen to be in Northern California. 

The brewery is from Chicago in the first place. Because this is where I learned everything I need to know about life, I just happened to brew in Northern California.

Here’s another way to look at that same thing. Tom Petty’s from the South, his band has a southern sensibility to it. But his band made it’s living starting in L.A. Is he an L.A. rock band? Not even fuckin’ close! He’s got a southern rock band that was born in L.A. So, I write the recipes, design all the labels, write the copy. The brewery is from Chicago in the first place. Because this is where I learned everything I need to know about life, I just happened to brew in Northern California. The idea of a thing being a thing because it happened in a certain place at a certain time…things cross-pollenate each other. The idea of linearity and a single source of inspiration, is usually more complicated than just that. 

So, I would say that all of our beers are from Chicago.

That’s a good answer.

It’s a complicated answer.

Do you say that same thing to folks in California?

Here’s how I say it: for a long time we were a bit of a square peg in a round hole, in Northern California. It took us years to earn our place there; where other breweries sorta emerged that were more ‘of the culture’ there. And we were just…a little different. But the things that we did, apparently, were “rootsy” enough, different enough, and meant something to people that they said, “Oh that’s great, that came from here, you’re ours.” That’s what you hope for. So, I like to think that our Chicago, and Midwestern-ness, changed a little bit of what went on on the West Coast.

There’s this idea that history is a linear thing. It’s not. I mean, like look at Corona, Dos Equis, Victoria – those beers are all Vienna lagers. A lot of [Vienna] brewers, leading up to WWI, were Jewish. They thought, “this place is dangerous, I’m getting the fuck outta here!” So they moved to Central America, Brazil, Mexico; and they brought Northern European lagers to these hot countries. Everyone thinks of Corona as this ‘Mexican’ beer. That recipe was born in Vienna.

Put a lime in it and it becomes Mexican, right.  

Yea [laughing]. But all of the aesthetic and genealogy was born in Vienna and Germany, raised there. But these were transported to places like Mexico and people all think they’re Mexican beers, ya know? So nothing’s quite what it seems right?

To that extreme, what do you think a beer like that’s role is in the beer scene now? These larger brands that originally represented traditional styles, that have gotten away from that.

My view of the world is that the Buds, Millers, Coors and even Guinness for that matter: these brands have all run their course. There’s a lot of talk in the industry whether or not brands have life cycles. And I think they do. Those brands have lasted since the 1870’s, they’ve lasted 150 years. Now, they’ve changed a lot during that time, but they’re the survivors of that early late 1800’s birth of breweries in the New World. First of all, they had WWI – it interrupted their business, the world. The world came back home and found those beers, so the brand gets a restart. Then the Depression: the brands get a restart. Prohibition: the brands get a restart. WWII, same thing. It could be that the reason some of those breweries lasted as long as that did, was because of all of these weird ‘resets.’ And that may or may not happen again. Maybe that world has gotten so stale that they won’t change the landscape the way that they did. The world’s different now.

Those brands, they’re all done. Maybe the next Budweiser will be a Corona or Modelo or something, and craft beers will occupy the same space that current imports do. That’s a huge market share. Maybe half the beer sold in the United States will be sold by little guys like us.

Alright, what is Tony Magee drinking at home?

Homemade whiskey [laughing]. Ya know, I don’t drink so much beer at home. I taste a lot of beer at home, just taste a variety. And at work I’ll have a few beers. People will always bring interesting beers to us. Like, a friend of mine will go to Germany and bring back two or three local German beers that nobody has ever even written about. And we get to taste them. It’s like going to the zoo and finding an endangered species and biting its head off just to see what it tastes like! So, that’s more how my beer drinking is now. It’s not so much about certain beers or brands, it’s just about experimentation. 

So, what does the future of craft beer look like in Chicago?

Well ya know, in Portland, just under 50% of beer sold is craft beer. I think in Chicago the number is something like 8%. So, you think of how far things have yet to go. What the next thing is, is that every corner tavern throughout the city carries craft beer. 

It’s already started, yea. You walk into a dive and now you’ll see two or three crafts on tap next to the PBR or Miller…

Yea, you see local guys who just used to drink Old Style who might now try one of our IPAs, then somebody else’s wheat beer. Then, he finishes his night with a couple Old Styles. It’s like the experimentation is beginning, really at every tier. That’s kinda how I see it keep going…




Photography by the talented and beer-loving Melinda Myers.