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The new Lagunitas brewery in Chicago. Photo by, and courtsey of, Tony Magee.

 

After a breakneck few months building his new brew house in Chicago, Lagunitas founder Tony Magee says the major equipment is finally installed and the first test batches should begin in December.

Magee has been particularly busy because he and his team basically had to redesign the brewery on the fly over the last year, almost doubling the intended capacity because nationwide demand has surged so much. He had originally planned to open the Chicago facility producing about 150,000 barrels of beer per year, with a maximum capacity of about 750,000. Now he plans to open making 250,000 barrels in the first year with an eventual capacity of a whopping 1.7 million. For some perspective, the Petaluma brewery can churn out about 480,000 barrels every year, maybe 500,000 if they really push it hard.

The new plant is intended to supply the Midwest and East Coast, positioning the company for nationwide distribution and saving the expense and environmental effects of trucking all that beer all the way across the continent. But as the first equipment was being installed earlier this year, Magee realized that he was thinking too small, leading to his hasty up-scaling.

“I didn’t want to build the wrong sized brewery, like I did in Petaluma,” he said last week.

The company’s growth is indeed dizzying; production has more than doubled since 2011, from just 161,000 barrels (still pretty large by craft brewing standards), to around 480,000 or a little more now. That could land the company among the top three or four craft brewers in the country when the Brewers Association makes up its 2013 list; Lagunitas was 17 two years ago and 6 last year. Magee is now poised to challenge titans like Sierra Nevada Brewing in capacity. (But don’t forget that these numbers, huge as they seem, are dwarfed by the mass market brewers. Even the largest craft brewer in the country, Boston Beer Company, maker of Sam Adams, produces just a tiny puddle of beer every year compared with big boys like Budweiser. The Anheuser-Busch plant in Fairfield, for example, produces more beer every year that Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada combined, and that’s just one of something like a dozen AB breweries in North America)

Tony says he expects it to take about five years to ramp up the Chicago facility to full capacity, but he has been known to underestimate how fast things will grow before, a fact that he cheerfully admits. He’s certainly planning for strong growth: he says he’s told the company that his making his huge stainless steel fermenting tanks to deliver a new set every three months until he tells them to stop.

While the Chicago brewery will start spitting out beer by late next month, it will probably be January sometime before you can actually drop by and hoist a pint. Amid all the hectic design and construction of the brew house, he said, he wasn’t able to turn his attention to doing the paperwork for the tap room; he’s only just getting around to that now, so the taproom will be at least a month behind the plant itself.

With most of the work done in Chicago, Tony will be back in town next week as the headliner at the first ever conference on Sonoma County’s booming trade in craft beer, cider, and spirits.

- Sean Scully

 

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