At the Lagunitas Brewery inside the main office area with Karen Hamilton, Communications Director – Saturday, June 6 2015
“Come with me, and you’ll be;
In a world of pure imagination.
Take a look, and you’ll see;
Into your imagination.”
The above referenced lyrics throttle me into a blissful and euphoric psychological projection of my childhood, prancing through Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory like Richard Simmons at a fitness expo, speechless at the sparkling, multicolored candy jungle that I envisioned surrounding me as I stared, my eyes refusing to blink, at the 1971 fantasy musical starring the infinitely charismatic Gene Wilder. “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” was one of my favorite films as a child, and damn me for having not watched it in over 2 decades. The Lagunitas Brewery in Chicago is the “Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory” for adult beer lovers such as me. And I was recently granted access into the brewery when I attended the annual Lagunitas Beer Circus, benefitting the animal shelter “Paws of Chicago”.
The brewery itself was closed, and rightfully so, to the public that day. Before engaging in the wild and frantic goings-on of the circus outside I interviewed their witty, focused, cute (and to me, slightly intimidating in her stature) Communications Director, Karen Hamilton. The walls of the passageways were lined with black lights that shimmered with an aqueous animation, joyful day-glow paint, and millions of green laser dots darting, spinning, and shifting about. The Willy Wonka theme song played subtly from a speaker system and wrapped my body in a tingling, warm blanket of emotion. “Is it always like this in here? With the music and the lights?” I asked. “Yes, it is. We like it fun in here,” Karen said with a proud, subdued smile. She led me past the bottling line, the barrel room, and the towering brewing vats to their humble office space. We sat down on a fluffy leather sofa and chatted for a bit about their brewery, their beers, the industry, and their philosophies…
Henry: You’re the communications director. How long have you been with Lagunitas?
Karen: More than 10 years.
How long have you been in the business?
In the beer business? The same amount of time.
Wow. What were you doing before that?
I was in sales and marketing.
Your brother owns the brewery. What was he doing before he had the brewery?
He sold printing. We’re from Chicago. Did you know this?
I did not know this. Wow.
Yes, we’re from Chicago. So, he moved out to California for a job selling printing. So he was out there for a couple years, and went to go visit our younger brother who lives in Portland. And Portland, basically that part of the United States is the home of craft brewing in general. And our younger brother was doing a little home brewing and working at a micro-brew pub close by. My brother said ‘that’s kind of cool’ and he went home, and bought some materials to home brew for the first time. Did it! Turned out awesome. And it just lit the fire underneath him. And 8 months later he opened up Lagunitas.
Fantastic. Tell me about how, when and why Lagunitas decided to open up another location…
How, is that we needed more capacity and we could look at trying to expand out in Northern California, but he had figured out the amount of money that we were spending shipping beer across the country, that amount of money that we would spend in one year just on shipping would actually pay for a new brewery. So we decided, ‘OK, we’re going to do a second brewery, and where else but our hometown of Chicago?’ So, we built it here. He knew the city. He knew the people. And he felt like this was something… he wouldn’t have to learn something new. He could just come here and talk to people and make it happen.
That actually answers my next question of ‘Why Chicago?’
We’re the center of the United States here. It cuts the shipping costs. We brew beer here; we ship to east of the Rockies, and to Europe, from here. So the shipping costs alone that we have saved from going from California across to Chicago and over to New York have paid for the brewery. When we did this… about three years ago he decided that we needed to do this and announced, and he flew to Chicago, spent two days looking at properties, this was one of the top two. Chose this building, and announced over Twitter that we were going to build a second brewery here. So two years, actually two years later we opened, but we were only going to take half of this building initially, and so we had the plans drawn up for that, and he realized as we got closer that by the time we opened it wasn’t going to be enough because of the growth that was going on. So we re-worked all the plans, decided to take the entire building, and from the time the first cut in the concrete happened it was 11 months until the first bottles rolled off the line. So, that was amazing.
Wow, that is fast. Do you feel the people of Chicago have received and welcomed you the way you anticipated? Why or why not?
I do. In fact, actually better than we anticipated. But we have been in the market for 10 years, so, they have welcomed us for the last decade. And, people did not know we are from here. It was just they were welcoming the beer, which is the way it should be, other than ‘because you are from here’, you know. It really took hold here and it’s been wonderful. Chicago is now our number one market in the whole country. And it was, even before we opened up the brewery. So what it meant was that they were enthusiastic about the brand, and once we opened up here they embraced us even more. It’s been great.
Do you distribute to all 50 states? I’ve read that it was the goal to do that.
It is the goal to do that, but no, not yet, we haven’t. We’re in about, I think about 42 states right now. And then a few other countries.
Where do you see Lagunitas 10 – 20 years from now?
We’re looking at least 5,000,000 barrels a year.
Holy shit. Any recipes coming up? And if so can you provide details?
We have our basic year-round, and then the seasonals that come out, and we always throw out a new fun seasonal in there, but probably the newer recipes that people might be interested in who were all about the craft scene is our One-Hitter series. Our Fusion beers and our One-Hitter series.
I had Couch Trippin’ Fusion last year. It was delicious.
Thank you. We just brewed a Fusion here on Thursday. And what we do is we invite people from different parts of the industry, so we had some of our distributors, and some of our sales guys come in and they brewed a beer together, and so that happened on Thursday, so that will be out in the market in another month, and we’ll be brewing a special beer for Milan, actually, in July, because the World’s Fair is going on right now in Milan, and Chicago and Milan are sister cities. So we are going to brew a special beer for our sister city Milan and unveil it during the week of Chicago, the days that are designated to Chicago in Milan.
You bottle all your beers, correct?
The Fusion beers only are in kegs.
I’m sorry, let me rephrase that. All of the beer that you sell to stores, that I can buy in stores, is all in bottles, glass bottles?
Do you have any intention on canning your beer?
Not right now. We have very large cans. They are 15.5 gallons.
Right. Those are beautiful cans. From what I’ve seen, please correct me if I’m wrong, because you know more about the industry than I do, why do you think in terms of people that do the brewing that it’s a male dominated industry and do you see a place for women as brewers in the foreseeable future?
You know it’s funny because the original brewers were women, in history. Why do I think it’s male dominated? I’m not exactly sure. I’m sure it has something to do with the homebrew communities and how they developed, but the fact is of course is there’s a place for women in this business, and there are many women who are brewers. Our head brewer in Chicago is a woman.
There’s a husband and wife outfit in Vermont, The Alchemist, and they’re famous for Heady Topper IPA. And I haven’t had a chance to have that yet but I’m actually going to Vermont next week and maybe I’ll be able to grab myself some, but that I have noticed; do you see something like that picking up where more husband and wife teams might start doing their breweries also? Do you see more of that happening?
Sure. I don’t see why not, as more women come on board into the craft scene. Women are looking for more flavorful anything in their drinks so I have seen over the 10 years I have been in the business more and more women at all the events I do, because they have found the flavors they are looking for in craft beer, so I don’t see why not.
[At this point Karen’s brother, Tony Magee, the founder and CEO of Lagunitas, who was passing by in the office, chimed in jokingly.]
Tony: All three of my wives have been involved in the brewery for a little while. And then they moved on.
Karen (laughing): I can send all three of my husbands with them then.”
[I am not sure if this is what was actually said as she was laughing.]
Do you think craft beer will replace the large conglomerates such as AB InBev and MillerCoors?
Tony: Duh. I think that should be the answer: DUH!
Karen and Tony simultaneously: DUH!
Duh? I like it! How do you feel about the relationship between craft brewing and the big corporate production companies? There’s a lot of contention. AB InBev took a swing at us during the Superbowl, and it seemed to have backfired on them. How do you view that relationship between the big corporations and people like you who are interested in quality?
Karen: Let me say that the big brewers, I mean the beer they brew, is high quality. It’s just not as flavorful as the craft beer scene. What they do and the amount of beer they put out is amazing if you think about it. But I think, not even that ‘I think’, clearly as craft beer is the only growth in the beer industry, people are moving toward those types of flavors. Have you been to a restaurant lately that doesn’t have a selection of small plates, flavorful food, ‘small batch’ plates? It’s everywhere. So, it seems to be the way things are going. The contentiousness; I think they’re scared. They haven’t found their place. They’re losing share all the time and I don’t think they’ve quite figured out what to do with that. Now AB has recently bought 4 craft breweries?”
[At this point, the interview returns to being between just Henry and Karen.]
I believe it’s 3 but you could be right.
It’s Goose, it’s Ten Barrel; I’d have to look it up. There’s a couple more. And that’s their way of getting into the scene. They’re having to change their strategy. And when you look at a company that’s that large, that’s been around for that long, changing strategy? It’s like a huge cruise ship just shifting in the waters and turning a different way. It takes a while. It’s a big effort.
Do you feel the craft brewing marking is reaching a saturation point, or is there still plenty of room to grow?
We have just over 10 percent of the market. 10 percent of the beer drinking market. So that means there’s 90 percent room to grow.
What’s the history behind the Lagunitas Beer Circus?
We were looking to do a party out in California where we began at one time. Our now CMO Ron was talking with my brother Tony, and they were talking about throwing this party, and Ron said, ‘Oh, we can do this, and we can do that,’ and Tony goes, ‘It’s gonna be a circus.’ And they looked at each other like, ‘Yeah! It’s a beer circus!’ And so, that was about seven years ago out in California we threw our first beer circus. We’ve been doing it every year out there, of course naturally opened up this brewery and threw our first beer circus as our grand opening to the public last year. It was two days then, and we’ll continue with the one day, that’s kind of the way. We do one day in California and one day here.
Do you have any other types of festivals or annual events that you do, or is it just the beer circus?
As far as what we do on our own, on our site?
That you host. Do you host any other festivals besides the beer circus?
No. Not on site. We are sponsored at many festivals across the United States but as far as doing something here to the public right now, beer circus is the one. We do do something out in California. It’s called the ‘Skunk Train’.
Skunk train? What is that?
That’s a whole other party unto its own. The Skunk Train is where people come in and it’s up in Willits, California. Cool little hippy town. You actually come to the road and there’s this huge iron archway across the road. And it says, ‘Willits: Gateway to the Redwoods.’ And you’re like, ‘Whoa. Here we are.’ And we to go a campground, KOA Campground, right on the edge of the redwoods, and this old-fashioned open air train comes up. We’ve got live music on the train, bluegrass, beer pouring, people pile on, they’re getting ready to camp. They take a 2-hour train ride that meanders up through the redwoods and ends up in this open wooded area and we do a little mini beer fest up there, invite the local micro-breweries, barbecue, music, people are dancing. It’s awesome. You’re in the middle of the redwoods. It’s amazing. Pile back on the train, come on back. So we party them down the first night, they do the train ride the second day, come back, party them down the second night, pour them back on their planes, buses and cars, send them all home.
Are there any special beers here today that I should seek out?
Oh gosh, you know, I don’t know what’s pouring outside! I know what’s special up in our tap room but I don’t know what’s pouring outside. We have invited local microbreweries to come and pour, so they have their special selection. They’re in that little cool swoopy tent.
Do you have any Fusion beers here?
I would say no. Because our last Fusion beer, we ran out of them.
You have read some of the beer reviews that I’ve written for BaDoink magazine, correct?
What did you think of those?
Well, actually, you know you’ve written some really nice reviews of ours, of our beers. Given the magazine and its theme; I can see there are some references thrown in there, but I think you’ve done some really nice reviews of our beers and we appreciate it.
[By “some references thrown in there” I think she is referring to my perverted, profane, colorful metaphors, but I’m not 100% certain.]
There are lots of bloggers, people on YouTube out there who focus on beer reviews. Do you read those and are they important to you and your team?
Sure we read them, yeah. We always want to know what people think. And they are important to us, because we make a product that’s consumable, and we do want the feedback of the public, we want to know: ‘Were they not excited about that? Why were they not that excited about that? How many were not excited about that? Is it a select group? Is it just the beer geeks that didn’t think that was so cool? The mainstream public, if they liked it?’ And you kind of weigh that when you look at what you’re doing and what you’re putting out there, so yeah, it’s all important to us.
Are there any particular websites or publications that your marketing department tends to follow to get a really good general sense of feedback from the public that they take into consideration? Or is it kind of just anything that comes up?
We follow it all.
What is your favorite style of beer?
OK, my favorite style of beer… you know for a long time it’s been IPA, but there’s been a lot of IPA’s that have been over the top IPA’s that I don’t particularly enjoy, and be it prejudice or whatever I really like our beers. I like the balance in them. I find them to be very flavorful, tasty, and nice on my palate. So my favorite beer that we make is our IPA. But, I have some fun with the sours. I’m having some fun with exploring the low alcohol categories, looking for flavor but lower alcohol. As you get older you can’t just keep hitting the hard, high ABV’s anymore and make it through the night. I am not a wheat beer person. And I know wheat beers are extremely popular, it’s just not my style. Pale Ales and IPA’s are probably the two that I focus on.
That’s it! I have no further questions. Do you have any other questions or comments that you would like to be recorded for the interview? Anything else you’d like to say in general?
Welcome to the beer circus!
And with that, Karen led me back through the quiet, cool, glowing colorful halls; out into the bright sunlight, the loud music, the happy sound of the enormous beer drinking crowd, and the wacky displays of carnival themed, beer infused, daytime partying.
The success of Lagunitas is not just due to great beer, but due to creating an atmosphere. It’s not about money or business. It’s not about alcohol. And it isn’t about cranking out a specific quantity of beer barrels to satiate a demand. It’s about all of the 5 senses. The other components of a brewing business, as vital as they are, take a back seat. To put it simply, the folks at Lagunitas know how to really put the horse before the cart.
So, what’s the Beer Circus all about? Read part 2, next week, to find out! But here’s a teaser: it’s fucking awesome.