WORDS: Fraser Doherty PICTURES: Richard Croasdale
Wednesday 06 December 2017
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Arriving in the Californian town of Petaluma in Sonoma County, a half hour drive from the much tinier town of Lagunitas, the original home of the eponymous brewery, we find ourselves discussing in the car the history of the makers of the world’s No. 1 selling IPA.
Given the success of the brand’s distribution throughout the world, thanks to its longstanding partnership with Heineken, we wonder if we are about to wander into a corporate-style HQ.
“Is it possible for a once scrappy and hip craft brewer to remain edgy and fun as part of a larger organisation,” we ponder. Stepping into the nerve centre of the operation, we are greeted not only by a cheerful receptionist, but by an enthusiastic pack of office dogs of all shapes and sizes. Roaming free in the office, they seem to be having a whale of a time, oblivious to the fact that, presumably, the people around them are busy getting on with their work.
Although, judging by the banter of the open plan workspace, their human counterparts seem to be having just as much fun on this particular Thursday morning.
Waiting for our host to collect us, we find ourselves admiring what seems to be a lifetime’s collection of knickknacks, memorabilia and all manner of other kitsch oddities. Adorning every square inch of the cubicle walls, office doors and even the ceiling, we are already in no doubt that this is a brewery a little unlike any other.
Arriving to tell us more about the heart and soul of this company, which we can already safely describe as ‘quirky’, is Karen Hamilton, Director of Communications and sister of the company’s founder, Tony Magee. Telling her that we had moments ago been wondering in our car whether we were about to visit a brewery with a more ‘corporate’ atmosphere, Karen bursts out laughing: “Who, us?!”
Taking us through the brewery floor, Karen walks us upstairs into to the tasting room, a sort of club house space and another treasure trove of eccentric paraphernalia. It’s currently where all their tours stop to try their beers, but she explains that this was once the only space where the whole company would gather. “At one time, we had our party for the holidays with all of our employees and their partners in this room.”
Of course, with a vastly expanded workforce and a second brewery in Chicago, they have long-needed larger and larger rooms for all-company functions.
Pouring us a couple of glasses of ultra-fresh and mega hoppy IPAs, we are introduced to Ron Lindenbusch, whose business card describes him as the company’s ‘Beer Weasel’. I later discover that this translates to ‘Chief Marketing Officer’ in common parlance and that he had first started working with Tony when he was still selling kegs out of the back of a pickup. Alongside him is Greg, who heads up the company’s sales in the US.
As it happens, on this particular morning we have stumbled into the filming of a ‘pep talk’ video for their distributors, which will share with them the introduction of a new 22 ounce can and generally give them encouragement to keep growing the company’s reach into bars, bottle shops and elsewhere.
A seemingly run-of-the mill task that in any other brewery most likely wouldn’t be worthy of comment. Well, not here. The occasion calls for two Muppets to be drafted in. Improvising a frankly hilarious skit that regularly goes off-piste, Greg and Ron turn an otherwise humdrum piece of internal communication into a piece of entertainment. Of course, in between whiskey-drinking Muppet sketches, you can see the glimpse of a serious business. Flicking through graphs of company margins and sales targets, Ron exclaims: “Less graphs, more whiskey!”
All in stitches and onto our second or third beer of the day, we partly wonder how anyone gets anything done around here with all this fun going on. But what we can also see is a group of people who really love what they do, care about the beer they make and, despite their size, have a lot of fun along the way.
“The worst day at Lagunitas is probably the best day at so many other places,” Karen says with a smile. The topic of the Heineken takeover soon comes up in conversation and both Karen and Ron talk very frankly about the deal. On the topic of criticism from some corners of social media of their sale, Ron admits “Y’know, haters gonna hate, right?” He goes on to say, “If they wanna come over here and take a look under the hood and see that it’s the same as it always was, they’re welcome.”
Leaving them to finish off their sales briefing, Karen takes us outside to the company’s beer garden and pub, where we stop for lunch. Telling us a bit about the brewery’s back story, Karen explains, “We all grew up in the Chicago area and Tony wound up moving out to California, selling printing and making music.”
Their younger brother had also moved West, in his case to Portland, where he had started doing some home brewing and was working for a small brew pub. “So, Tony figured this was pretty cool and ended up buying some equipment of his own.”
His first batch turned out well, but the second not so well. “What Tony realised,” Karen explains, “is that brewing beer is just like being a musician – you gotta practice.” And practise he did, ultimately opening the doors to his own brewery eight months later in 1993.
Until recently, Tony not only designed the company’s labels and beer names, but also created all of the recipes. Now turned over to the company’s Master Brewer, Jeremy Marshall, Tony still has a hand in art-directing new recipes. “We’ve been around 24 years now and the goal remains the same – to make great beer and get it into the hands of the people who want to drink it,” Karen says. “We don’t take ourselves too seriously, but we do take the beer seriously – and that seems to be a magic formula.”
We don’t take ourselves too seriously, but we do take the beer seriously
A big part of the company’s culture is music; in the early days, many of the company’s employees were hired because they were great musicians. They didn’t always have the money to pay everyone, but they did have a brewery band and all made music together. “That’s where our little catchphrase, ‘Will Work For Beer’, came from,” Karen laughs.
Even today, if you apply to work at the company, you send your CV to a ‘willworkforbeer’ email address. Although, presumably, the whole team are paid with hard cash as well as great beer these days.
After lunch, Jeremy takes us on a tour of the barrel room. “I’m putting together a nice collection of lots of different barrels and foeders – we’ve got Congac barrels, wine, Bourbon.” Clearly passionate about taking the Lagunitas brand into new styles of beer, it’s exciting to imagine that this 24-year old brewery is still pushing the envelope in terms of innovation in beer.
Wrapping up our visit to Lagunitas, we say farewell to Karen and thank them for spending the best part of a day hanging out with us. For a bunch of people who’ve been at this since the start of the craft beer movement and have had tremendous success, their humility and sense of humour is truly refreshing. We’ve certainly had a day that we won’t be forgetting any time soon, and that was nothing like we had been expecting.
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