"Chicago is an Island Nation afloat on a sea of undulating prairie": A conversation with Lagunitas Founder Tony Magee

Tony Magee |   Photo via California Craft Brewers Association

Tony Magee | Photo via California Craft Brewers Association

Welcome to my new, recurring Interview Series. In this space I will publish my interviews with prominent Chicagoans and occasionally non-Chicagoans. 

My first interview is with Tony Magee, the founder of Lagunitas Brewing Company, one of the largest and best known breweries in the country. The buzz around Chicago has always been that Tony is a Chicago native, which he has confirmed in other interviews over the years.

But for the average Chicagoan who buys Lagunitas beer the foundational connection to Chicago may seem a little removed -- after all, "PETALUMA, CALIFORNIA" is stamped prominently on every bottle. I asked Tony about growing up here, what the city means to him, and how living in Chicago helped inform his decision to open a second brewing facility here. 

Even though Tony now lives and works in California his love for Chicago is no worse for the distance. 

Tell me a little about your Chicago roots. What part of the city did you grow up in? How has the city changed since then? 

My sister and I were born in Rogers Park and lived on Greenleaf [Avenue] until we moved to the far flung isles of Rolling Meadows then Arlington Heights where we went to Buffalo Grove High School. I later went to school at the School of Design at IIT at 35th and South State.

You opened the first Lagunitas brewery in Lagunitas, California then moved to Petaluma. Chicago was the second location. How did your previous experience with Chicago help inform your decision to open the second location here?

It was EVERYTHING!! It's the greatest city in the U.S... not too much else to say about that.

The beer scene in Chicago is very competitive (by one count there are 71 breweries in the city alone). Does Chicago do beer differently than other cities, in your opinion? 

Chicago is a beer town. It's wine and whiskey too but it's a brawny and brawling city of tough people and beer is almost a sacrament in that world. It's not San Francisco and it's surely not Austin. It's just the City of Big Shoulders.


Photo by Eric Allix Rogers via Open House Chicago

Photo by Eric Allix Rogers via Open House Chicago

What sets it apart? 

What sets it apart from San Francisco are two mountain ranges and a desert. What sets it apart are deep arctic high pressure fronts in February and tropical lows in August. Chicago is an Island Nation afloat on a sea of undulating prairie. 

What's your favorite non-Lagunitas brewery in the city (or suburbs)?

Off Color Brewing.... rock stars.

Lagunitas is one of the oldest, largest, and best known breweries in the United States. Tell me a little about how you grew the business. Did you always know you wanted to expand or was it something you fell into?

We never aimed to be a larger small brewer, we aimed at being the most luminous thing that we could be. We wanted to find new things and make them exciting. In the course of that we made a few friends, then a few more, and then yet a few more. Eventually we grew but the growing was an artifact of something way more interesting, I think.

Lagunitas has been described as "iconoclastic" and "irreverent." Do you agree with these characterizations? Is that reputation something you set out to achieve or something that was applied to you?

We have always just been ourselves and did things we dug. If we didn't dig something, we scrubbed it off. If that's being irreverent or iconoclastic then I'm good with that! 

In a 2014 interview you predicted that session beers were the future of craft beer. Since then, sours, barrel aged, and New England style beers have made the rounds. What do you see as the Next Big Thing for craft beer, in 2018 and beyond?

If I said that, then I was pretty smart... I hope I really did say it! The next big thing for craft will be.... wait hang on a sec, uh... hang on... I gotta take this call... I'll be right back....

Can you tell me what's on the horizon for the brewery?

On the horizon for Lagunitas is more of what we've tried to be all along: luminous and exciting to ourselves, and I hope others have fun right along with us. This is the best time in the last thousand years to be a beer lover.