Like an adult in a beer store, I awed at the dust-free environment that glistened with what seemed like miles and miles of gleaming pipes, palettes of glorious kegs, an endless sight of beautiful hardware and, maybe the best part, the sweet, sweet stench of beer being made. And what a beautiful sight it was. Join me in my exclusive behind-the-scenes look at Chicago's newest beer mecca. Welcome to Lagunitas Chicago.
I first meandered through the Lagunitas Chicago space last November. The enormous 68,000 pound German-built lauter tun (the giant tank that esentially turns sugar into beer) had been delivered about a month before. That delivery — one that shut down the streets of Chicago — was kind of a big deal. The empty construction zone was abuzz with dusty folks wearing hard hats and hefty boots. You could sense the excitement amongst them because they knew they were in the process of transforming this blank industrial canvas into what would soon become Chicago’s largest brewery. Fast forward to April 18, 2014 when I walk in to the same space. I always knew that one day all the equipment would be in place and off and running, but that didn’t stop my amazement. She was suddenly real.
Seeing the machinery work and witnessing the first bottles being filled with that delectable IPA was pretty awesome. And learning more about what production would look like was quite inspiring. Imagine a line that can bottle 500 bottles a minute. Now imagine another line that can fill 60 kegs per hour. If you think that’s a lot of beer, wait ‘til you hear that between the Chicago brewery and the Petaluma facility, Lagunitas will make approximately 1,000,000 barrels of beer each year. Phew, I’m thirsty!
Operations will run 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. The taproom will feature live music every night and will overlook the production floor which means I can tap my feet and see all the action while sipping (or guzzling) my Lilttle Sumpin’ Sumpin’. Just don’t head over on Mondays or Tuesdays because that’s when it’s closed and open free of charge to non-profits. I know, awesome.
But there’s more to this story than just beer. This is a magical place where my Chicago/history/beer nerdom all join together and gets the Chicago blue in my veins pumping at warp speeds. The massive and impressive 300,000 square foot facility (slightly larger than five football fields) was once home to Ryerson Steel, a business founded here in 1842. This was a corporation that helped build our great city and now the same space is housing a company that will continue to build her. But it gets better. Lagunitas founder, Tony Magee is from Chicago, too. Although he started the enterprise in northern California in 1993, he made the decision to open a second brewery in the Crossroads of America versus expanding the original. Why? Because it was his hometown and it made sense in more ways than one.
His sister and nieces also play pivotal roles in running Lagunitas. Is there anything more Chicago than that? But it still gets better. Head brewer, Mary Bauer, is also a local. And so are all of the approximate one hundred new hires for the facility — zero transplants from California.
Oh, and, by the way, after running several tests, the Lagunitas brewers and chemists discovered that Chicago water made better tasting beer than the Petaluma water which means the original California beer recipes — ones that have proven to be successful for more than twenty years — are going to be tweaked to make them taste more like Chicago.
Yep, if it's one thing I know, Chicago makes everything more delicious. And I'm looking forward to drinking lots of Lagunitas Chicago-made beer.