Food

For Whom the Beer Tolls

Lagunitas brings West Coast beer to the South Side

What is the ideal curve of a beer belly? At what angle of flesh is it clear that fizz, hops, and good taste came together to form the abdomen that says, “I know good beer?”

Lagunitas Brewing Company knows the answer, and they have the guts to sell it to you. I visited their budding beer plant in Douglas Park last week, where they started production last month on their first batches of beer from east of the Rockies. Lagunitas has been brewing out of Petaluma, California for the past two decades, and decided to open a plant in Chicago to spearhead their Midwest and East Coast distribution. Full journalistic disclosure: I was given Lagunitas beer on my tour, and have purchased it outside before and since, so I cannot be said to be a removed observer.

Karen Hamilton, director of PR, and sister of Lagunitas’s founder and beer poobah Tony Magee, was my guide. “Consistently good” is the phrase she uses, with a self-satisfied smile, to describe the Lagunitas product. She notes that the Douglas Park plant is automated by the same processes (and with the same German-made equipment) as its sister factory in California. That way, in true corporate overlord fashion, “Lagunitas can be the same everywhere you go.”

The factory itself is located in an old warehouse left behind by Ryerson Inc., a steel company. The thing is cavernous; it looks more like a facility for nuclear missile assembly than booze brewing. Funnel-shaped fermentation silos tower from floor to ceiling. Employees ping around the equipment, dodging welders (half of the factory is still under construction) and lumbering around the hallways.

But back to the beer bellies. There are two kinds of male employees at the Lagunitas factory: those with beer guts now, and those in the midst of earning them. The former tend to be scraggly and bearded, veterans of decades of beer consumption. The latter are young, extremely goateed, and clearly imbued with enough missionary zeal for the product to be well on the road to achieving that fleshy curved coast of gut that screams “taste.”

To that end, the factory’s atmosphere itself is probably boozy enough to blow away whatever dignity it has on a breathalyzer. A humid hops smell makes the air stuffy and swampy. The security guard said that he finishes a case of beer a week as a perk. The building’s lounge, whose vomit-colored walls and Wayne’s World posters have a certain dorm-room chic, offers a bottomless tap of the four Lagunitas flavors produced at the Chicago factory: India Pale Ale, Pils, Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’, and DogTown Pale.

This is not to say, however, that the workers don’t take their jobs seriously. The operations center, located behind one welder whose torch, as Hamilton languidly pointed out, “might blind me,” features a computer-screen setup of the whole production process. The digital tubes and hoses tangled onscreen look more like the result of a sadistic intestinal doctor than a fine-tuned production chain, but, according to Hamilton, advanced engineering degrees are required to maintain the whole thing.

There, Hamilton and I conversed a bit more about Lagunitas and the new factory. In addition to the tsunamis of beer that are being unleashed on the Midwest and the Eastern seaboard, the plant will also feature a drink house come this June. Lagunitas will offer factory tours to the public, and space will be available for rent to private parties at a nominal fee. The company’s beers, produced onsite, will flow straight from the fermentation vats through filtration to the tap.

And that beer is solid. It tastes good. The employees know it and the owners know it, too. And, thanks to those highly self-satisfied and slightly tipsy employees and owners over in Douglas Park, maybe you will come to know it and profit from it over the years in the form of a ruddy face, a stunted intellect, and a well-rounded abdomen,

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