Interview: Lagunitas founder Tony Magee

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Brewmaster Sonoma County


What distinguishes your beers from other breweries?

Individuality. I think we’re very free in what we do. I like to think our beers are never today’s version of yesterday’s anything. They’re simply their own individual world. Between that, and the way we try to communicate who we are through the label copy and the names of beers and such, I think people see a certain amount of freedom in what we do. People want to identify with that and appreciate it. They’re willing to experiment with us. Just like people at the bar. They get the beer and it doesn’t suck, it’s a wonderful thing.

A Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ at The Surly Goat

What was the idea behind your Fusion series?

We have a pub, but we serve our regular beers mostly at the pub. With Fusion, we wanted to share our experimentation with the rest of the world.

Fusion 1 we did in collaboration with a group of 20 bar owners in Chicago. They were having a craft brewers conference there last summer. We got about 20 of the good bar owners there together and passed a questionnaire out. What would be the optimum beer? What’s the alcohol? What’s the flavor profile? What’s the color? What would you want to see for hopping? What do you imagine for aromatics? We brought all of this together and sort of came up with what the aggregate beer was. And then we got four bar owners – real beer geeky guys – and we brought them out to the brewery to do the final recipe with our head brewer. We took those final 120 barrels back to Chicago and 80 bars carried the beer during the craft brew conference. The idea was to make a bridge between San Francisco and Chicago. I grew up in Chicago, so I wanted to put our relationship with Chicago more firmly attached.

How is Fusion 2 different from Fusion 1?

We thought about doing this in city after city after city, but it got a little bit cumbersome, but we wanted to keep doing it. So what we did with Fusion 2, we took that Fusion 1 recipe, which was a 5% alcohol beer, very mild, kind of light in color, with a nice aromatic hop finish on it, and we added some dark malts just to see where we were going. That brought dark fruit notes into Fusion 2. Fusion 3 was an Imperial Stout that we froze twice. We brewed our regular barrel stout and put two barrels aside when it was all done fermenting and froze it. Get it up to like 18% alcohol, it becomes like port. Fusion 4, which is hanging around right now, just showing up at some places in Los Angeles, what we did was take A Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ Ale, which is this real hoppy kind of wheat-ish beer that we do. We first fermented it for a few days with a Westmalle Belgian yeast strain that we use. We just let it get going at a high temperature, crashed the temperature and then re-pitched it with Pilsner yeast right away and lagered it out. It took about three weeks to finish the beer out, and we tasted it and we were like, boy, the Belgian notes are there and all the malt was taken all the way down by the lager yeast. It really revealed those little notes that were there from the beginning. It’s just a really interesting beer. It’s the first time we made a beer with two mixed cultures like that…Again, because we’re making so little of it, we could experiment all we wanted. How bad could it turn out?

What’s the latest beer you developed?

The most recent beer that’s something I think is another breakout moment is A Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’, very bread-y, wheat-y, hoppy finished ale. It’s not comparable to anything. In fact, if you read a lot of the reviews on Beer Advocate and other blog sites, people are really at a loss for how to describe it. They say it’s really something original. And they always want to compare it to something else, to draw a lineage, but this beer is something new, and it came about organically, thinking about beer and ideas, trying to find new combinations with old ingredients. Like in baseball, at one time, it was all about RBIs and Home Runs, and all of a sudden, a meaningful statistic becomes how many pitches per at bat. Can you wear a pitcher out? Even in baseball there’s still new knowledge to be discovered. It’s a fascinating thing. With beer, there are still new things to be discovered with those four ingredients. So A Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ is exactly that, so I’m real proud of that. From that, we started experimenting and did A Little Sumpin’ Wild and A Little Sumpin’ Extra. We did a stronger version to see what would happen, and you get a distinctly different beer. We took A Little Sumpin’ Extra and we fermented it with the Westmalle yeast. Put the Belgian heritage – those flavors – together with the bread-y, hoppy quality of A Little Sumpin’ Extra, and it’s like a whole new thing as well.

How important are websites to you? How often do you reference blogs, and in what way does that factor in?

In the world of social media, I’m 50 going on 30. But the fact of the matter is that social media is a generational thing. The people who are more connected are the younger people. I dig it, but I don’t totally relate to it. So for better or for worse, our brewery isn’t involved deeply in that, whereas, some breweries down in San Diego, social media is a big part of how they get their word out. To me, I see the Internet as a way for people on Beer Advocate to form consensus. They like to talk to each other about what they think and what they like. It’s more for them than for us, yet the world is a mirror, and we do our thing, and we see our reflection back in the world. You want to like your reflection. I don’t know that we respond to it so much, but I appreciate reading it, because it gives you a sense of how the world sees you, rather than using it, like some breweries are very good about putting the word out, and they use social media to tell people how to see things. I like just seeing it as a mirror instead.

What are some other breweries that you really respect in the industry?

It’s a very short list. Anchor Brewing and Rogue Ales. Anchor because they friggin’ are what they are. For all the different double and triple IPAs floating around the world, Anchor makes Liberty, and Anchor, they’re not all involved in social media. They don’t have a pub. Their beer simply speaks for itself, and they have a certain dignity. I read once, Fritz Maytag was asked about his recipes and he declined to answer. The reporter said, “Is that because they’re proprietary?” He said, “Well I prefer to think of it as the dignity of privacy.” I really like that. Then Rogue because they just don’t give a fuck either. They just do whatever they want to do, and they charge whatever they have to for their beers, and people seem to like what they’re doing. They’re growing. It’s supposed to be about expressing ourselves. The big breweries, and maybe some craft breweries, for all I know, they spend a lot of time figuring out who they think they are, and make beer that fits that persona, or give people their opinion for them and buy beer to fill that need. It’s all kind of manipulative. I suppose that if Aerosmith does an album now, they have to make it sound like Aerosmith, even if they might like to do a jazz album. A lot of breweries act that way. It’s sort of sad. I like things that express themselves, as they are, in time, whether it’s music, poetry or beer. I like to think of ourselves as somewhat artistic, and what we’re doing is really soulful. We don’t know if it even is or not. You’re just trying a way to recode what you are, what your values are. It’s a bottle full of liquor with a label on it. You put it out there and it’s really truthful, it works. You don’t need to promote it. People are hungry for authenticity. I think that’s how we are.

If you could only drink one more glass of beer, what would be in it?

I’m trying to picture a big beer board with every beer I could ever think of…I’d have to say Anchor’s Liberty Ale. That’s pretty much the beginning and the end right there.

Would you have any food with it?

Yeah. It would be like a 12-cheese ciabatta grilled cheese sandwich with bacon and sautéed mushrooms. Savory. Savory. Savory. Savory.

Where do things stand with the distillery?

Well, it’s asleep. We got the distilled spirits license years and years ago, and the brewery just overwhelmed my ability to really focus on that at all. And because the ATF requires a certain footprint within the brewery to be specifically dedicated to that, and never used for anything else, eventually I needed that space. We put the distilled spirits license in suspense. We were probably one of the first four or five in the country to get one. Now there are 200, from what I understand. I just couldn’t see it through. Maybe someday. Right now I have a piece of land that I just closed on yesterday. It’s 150 acres out in Tomales Bay in west Marin County. The applications are all into the county to put a small brandy distillery in. I look forward to getting that done and starting to play with a really sophisticated still.

Would it be under the Lagunitas label or would it be called something else?

It might be under a different name. It might be called Lagunitas. I don’t know yet exactly. We’ll see how it works.

Why brandy?

Because I can grow grapes on the land. That kind of makes it an integral agricultural project, which is very important to the Coastal Commission, that oversees all these different projects up the coast. So I’ve got six or 10 acres where I can grow grapes, and some viticulturists say that I should be able to grow brandy-appropriate grapes, and just do it right there. That’s the plan anyway. We’ll see how it works.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

Blog Comments

Good interview, but the guy totally cut me off and gave the finger on Redwood highway in his ferrari so what an @sshole – i will avoid this beer.

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Nice Q&A. I’m thirsty already. The world needs more anchor steam beer and less wildly overhopped IPAs, IMHO.

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