Lagunitas taps into Chicago local music scene
BY DAVE HOEKSTRA Staff Reporter February 8, 2014 1:24PM
Tony Magee shows off the new 300,000 sq. foot brewing facility during a distributor party at the new Lagunitas brewery in Chicago. | Peter Holderness / Sun-Times
Updated: March 10, 2014 6:21AM
Mr. Myers was one of the most popular Chicago college and club acts of the 1980s.
And that band named after rum informed the brewing legacy of saxophonist-keyboardist Tony Magee.
The Chicago native played in Mr. Myers in 1982 and ’83, when it was one of three reggae bands on the Midwest circuit (Heavy Manners from Chicago and Blue Riddim from Kansas City, Mo.). Magee left Chicago for Northern California, where in 1993 he opened the Lagunitas Brewing Co., now the sixth top-selling craft brewery in the United States.
His storyline runs from Marley to barley.
He will launch his $26 million Chicago facility in mid-March. Lagunitas — named after a town of 300 in Marin County, Calif. — operates out of a space at 18th and Rockwell owned by the Cinespace Chicago Film Studios (“Chicago Fire,” the third and fourth “Transformers”).
“It’s good to have that other [music] life,” Magee said earlier this week at Reggie’s, 2105 S. State. “Because those other lives provide perspective for how to tell the story of our brand.” The story is a great one: Chicago guy leaves town emotionally busted, makes it big in California, comes home to sing his triumphs.
Magee’s passion for music will be transformed in a 300-seat club, the Tap Room, that will feature live acts Wednesday through Sunday. The Tap Room will have a kitchen and swag store. The chef is Robert “the Sultan of Smoke” Chamberlain, longtime pressroom executive chef for the Chicago Cubs.
The Tap Room’s general manager is Brian Fadden, former manager of Buddy Guy’s Legends. Expect a heavy serving of Chicago blues with some Americana. In Northern California, Lagunitas has a history of supporting local music, having created partnerships with the Reggae on the River and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festivals. Lagunitas has been a sponsor for the Hideout Block Party in Chicago.
“We have a [300-seat] amphitheater in Petaluma [the headquarters in California] that I dug out myself,” Magee said. “We’re going to figure out some way to put on larger acts in Chicago. [Think rooftop.]
“Music is core to everything.”
Bill FitzGerald, owner of FitzGerald’s club in Berwyn, attended a private pre-opening party last week where Louisiana swamp rocker Eric Lindell was one of the guest performers.
“I’m not too worried about them as a live music venue,” said Fitzgerald, whose club presented Lindell and his band on Feb. 1. “They have lots of parking — no real street traffic like FitzGerald’s or Schubas. It’s a venue inside a factory. Tuesday was like a historic event. There is no other brewery around Chicago like this.” City Winery does offer live music in a tonier setting than Laguinatas.
“Music is such a part of brewery culture,” said Chicago author Anna Blessing, who just released “Locally Brewed (Portraits of Craft Breweries of America’s Heartland).” “Dark Lord Day at 3 Floyd’s [in Munster, Ind.] is an all-day festival where thousands of people come for the release of the beer. Founder’s [Brewing] in Grand Rapids has bands come in. Two Brothers [in Warrenville] do music events. Music in brewery tap rooms is a trend opposed to a rare event.”
The Tap Room will have a kitchen and swag store. The chef is Robert “the Sultan of Smoke” Chamberlain, longtime pressroom executive chef for the Chicago Cubs. The Tap Room, 26 feet above ground level, will be a departure point for brewery tours.
The brewery eventually will churn out 500 bottles a minute and 8,000 cases a day, 24/7. Lagunitas will do its first water brew by the end of this month in Chicago and then begin its beer brew.
Magee, 54, continues to write and play music. His post-reggae trail includes pre-Prohibition blues (Mississippi John Hurt, etc.). Magee will sit in with musicians at bars across America which serve Lagunitas. He recently played guitar to a full house during happy hour at Reggie’s. Magee studied music composition at Northern Illinois University before dropping out to join Mr. Myers. “Music is a nice way to connect with people beyond like, ‘My brewery was founded in 1993,’ ” he said. “People get so tired of that.”
Magee connects the disciplines of making beer with composing music.
“A beer recipe is a short piece of music,” he explained. “The bass notes take a little pattern, a rhythm. The midtones may be the alto voice, and then there’s the higher notes. In a beer recipe the malt is your bass line, there’s a rhythm to it as you taste it. As a little bitterness goes across your palate, that would be the violas and the French horns. The last thing you taste are the light hop flavors, and those are the higher notes. Each of these things come in during the course of the sip, which is four or five seconds. That’s how long a piece of music is.”
You won’t hear this rap in a Toby Keith beer song.
“I’m the conductor of the orchestra,” Magee continued. “I don’t have to play bassoon. But I still need musicians to perform it, which are the brewers. Because that piece of paper I write the recipe on doesn’t contain the flavor of beer anymore than a clock contains time. And [brewers] might do it better than I would have imagined. There’s a willingness to allow other people to bring what they have to offer to the table. Kids today are 15 and they know they want to brew. I never thought about brewing beer until 1993. The brewery came from my life experience. It’s a real rich way to come to it. The stories are deeper.”
In 2012 Magee wrote “Lagunitas Brewing Company: The Story” (Charles Pinot, $17.95). He wrote, “Brewing was like my nurse as I came out of an unusually hard period in my life,” and he and his wife were $38,000 behind in taxes.
“I left Chicago in 1987 with my tail between my legs, after tripping for a month and fighting everybody I could get my hands on,” he said at Reggie’s. “After Mr. Myers, I went home to my mom’s couch and spent six months watching ‘The Big Valley’ and trying to come down. It was time for a clean start. I did printing for 10 years in Los Angeles and made enough money to buy a house and begin the first days of the brewery. I picked the name ‘Lagunitas’ beause I love the word. It looks beautiful in type. Not every word looks pretty in type.”
The brewery’s first event, a private “not so dry run” on Tuesday, attracted nearly 4,000 beer fans, club owners and radio personalities. The event included live bands, stilt walkers, acrobats, burlesque dancers, fire hoopers and the Windy City Rollers. It was Chicago’s wildest opening party since the Limelight in 1985.
Magee was born in Rogers Park. His father was in advertising for Loop banks and his mother was a homemaker. In the early 1960s the family moved to the suburbs, where Magee was in the first graduating class of Buffalo Grove High School. He listened to the horn music of the bands Chicago and Matrix while drinking Old Milwaukee and Old Style. “I wanted to play saxophone the minute I saw it,” he said. “And I’ve never stopped playing. I have two friends from college: Alan Berliant [former bassist with Mavis Staples], who writes commercial music, and drummer Jim Widlowski [‘The Book of Mormon,’ ‘The Lion King’]. We got together, wrote 20 tunes and now we’re recording it all.” The trio performed at Tuesday’s preview event.
What separated Lagunitas from other craft beers?
Magee pondered the question. He answered, “Just to say one true thing. Hemingway would talk about trying to write one true sentence. I want to write one true recipe, and IPA [hoppy, sweet but balanced] did that for us. I wrote that recipe in 1995; it is the same beer now that it was then. We’ve been surrounded by a thousand other similar products and yet it still rings. Another music reference is ‘All You Need is Love.’ There’s nothing you can do, but you can learn how to be you in time.
“That’s the trick: how to be yourself and then say something that’s true about that.”