It can be hard to separate the legend and the facts when you’re talking about California’s Lagunitas Brewing.
Formed by Tony Magee in 1993 and based in Petaluma, 65km north of San Francisco, Lagunitas started as a one-man-band, and was sold to Heineken for a billion or so last month. It’s kept a strong underdog/hippy/stoner ethic on the way, with a reputation for big beers, big parties and the occasional drug bust.
Ron Lindenbusch (on left above) and Dr Pat Mace have been on the Lagunitas trip since 1993 and 1998. Ron was the company’s second employee, Pat was the 12th. They’re in New Zealand this month, talking up Heineken/DB’s imported Lagunitas IPA and getting craft brewers going all fanboy. Beertown.NZ had a few beers with them last night.
“We went from a seven barrel (820L) system to a 15 barrel system to a 30 barrel (3500L) system,” Ron says. “We worked on that 30 barrel system until it was worn out like a rented mule. I mean we were brewing 24/7, and the only time we shut that down was when we would blow a leak in the steam jacket and we would have to weld it. We always bought used crappy equipment, and that system came from a brewery that had gone out of business in Milwaukee Wisconsin.”
Last year Lagunitas produced about 112 million litres, more than DB’s total New Zealand production. Dr Pat predicts it will produce about 130 million litres this year.
When the controversial decision to sell was announced in May, Heineken CEO Jean-François van Boxmeer said the deal would roll-out Lagunitas to markets and beer lovers around the world. So how does that fit with Lagunitas’ famous fresh-is-best approach to its hoppy IPA?
“Our IPA has been travelling very well,” Ron says. “It didn’t travel very well historically because people didn’t want to invest in refrigerated shipping. We mandate for cold storage and shipping from the brewery to the end. All our Heineken distributors have committed to keep our beer cold, even if that’s not the norm for them. We’re educating them that our beers are very temperature-sensitive because we do add a lot of hops in the boil, we do add a lot of hops in the fermenters that deliver very volatile components that oxidise very quickly. Oxidation is the killer.”
Lagunitas’ obsession with freshness began when Tony Magee started out as a self-taught brewer. “Luckily our beer was disappearing off the shelves fast enough that it was fresh. Back then we got away with not being shelf-stable for the first five years. If it had sat around like it does now…with the crowded market now, you have to make stable beer. It’s not enough to be good coming out of the brewery, it has to be stable.”
Dr Pat: “We were a local brewery and we were just churning and burning, man. Then we had to figure out how to keep it fresh and ship it to the next county, to the next state. The IPA is like our child going out from the brewery, and when I tasted it in Wellington I thought it would be OK but it’s tasting great, like it does in California, and that’s accolades to DB for handling the beer properly. Logistics in beer runs all the way through, from keeping it cold to serving it from a clean tap. It’s so important and there’s more to it than the consumer realises when they’re tasting it.”
The big deal also gives Lagunitas’ brewers access to Heineken’s production breweries around the world, including DB’s facilities here in New Zealand. But Ron says it’s unlikely that Lagunitas IPA will be brewed here. “As time goes on we may end up having breweries around the world. But they’d need to be built to our specs.”
Dr Pat: “We use so many hops that our hop dosing equipment is different from any other breweries. It would be difficult to make our beer in other breweries. I’m not saying it couldn’t be done but we’ve looked at other breweries and we can’t make our make our beer there. They’re not equipped for late hopping and dry hopping and everything that we do. It would be a lot easier to build our own breweries.”
Ron: “To be honest there’s only a couple of week’s difference in getting the beer to New Zealand than there is in California. In California our distributors carry three weeks of stock so it’s nearly the same age when it gets here.”
Lagunitas has famously held a ‘no cans’ policy based on the environmental costs of bauxite mining and aluminum production. That changed last year with the introduction of 12th of Never ale. Ron explains the policy change: “You know sometimes the decisions are not ours to make – sometimes they’re for the customers to make. And our customers wanted our beers in a can, so how long do you tell them ‘no’? The bottom line is that beer isn’t green. You’ve got so many inputs of natural resources and energy into beer, you truck it and ship it and refrigerate it, so it is what it is as far as carbon footprint goes.”