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The Beer Thinker: Lagunitas Reshapes Chicago's Craft Scene

Discerning beer drinkers in Chicago tend to lament the fact that our town has played a fairly low-key role thus far in the resurgence of craft beer.

Even with the emergence of at least half a dozen new breweries in Chicago over the last year or so, and the sale of local icon Goose Island as recognition of Chicago's current brewing community, the pride has been lacking a bit. Local beer drinkers and local beer makers alike have sometimes been too quick to acknowledge that smaller cities like Portland have a better-developed craft beer scene than Chicago.

Will all that change now that fast-growing Petaluma, Calif.-based Lagunitas Brewing Co. has decided to open Chicago's largest modern brewery on the South Side? In some ways it could help make the local craft beer scene a bit more cohesive, giving the community a truly massive anchor tenant, where it previously has been made up of much smaller, yet ambitious, players.

You wouldn't think an interloper from California could make that possible, but Lagunitas is not exactly an interloper. Though it may not sound very Chicago by name, Lagunitas was founded a Chicago-area native. This almost certainly will matter to a lot of locals, and to existing craft brewers in Chicago, many of whom would insist "craft" is synonymous with "local."

Lagunitas favorites like Capuccino Stout (my favorite) and A Little Sumpin' Sumpin Ale (a wheaty pale ale) also have been distributed in Chicago for a long time, so they are known to some degree here, but there is likely to be a rush of new interest as fans compare the brews made fresh at 18th and Rockwell to what they've had before. For Chicago's craft brewery scene to thrive, it needs an ongoing supply of such stories that get consumers out to bars, stores and breweries looking for local product.

But can a big brewery muscle some of the little guys into the shadows? Lagunitas reportedly may not try to hire away current employees of local breweries, so maybe it will be a good neighbor in that sense. In terms of market share, craft brewers like to say that the rising tide lifts all boats, and that successful craft brewers only create greater awareness that benefits similar products. However, it's a question worth considering for couple reasons.

If Lagunitas is producing here, it probably means its beers will be competing more intensely for tap space and shelf space with other local brews.

Also, Lagunitas has come to market with some pretty attractive pricing. Its 22-ounce bombers can commonly be had for $4.99, cheaper than some locally-produced beers of similar size. This may have been something of a secret in the past, but you can bet it won't be as Lagunitas increases its local profile.

The Lagunitas plan comes as other big craft brewers have begun to expand to better manage distribution, which is an interesting notion in a sector that values its grass-roots appeal and quaint start-up stories. Lagunitas and others that are expanding will need to be sure their unique identities and personalities don't get obscured by corporate strategizing.

The new Lagunitas brewery is supposed to be up and running in late 2013, and the unveiling of this ambitious plan is undoubtedly the biggest news on Chicago's craft beer landscape in recent memory. The sheer capacity of the new facility, potentially enough for 600,000 barrels annually, may put Chicago on the craft beer map in a way it has not been yet.

Hopefully, that will mean good things for everyone around here.


Previously in The Beer Thinker:
* Tapping Lincoln Square
* Size Matters


The Beer Thinker welcomes your comments.


Posted on April 11, 2012

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