This man soon will be Chicago’s biggest brewer

llinois’ beer industry has grown at a heady clip since Goose Island Brewing Co. opened its first brewpub 25 years ago. But it will take a California company to vault the state into the nation’s top 10 in craft beer production.

 - Lagunitas Brewing Co.'s Tony Magee stands on the roof of the giant brewery he is building in Douglas Park. - Kendall Karmanian

Lagunitas Brewing Co.’s Tony Magee stands on the roof of the giant brewery he is building in Douglas Park.

Lagunitas Brewing Co., which brews in California’s Sonoma Valley, is building a sizeable operation in Chicago’s Douglas Park neighborhood to extend its reach to the Eastern U.S. The 250,000-barrel-a-year facility, which is scheduled to start up by year-end, would make Lagunitas the city’s largest brewer, surpassing Goose Island, and triple the state’s output of beer by independent companies.

The additional barrelage would place Illinois at No. 10 nationally in craft beer output, based on figures from the Brewers Association in Boulder, Colo. (California tops the list.)

“It’s a significant impact on the city,” says Gabriel Magliaro, who founded Half Acre Beer Co. out of his bedroom in 2006 and moved to North Center in 2009. “It will tip it over the edge of being a great beer town.”

Lagunitas is owned by Tony Magee, 53. A former Chicagoan who likes to say “bitchin’ “ for emphasis, Mr. Magee says he picked Chicago primarily because of its central location and easy access to transportation—geographic assets that have lured countless other businesses here over the decades.

For instance, he says Lagunitas, the nation’s sixth-largest independent brewer, spends at least $1.5 million a year to truck beer bottles from a glassmaker in Oklahoma to northern California and, after filling them, back across “two deserts, the Great Plains and two mountain ranges” to stores in the Midwest and beyond.

Moreover, the company can’t expand production in its hometown, Petaluma (population 58,453), beyond its current capacity of 500,000 barrels a year. And even if it could, local roads and Sonoma County neighbors wouldn’t permit more truck traffic, he says.

“Petaluma is a lovely town, but it’s not a big town,” Mr. Magee says. “At some point, we become a problem.”

One last reason for choosing the Windy City: “It’s fuckin’ Chicago,” says Mr. Magee, who left the city a quarter-century ago after what he says was a “pile of bad decisions,” which included playing in a reggae band and a monthlong acid trip.

Craft beer is exploding across the country. Independent brewers made 13.2 million barrels last year, up 86 percent from 7.1 million in 2006 (a barrel contains 31 gallons). While figures aren’t available for craft beer’s market share in Illinois or Chicago, the upsurge in microbreweries suggests more consumers are trading cans of Bud and Miller Lite for bottles of lager from Metropolitan Brewing Co. in Ravenswood and ales and stouts from Warrenville’s Two Brothers Brewing Co.

A Chicago brewery will help Lagunitas tap into the exploding the exploding U.S. craft beer market, owner Tony Magee says

Lagunitas has been growing even faster than the sector. Mr. Magee says sales increased 60 percent in 2012 and are up 78 percent over the past 12 months. The Douglas Park brewery should enable Lagunitas to maintain that rate. Mr. Magee says he’ll spend $22 million outfitting the 300,000-square-foot facility, which will be large enough to allow additional lines that would double capacity to 500,000 barrels annually. The first brewing systems will arrive from Germany in September.

The West Side brewery also will accommodate a taproom. These beer-tasting spaces are becoming the next thing in Chicago’s brewpub scene.

Illinois’ top 10 ranking will be brief, however. Bart Watson, the Brewers Association’s staff economist, notes that North Carolina, ranked No. 19 last year, will shoot into the top five by 2015 as Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. and Fat Tire owner New Belgium Brewing Co. build facilities there. That would push Illinois down to 11th place at best.

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