Tony Magee is having fun.
Almost a year after his Lagunitas Brewing Co. announced a 50-50 partnership with Heineken International, the 56-year-old is brimming with ideas and plans to grow the business of craft beer both domestically and globally.
The roughly $500 million deal with his Petaluma-based brewery rocked the industry, which continues to experience enormous change as consumers embrace craft and move away from the big three, Budweiser, Miller and Coors. The craft sector showed a 13 percent increase in volume in 2015, according to the Brewers Association, a national trade group.
The announcement was not without its critics, specifically craft beer purists on social media who noted the irony of the iconoclastic Magee, who readily throws verbal barbs at mega-brewers AB InBev and MillerCoors, teaming up with one of the largest brewers in the world. But the flack has largely subsided given news of other major deals in the industry as well as the activity at Lagunitas. Earlier this year it bought stakes in Southend Brewery and Smokehouse in Charleston, South Carolina; Independence Brewing Co. in Austin, Texas; and Moonlight Brewing Co., the beloved Santa Rosa brewery operated by craft beer pioneer Brian Hunt.
“Some people had the idea that I sold out. The truth is that I bought in,” said Magee. “I really haven’t worked more in the last five years than I have in the last year. Now there are so many of these doors whose knobs have been unlocked. My job is to move the brewery into all these doors.”
Magee’s ambition comes as top executives at some competitors such as Ballast Point Brewing Co. in San Diego and Stone Brewing Co. in Escondido have left their breweries or have taken on different roles and investments. Magee still maintains his focus on Lagunitas, which he founded in 1993 and of which he is now executive chairman. He is still very involved in certain tasks such as label design. Lagunitas opened a Chicago brewery in 2014 and will open a third facility in Azusa in the San Gabriel Valley next year. It’s also expanding into other countries, mostly in Europe, though Mexico is in its sights as well as it enters the retail market south of the border.
Press Democrat staff writer Bill Swindell sat down with Magee recently to go over the past year and the future, including news about the opening of two London pubs; a new European brewery likely in the United Kingdom; a Lagunitas meat business; and why he will not enter the legalized marijuana business.
Q: Is there one thing with the partnership with Heineken that you realize now that you didn’t expect beforehand?
A: This is going to sound like spin... There is not a single fricken thing that was expressed, a tone, an idea, a vibe, a general willingness that has moved at all in those first conversations. The Heineken I met on the first day is the same company I know now... It’s truly a 50-50 thing.
Q: Can you talk about your international travels and the reception to American craft beer you have encountered so far? Has anything surprised you?
A: Social media has carried the story of American craft into the entirety of the developed world. For instance, before the Heineken thing, we launched in Ireland. A couple of good local brewers came to our promos and wanted to introduce themselves. ‘We just opened up about a year ago, we want to make beers like you. This is so great. We love what you guys are doing.’ We go to these places and we find people doing things that we have all pioneered here in the U.S. In the developed world, craft is going to be as unstoppable as it is in the United States. So, we get to lead Heineken, in many ways, on their participation in craft.