For a guy responsible for the creation of more than 14 million gallons of beer last year, Tony Magee seems curiously resistant to calling himself a brewer.
"I don't think we're in the beer business ... we're in the tribe-building business," he said, standing among towering stacks of bottles ready to be filled in his warehouse at Lagunitas Brewing Company in Petaluma. "Beer just happens to be the common currency" of the would-be members of the tribe.
In this case, he's building the tribe of craft brew fans who enjoy the beer and the quirky, iconoclastic sensibility of his 20-year-old Lagunitas Brewing. That tribe has underwritten an astonishing burst of growth that has propelled the business from a struggling local bit player to a nationally-known brewery on the cusp of full nationwide distribution.
Two years ago, his brewery, in a quiet industrial park on North McDowell Boulevard, was producing 161,000 barrels of beer, or around 5 million gallons, placing him a modest No. 17 on the Brewers Association annual list of craft brewers for 2011. A blast of growth brought that total to 254,000 barrels last year, enough to vault Lagunitas 11 places to No. 6 in 2012. It could pump out as much as 480,000 barrels this year, during which he expects to hire his 350th employee, a growth of about 100 in just 12 months. The expansion is almost certain to push the brewery even higher on the 2013 list.
And it's hardly finished. Even as he continues to add equipment in Petaluma, Magee is preparing to join the rarified ranks of brewers with production facilities in multiple states, opening an outpost in Chicago this summer. The new brewery will start at about 300,000 barrels but eventually could produce 1.7 million, in addition to the 520,000 barrels from Petaluma when the current expansion is complete. The beer already is distributed in 34 states and the Chicago facility will allow Magee to spread to the rest in just a few years.
"I don't know how big the company can be ... The way it is is fabulously exciting, but we're also growing this year at a 72 percent rate year-to-date," he said. "I don't know; there is something irrational about that, but yet it's true."
Lagunitas has staked out a reputation as quirky and irreverent, with a let-it-all-hang-out ethos including colorful and cheeky labels and promotional material drawn by Magee himself, featuring dogs, circus performers and burlesque dancers.
He dubs brews with self-deprecating names such as "Lagunitas Sucks," a highly-hopped seasonal beer originally brewed as an apologetic substitute for the popular annual offering "Brown Shugga," which the company couldn't manage to get out on time one year.
"The packaging is unique in a lot of ways; it's designed for intelligent people," said Ron Lindenbusch, longtime Lagunitas marketing director. (In Lagunitas' slightly twisted world, the title on his business card is "Beer Weasel," while Magee's cards often say "Imperial Warlord.")
Another beer got the name "Censored" after federal authorities turned down the original name — "Kronik" — saying it was a reference to a popular slang term for marijuana.
Yet another beer commemorates a darker chapter in the brewery's history: a 20-day shutdown by state alcohol officials in 2006 after undercover agents observed widespread marijuana smoking at the company's weekly open houses in the days before the public taproom was built. Magee turned that into "Undercover Investigation Shutdown Ale," a seasonal beer that the brewery describes as "especially bitter ... unforgiven ... unrepentant."