Lagunitas Brewing Co. of Petaluma has grown into a craft beer behemoth across the United States over the past 25 years through its simple formula of producing extra hoppy beers paired with an irreverent marketing vibe.
But 2019 is shaping up to be a difficult year for the domestic beer industry offering many challenges: slowing sales; cramped retail shelf space; fewer distributors; and a crowded marketplace with about 7,000 breweries nationwide at the end of last year.
Lagunitas has not been immune from having to adjust for those hurdles and remain competitive. In October, Chief Executive Officer Maria Stipp made the tough decision to cut 12 percent of company’s workforce — more than 100 people — given the bleak forecast.
At the same time, the formidable brewer, which has been fully owned by Heineken International since 2017, is preparing for its next act: growing on the world stage. Lagunitas is now in 30 countries, but its ambitions are grander as competition emerges among the American craft beer sector to establish market share around the globe where consumer acceptance of beers lags at least 10 years behind the United States.
“The craft explosion is everywhere. We saw it when we went to Milan. We saw it in Barcelona. We saw it in Rio. We saw it in São Paulo. It’s not just a U.S. phenomena,” Stipp said in an interview. “It (the growth) is happening at a really truncated period of time.”
To that end, Lagunitas will open its first international taproom on Feb. 7 in Amsterdam — the headquarters city of its parent company that’s also famous for its nearby cannabis coffeehouses — with plans for more in Europe. It also is brewing beers overseas for the first time, starting in Wijlre, Netherlands, at a facility that produces the Brand label for Heineken.
“Fresh IPA (India pale ale) for the very first time born in the country. It’s going to make a difference,” said Stipp, who is targeting Brazil for its next foreign brewery. “At any brewery, from what I have learned, there is a house taste where you brew. We really had to dial in the IPA to make it really represent the Petaluma IPA.”
Today, the international market is about 10 percent of annual business for Lagunitas, Stipp said, but is expected to comprise the majority of its growth in the next couple of years.
The job falls to Stipp to work with Heineken executives to navigate the foreign market where the corporation has almost 150 years of experience and to grow the Lagunitas brand in the United States through innovative products. The new brews include DayTime IPA, which has only 98 calories and 4 percent alcohol content. That beer is a major departure from the Lagunitas portfolio that has some of the booziest brews in the sector. It follows another new twist the company unveiled last year: its cannabis-infused HiFi Hops drink produced in conjunction with Cannacraft Inc. of Santa Rosa.
Stipp, a 51-year-old former executive at the major video game developer Activision, has so far successfully taken the reins from beloved hands-on Lagunitas founder Tony Magee. She’s managed to keep the DNA of the local craft brewing company in place — dogs still roam the office — while figuring out how to leverage the “added muscle” from Dutch giant Heineken to better compete against other major global brewers such as Anheuser-Busch InBev and Constellation Brands Inc. that have their own craft brands they acquired in recent years.
February a perfect month for North Bay craft beer lovers
In Sonoma County: most notably, the 15th annual Pliny the Younger release will occur again from Feb. 1 to 14 at Russian River Brewing Co. The triple IPA — regarded as one the best beers in the world — will be served at both Russian River’s downtown Santa Rosa pub and its new brewery complex in Windsor.
Inside scoop: Same rules apply as in past years with a limit of 3 10-ounce beers per person in a three-hour period. It’ll be $5.25 for each Pliny pour. How long the lines will be at the two taprooms is anybody’s guess, but do expect to wait for your chance to throw back a Pliny or two or three.
Across the Golden Gate: for those who want less of a wait, they can venture south for different events during San Francisco Beer Week, Feb. 1 to 10.
However, Sonoma County breweries are participating down there and at home. Among the celebration lineup here at home:
Fogbelt Brewing Co. of Santa Rosa will host its fifth anniversary party on Feb. 2 at noon.
Third Street Aleworks of Santa Rosa will hold a release party on Feb. 5 at 4 p.m. for its double IPA.
Brewsters Beer Garden in Petaluma will have a backyard brews-and-barbecue bash on Feb. 6 at 5 p.m. featuring local craft beers.