Beer Country: Tony Magee, Lagunitas Brewing Co.

To Magee, beer is the original social media.

Tony Magee, Lagunitas Brewing Co. (photo by Chris Hardy)

Before Petaluma’s Lagunitas Brewing Co. opened a second brewery on 6 acres in Chicago in 2014, a local magazine ran a profile of owner Tony Magee under the headline, “It Will Take a Stoner Savant to Lead the Craft Beer Revolution.

“At first, I was horrified,” he admitted. “But then everybody thought it was funny. The stoner part is true, but the savant part you can only hope for.”

That, in a nutshell, is Tony Magee. Where some might wince at being called a “stoner” in bold, 64-point type, instead he’s uneasy about being labeled a sage.

Growing up in the Windy City and dropping out of the new Bauhaus Institute of Design in the early 1980s to tour with a reggae band, he said, “I never thought I’d have a reason to return to Chicago again.”

The inspiration was three-fold — shipping costs, beer freshness and world domination. One day, he did the math and realized how much he was spending in freight, “just to cross two mountain ranges and a desert to get to Iowa.”

So far, he said, Chicago has been a lot easier to deal with than Petaluma, the city he moved to after opening the original Lagunitas brewery in Marin in 1993.

“What I learned is you want the city to want what you want,” said Magee, who splits time these days between his home in Point Reyes Station and a condo in Chicago. “In Petaluma, we weren’t always so well-aligned and sometimes I still don’t think we are today.”

In 1987, while trying to kick a drug habit, he moved to Northern California and got hooked instead on home brewing. He was dabbling in the printing business, but it was craft beer that piqued his creativity. When his wife, Carissa Brader, booted him out of the kitchen, he scraped together enough funding to open his brewery. Growing leaps and bounds over the past two decades, Lagunitas is now the sixth-largest craft brewery in the country, thanks to the ubiquitous flagship IPA and relentless hipster marketing.

“I like to say we’re in the tribe-building business,” Magee said, repeating what has become his favorite catch phrase.

The latest Lagunitas slogan, “Beer Speaks; People Mumble,” pairs well with “CouchTrippin’ to Austin” marketing campaigns for the annual SXSW festival, and his rambling, irreverent Twitter feed.

At 54, Magee sees beer as the original social media. “That’s why they called them pubs. They were the original public houses on the block, where people would go and share news of births, deaths and air their grievances.”

Thanks to the latest version of social media, Magee got an earful from outraged hop heads in January when he filed a trade infringement lawsuit against Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. for what he saw as its marketing of a copycat IPA, right down to the print font and label design.

Although Magee dropped the suit a day later, he’s still a little bitter. “At some point, it doesn’t matter if you’re right because your customers have a different feeling about it and you have to pay attention to that.”

Can he imagine a day when he can look back and laugh about it? “You know, brother, I sure hope so.”