Entering the Lagunitas taproom, which opens to the public June 25, is a long and winding road.
After pushing through a pair of red double doors, patrons walk down a long, dim corridor of concrete and cinder block, past windows looking upon the working guts of what instantly became the city’s largest brewery when launching in April. A few hundred feet down, the hall turns left, continuing on to a narrow, dingy industrial stairwell that climbs three stories.
Push through another door and there it is: a blast of air conditioning and that new construction smell. Just past the shop selling Lagunitas gear (shirts, hats, coasters and, eventually, bottles) stands a 4,000-square-foot taproom of wood tables, a concrete bar and 32 gleaming tap handles.
“It's a long walk, but I want people to be a little disoriented and separate them from their expectations,” said Tony Magee, Lagunitas’ founder, at Tuesday’s unveiling of the taproom in his new Chicago brewery. “I want to clean their visual and mental palate.”
Arriving about 18 months after initially planned, the Lagunitas taproom won’t be centrally located for most beer drinkers – it sits in a quiet neighborhood that’s both residential and industrial, near 18th Street and Washtenaw Avenue – but it offers what could become one of the best beer drinking experiences in the city.
First, is the taproom itself. It’s large (capacity 300), welcoming and smartly assembled: long, communal tables occupy about two-thirds of the room, which is anchored by a dark, rectangular cement bar. A few dozen lights dangle from the ceiling, lighting the space sparely and elegantly.
The light is essential because there isn’t a drop of natural light in the bar. But that also works to the taproom’s advantage, because the windows look onto something far more interesting than the street; they look onto the brewery itself. It’s a massive brewery that will ultimately have the ability to produce 1 million barrels of beer per year (that’s 2 million kegs), and all that operating machinery makes for wonderful eye candy while sipping your brew.
Better still, about 700 feet of catwalk surrounds the taproom, which allows visitors to stroll in a circle above the brewery with beer in hand. It's the kind of major league setup you’d be more likely to find in Colorado or California (not coincidentally, Magee launched Lagunitas in northern California in 1993, and the brewery has been instrumental in the rise of craft beer).
I asked Magee what he was most trying to evoke with the design of the taproom.
“Community,” he said. “That's why there are the long tables and the long bar. I want people to sit with people they don't know. That's when interesting things occur.”
But the real prize, of course, is the beer. At its debut, 16 beers were on draft, from the easy drinking (Pils) to the rarer and more complex (A Little Sumpin' Extra! – an imperial version of its well-regarded hoppy wheat ale, A Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’). Almost all the beer on tap was made in the brewery below, and soon, one of the bartenders told me, all of it will be. That’s key.
Lagunitas is best known for its strongly-hopped beers (hops are the ingredient that lends beer its floral, piney pungency ). But hops can degrade with stunning rapidity, leaving the beers that we think we’re drinking a pale imitation of what a brewer intends.
And therein lies the greatest benefit of the Lagunitas taproom: It makes a lot of hoppy beer, and now we’ll be able to drink that hoppy beer with wonderful, lively freshness. Everything I tasted Tuesday – DayTime IPA, A Little Sumpin Extra!, IPA, Pils and Maximus imperial IPA – were all brewed downstairs. (In fact, I’d previously tried a version of DayTime brewed in Petaluma, Calif., and didn’t much care for it; fresh, however, it was a joy).
Tuesday’s event was largely put on for the media, but it also included an appearance from Gov. Pat Quinn, who seized on the economic impact Lagunitas is bringing to a state in sore need of economic boost (including 150 jobs) while grinning for the cameras. I cornered the governor at the bar and asked if he ever thought beer might be an economic engine for the state.
“Sure,” he said. "People like to drink beer and have fun and do things that involve community.”
Odds are good there will be plenty of that happening at 18th and Washtenaw for a good, long while.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun