The Big Dog: Tony Magee

A Conversation with Tony Magee of Lagunitas Brewery from issue #6 of Mash Tun Journal ( photos by Hank Pearl ) Ed Marszewski: Let’s start out with something like this: What’s a typical day like for you, Tony? Tony Magee: A typical day, well…  A typical day in 2014 is a very different day than a typical day in 2013, ’12, ’11, or ’10. I mean my job has never stopped changing and morphing radically, you know. The one thing that has always been essential is conversations like this, and it used to be that I would have conversations with one customer sort of like this, one day at a time, one customer at a time, one bar at a time, but now I do an interview and you know, it goes out on the internet and becomes a bit of a larger conversation. I talked to people through the labeling, through the branding. I write the stories through the bottle label and I design the labels from scratch on my little powerbook, just like that. And that’s where all the labels come from. So 90% of my job has always been just trying to communicate the thing we do, and the other 10% is the kind of thing that can take up 90% of my time, you know? E: Yeah. I sure do. T: And that was just trying to hold the ship together, trying to hold it together financially, or from a raw material standpoint, or a supply standpoint, the relationships with distributors standpoint, it just never ends. Trying to hold the ship together, even today it’s still the same. Now I am involved in this whole kind of crazy thing where another large brewer has decided to do a label that’s almost identical to ours. So this is a moment of trying to hold it all together, you know, and to keep the thing intact and safe. But in the past, I was trying to keep it safe from a predatory line of credit that we’ve been attached to. Or I was trying to keep it safe from the glass supplier to whom I owed a lot of money, and needed to keep him comfortable so we didn’t impair all my employees or impair the company. E: So in many ways a typical day today is very much like the beginning of when you started the brewery: it’s your job to steward the company. You have to deal with the various day-to-day activities of running a business. T: That’s right. Another way to look at the same thing is that it’s more abstract than the day-to-day of running a business. I often think to myself, there’s a ghost in the machine. Kyle Young wrote about the person inside of the body. You cut off your leg and it’s not going to change who you are. It might change what your body will do, but you are obviously by definition separate from that. So I’m the ghost in the machine at Lagunitas. I have always been that, and hope to always be that. As far as I know with the future of the business, I’m in the “die in payroll” plan, so to that extent I’ve got to remain that ghost within the business. E: As you know we just started up our project, called Marz Community Brewing, and it really is like you are saying. I check our figures every week. I wonder to myself “are we going to bring in enough money to cover our costs for all the shit we’re buying next week? And it’s a constant circulation of funds. I call it the continuous cash flow system. It’s like there is really no money, it just flows. T: It just turns around and around. E: It just turns around and it doesn’t exist anywhere really. T: And the truth is that at about 35,000 barrels that all changes. E: You have to get to 35,000 barrels for it to change?! T: Or you, see you are in a really nice spot right now where you are able to sell the beer for $8 or $9 for a bottle, so they’re very special and people regard them as rare. But if the quantity of beer you make were to grow, then they are not quite as rare anymore and by definition a little bit of that special-ness is sort of ground off of it, and so the pricing has to change. So then you have to grow. There are these little step function things. Sometimes you’re walking up the stairs and each step is the same size as the one before but then you get to one step that’s a big step. And so if you step beyond, in my experience, beyond 5,000 barrels, things change until you get to about 35,000. E: I was thinking that change came at 2,000 barrels. T: Keep thinking that. It’s something that will keep you going. For years and years and years I told my wife, three-to-five years honey, three-to-five years, trust me, trust me. E: Yeah absolutely. Well you know that’s funny. That’s really funny. T: But don’t kid yourself, if you do well, if you do this right, 35,000 is not that far away. E: You’ve gotta be kidding me. T: It’s a lot of decisions between here and there but consumer acceptance will carry you there. And then you’ll have to ask yourself, do I want to make more beer to say thank you to the people who’ve said they love us? Or do I want to say no, we are going to stay rare and hard to find. And if you want to stay rare and hard to find that’s a decision you can make but then your customers are going to say, “Oh well but, won’t you make more? We’d like to drink more.” So it’s just a question you have to answer. There’s no demand, there’s no imperative, there’s no ambition in…

Punk Rock and Beer

By Ian Wise – from issue #6 of Mash Tun Journal I woke up earlier today after a stressful night in the beer industry and read that Tommy Ramone had died. I had the idea for this article a while back, but now it feels a little more urgent. This article is about two very specific things: beer and punk rock. Outside of my family (or perhaps in spite of my family), those are pretty much the only two things that actually matter, in that I still learn so much from both of them, despite the fact that they are basic and erroneous. I know that beer is water, barley, hops, and yeast, but looking at those four ingredients is a confusing rush. Like the first time I heard an SS Decontrol record and thought, “Holy shit, that’s just four people?” There’s something fantastic in how four simple ingredients controlled by tiny variables can create an impossibly large world of flavor and weights. Sometimes something hits just right and all the spaces in between seem to disappear. The four ingredients in beer have taught me more about chemistry, history, and sociology than I ever learned in school. While punk is usually four upset kids yelling, the life lessons I’ve taken away from it have literally defined who I am and what I do with my life on a day-to-day basis. If I hadn’t found punk early in my life then I probably wouldn’t have the confidence and resilience it takes to cut it in the beer industry, and I sure as hell would have found a job more lucrative than backing the craft scene. We currently have more breweries in the US since Prohibition, and now that regional styles are taking off we are starting to see smaller scenes pop up in other countries as well. This explosion mirrors the late ‘70s, early ‘80s trend of aggressive music that empowered people to do something simply because they could. American’s craft beer explosion has similarly inspired a wave of new breweries, to the point of terminal velocity. It seems we are seeing mediocre copycats cropping up. Many are just trying to get us too drunk at the beer fests to remember whether or not we liked their product. Are we really convincing ourselves that bigger is better, or that more of the same is really going to make us complete? Sure, we can all cop Black Flag riffs and spew out a million double IPAs, but does the world really need anything heavier than My War? There is much to learn from the overlooked pieces of our past. Digging out obscure Spanish records—Eskorio, early Deciblios, and the lone single by Vulpess—shows how those bands took cues from British and American styles, before weaving those influences with their own sensibilities. Vulpess, a band composed of four, young Spanish girls, made a notable contribution to the punk canon in 1983 with their ripping cover of the Stooges classic “I Wanna’ Be Your Dog.” Their version includes gender-specific lyrics, and whose updated title roughly translates to “I Like Being a Whore.” It’s not a record people would line up to buy, but it’s on par with the hyped records released by renowned labels of the era. Nowadays, we’ll drive 100 miles—or scour Craigslist—for a bottle of beer whose inclusion into our Ratebeer profile will look good to our friends. Meanwhile, challenging brews sit on the shelves of liquor stores, eager for us to see the intrigue of Maibock, Rauchbier, and Brabent Ale, styles that do not get their just dues, compared to barrel-aged stouts and double IPAs. The brewing industry in the US is catering to a larger, more educated crowd than ever, yet the market’s most popular beer styles show an industry in its infancy. India pale ales make up over 60% of the American craft market, with the term “hop head” being co-opted by even the most bland businessmen affecting a chic persona in their Social Distortion t-shirt. “Yes, I went to college,” they think. “Now I have a lot of money to spend on stuff you can’t afford.” Although the yuppie beer market is expanding, the Danes are an example of counter-culture brewing, churning out awkward brews akin to the glory days of Danish punk like the Lost Kids or the Sods. With breweries Mikkeller and Evil Twin, the Bjergso brothers are showing that they can open up the palates of even those most conservative, aged faux-hipsters. If Evil Twin’s cheeky beers—Low Life Pilsener and Soft DK Imperial Stout, for example—have a rightful place in the market, there’s no reason more esoteric brews can’t make their way into our mouths, right? You may have opened one of the last three issues of this DIY-style zine and read my articles about international cheese pairings with beer. Maybe you actually went to a local market and tracked down something I wrote about. Maybe you had a party with your friends where you paired beer with cheese—I hope my writing had an influence on that. Instead of writing about cheese and beer, this time I’m going to pair beer with records. Whether you find this music at the record store, on eBay, or through BitTorrent, get your shopping list ready. Afterward, invite your friends over for a drinking party that will be a little less sophisticated but a lot more fun. Los Angeles was arguably the punk rock hub of the world in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, home to many of the revered bands whose influence is apparent in the music played on modern college radio. While Black Flag and the majority of the early Dangerhouse Records set are (rightly) celebrated in the mainstream rock press, there are dozens of other early gems that never got the recognition they deserve. The Chiefs, an early proto-hardcore band, released a fantastic 7” in 1980 called Blues. It invited the listener into the Los Angeles scene with open arms. Those arms were sweaty and probably…

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