DOUGLAS PARK — A few minutes after 10 Friday morning, workers at the new Lagunitas Brewery in Chicago raised small glasses filled with a few ounces of their own hard work.
The "first bottling party," as the Lagunitas staff called it, wasn't just celebrating the few weeks it took to brew the first batch of beer, but the eight months it took to bring the brewery to the home of its most loyal customers.
"This is now our number one city for beer. We sell more beer in this city than any other. This is our number one market," said Ash Notaney, executive vice president of operations for the brewery. "To be able to have beer where people can come into the brewery, they can connect with the product and they can see how it's made... We thought that would be a really important thing to do."
Lagunitas decided to bring a brewery to Chicago after exhausting its brewing capacity in its brewery in Petaluma, Calif., last year. As the brewery's popularity grew so did its demand on the East Coast, which made shipping from California very expensive.
"We figured out to ship a 12-ounce bottle it took four ounces of diesel. It didn't seem like it made sense [financially], so we said, 'Where can we build another brewery where it'll be closer to a lot more people so we don't have to transport the beer as far?' Chicago turned out to be the ideal location," said Notaney.
When Notaney walked into the warehouse eight months ago, it was dirty and dark with the only sound coming from the giant buzzing lights hanging above it. Now, the warehouse is equipped with concrete pads to hold state-of-the-art equipment like the giant brewing tanks shipped in from Germany. On the other side of the brewery sit 25,000 kegs that will start being filled sometime next week, Notaney said.
After the toast, about 30 workers scurried back to their work stations as the heavy machinery began bottling, labeling and packaging the beer. Once the beers are packaged, they'll be put on pallets for distributors on the East Coast, Notaney said.
Lagunitas usually brews eight beers all-year round but Friday afternoon workers were treated to the only beer in the brewery, India Pale Ale.
"When you start a a brewery, you want to make sure you get the flavor right, so we're starting with India Pale Ale, which is our flagship, so the team will be doing that for about a month," Notaney said. "When we feel really good about it that it's working well and all the processes are nailed down and working smoothly. We'll switch to our next flavor."
The next brew the company will work on is its Little Sumpin' Sumpin' ale, he said.
"Basically we'll start doing more and more flavors and eventually it'll be able to output all the same beer we output out of Petulima," Notaney said.