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Monday, June 23, 2014

An early look at the finally-about-to-open Lagunitas tap room

Posted By on 06.23.14 at 02:00 PM

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More than two years after I first heard a rumor about its opening date—which at that point was supposed to be fall 2012—the Lagunitas Brewing tap room in North Lawndale is finally in business. Last Tuesday it held an unveiling party, mostly for the press (I wasn't invited—a small blow to my already negligible professional pride), and on Wednesday, June 25, it will officially welcome the general public.

One thing I noticed in coverage of Tuesday's event was a shortage of photos—even Josh Noel's thorough write-up for the Trib had only one. This seemed like a significant oversight, especially given that the tap room overlooks Lagunitas's gargantuan new Chicago brewery. I decided to address it.

My shitty old camera and I visited on Saturday, during a "friends and family" celebration. I talked to regional marketing director Karen Hamilton, sister of Lagunitas founder Tony Magee. She brought the first case of Lagunitas beer into Chicago ten years ago, shortly after joining the company, and now she's watched the first cases roll off the line here.

This neon hangs above the first interior doorway.
  • This neon hangs above the first interior doorway.

Hamilton told me a few things I didn't already know. First was that Lagunitas gives away so much beer in Chicago—mostly to nonprofits throwing fund-raisers—that donations total more than sales to its biggest proper customer. On Mondays and Tuesdays, when the tap room is closed, the brewery makes the space available to such groups free of charge. Lagunitas is the official beer of Team PAWS, a charity running team that benefits the PAWS Chicago animal shelter, and the brewery's employees can bring their dogs to work. (Dogs aren't allowed in the tap room "yet," says Hamilton.)

Second, and perhaps of more interest to beer nerds, was that the tap room's 32 draft lines will pour not just year-round Lagunitas beers but also tap-only oddities and one-offs shipped from the brewery's home base in Petaluma, California. (Eventually the Chicago facility will make those beers too.) If the current west-coast menu is any indication, we can expect a pomegranate pale ale and an unfiltered pils very soon. From here on out, the Chicago tap room will also get every Fusion beer—Lagunitas releases a new one almost every month, but so far we've only seen a few. (Fusion 16 won the session-ale trophy at last June's Mash Tun Fest.)

The ground-floor hallway that leads to the tap-room stairs has a few windows in it.
  • The ground-floor hallway that leads to the tap-room stairs has a few windows in it.

I didn't get to try more than a couple beers, because I'd lost the data card in my camera and had to take the train back to Edgewater to fetch my spare—a round trip of nearly three hours. My profound gadget-related stupidity also meant I didn't have time to join one of the brewery tours making the circuit of the catwalks that surround the tap room. But I did get some photos! I used a tripod instead of a flash, because I didn't want to annoy the folks trying to enjoy themselves. Given the dim light in the tap room itself, that often meant ridiculously long exposures—which is why most of the people look like extras in a Nine Inch Nails video.

Still on the ground floor. I had no luck photographing the laser display, but how about that Lucky 13 mosaic? Its made from thousands of bottlecaps wired together.
  • Still on the ground floor. I had no luck photographing the laser display, but how about that Lucky 13 mosaic? It's made from thousands of bottlecaps wired together.

Its a long hallway, and I guess they dont want you to forget along the way.
  • It's a long hallway, and I guess they don't want you to forget along the way.

The view from the entrance to the tap room. That sign is at least 20 feet tall.
  • The view from the entrance to the tap room. That sign is at least 20 feet tall.

Looking into the tap room. The restrooms are out of frame to the right.
  • Looking into the tap room. The restrooms are out of frame to the right.

Some of the heavy steel visible from the windows of the tap room
  • Some of the heavy steel visible from the windows of the tap room

This gives you a fair idea of the size of the room. It holds 300 people, and that high ceiling will be fitted with acoustic tiles soon, to help keep the noise at humane levels.
  • This gives you a fair idea of the size of the room. It holds 300 people, and that high ceiling will be fitted with acoustic tiles soon, to help keep the noise at humane levels.

The catwalks over the brewery. At the top toward the left, you can just barely see a few folks checking out the equipment.
  • The catwalks over the brewery. At the top toward the left, you can just barely see a few folks checking out the equipment.

Of the three banks of taps, this one was closest to my table. I think thats Kim Leshinski of Hail to the Ale at far right.
  • Of the three banks of taps, this one was closest to my table. I think that's Kim Leshinski of Hail to the Ale at far right.

Communal tables take up most of the space, to encourage people to mingle with strangers.
  • Communal tables take up most of the space, to encourage people to mingle with strangers. That flat-screen in the background is the only TV in the room, at least so far.

The benches arent attached to the tables, which makes it easier for larger humans to get situated comfortably.
  • The benches aren't attached to the tables, which makes it easier for larger humans to get situated comfortably.

I looked pretty silly getting this shot of the bar stools. Notice the power outlet above the seat to the left?
  • I looked pretty silly getting this shot of the bar stools. Notice the power outlet above the seat to the left?

Looking out on the catwalks from the tap room
  • Looking out on the catwalks from the tap room

The concrete bar top is heated, but only just enough that it doesnt feel cold. You wont cook your beer if you forget to use a coaster.
  • The concrete bar top is heated, but only just enough that it doesn't feel cold. You won't cook your beer if you forget to use a coaster.

The tap room from the nearest catwalk
  • The tap room from the nearest catwalk

If they paint a few more things, this will look like a game of Mouse Trap.
  • If they paint a few more things, this will look like a game of Mouse Trap.

I overheard a tour guide explaining that these 750-barrel fermenters are supported by 35-foot beams sunk into the bedrock beneath the brewery.
  • I overheard a tour guide explaining that these 750-barrel fermenters are supported by 35-foot beams sunk into the bedrock beneath the brewery.

With nothing in the picture for scale, you could almost mistake these for six-packs.
  • With nothing in the picture for scale, you could almost mistake these for six-packs.

Im pretty sure I wasnt supposed to go through the door onto these stairs—for the time being, patrons are only allowed out on the catwalks as part of tour groups—but I really wanted to get a shot of the entire tap room from the far side of the brewery, so you could see how high up it is.
  • I'm pretty sure I wasn't supposed to go through the door onto these stairs—for the time being, patrons are only allowed out on the catwalks as part of tour groups—but I really wanted to get a shot of the entire tap room from the far side of the brewery, so you could see how high up it is.

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Lagunitas Chicago is a little difficult to reach, at least if you don't know the neighborhood well. You don't have to cross a moat full of crocodiles, but it helps to know which streets go through and which get cut off by railroad tracks. The address is technically 1843 S. Washtenaw, but you can't turn into the parking lot from Washtenaw—and on foot, you have to find the one small gate in the fence that runs along the east side of the road.

From the train, the shortest walk is from the California stop on the Pink Line: head north on California to 18th, walk east to Washtenaw, and then head north again till you see the gate, just past the corner of the brewery building. The simplest route, especially if you're driving, is to take 16th Street west from Western and then turn south on what looks like Rockwell. Just past 17th Street, which is only a block long, you should see the brewery to the west. Look for the purple stretch of wall with the red doors.

You found it! This is the view southwest from near Rockwell and 17th.
  • You found it! This is the view southwest from near Rockwell and 17th.

Hours are 11 AM to 9 PM, Wednesday through Sunday. If the tap room is open, the kitchen is open. Music runs from 4:20 PM (har har) till 7:30 or so. General manager Brian Fadden, a veteran of Buddy Guy's Legends, handles the bookings, which tilt toward blues and Americana—upcoming acts on the tap room's dinky stage include guitarist John Primer, harmonica player Rick Sherry (also of the Sanctified Grumblers), and guitarist Joel Paterson (Sherry's old bandmate in Devil in a Woodpile).

This stage wont be hosting the Polyphonic Spree anytime soon.
  • This stage won't be hosting the Polyphonic Spree anytime soon.

With that in mind, what metal should I post? I'm thinking Kentucky, a 2012 album by brilliant Louisville band Panopticon. This confoundingly ambitious one-man project crossbreeds black metal with mountain music, especially bluegrass. The next Panopticon LP, Roads to the North, comes out later this summer.

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Philip Montoro writes about beer and metal, singly or in combination, every Monday.

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