California Drinkin’

(Jane Fentress)

The Chicago brew community has gone wild. We all know about Goose Island, but when the news broke on April 10 via Twitter that the California-based Lagunitas Brewing Company plans to open a new brewery in Douglas Park, it became clear that Chicago is in the middle of a craft beer renaissance. Within the next year, the home-brew “club” New Chicago Beer Company plans to open its “socially conscious” and “100% sustainable” (according to their website) permanent brewery, while Kickstarter-funded Pipeworks Brewing will be opening in the next few months. In a city with about a dozen brewery projects in the works, Lagunitas is entering a truly vibrant scene.

But Lagunitas, though it may be craft, is far from a microbrewery. The Douglas Park site will be housed in a former steel plant near the Cinespace Chicago Film Studios on 18th and Rockwell, and hopes to open in July 2013. The 250-barrel brewhouse will double Lagunitas’s national production, but the Chicago brewery alone is estimated to out-produce Goose Island, Pipeworks, Haymarket, Revolution, 5 Rabbit, Three Floyds, Two Brothers, and Half Acre combined, according to the popular beer blog Aleheads.

When asked how the opening of this new project might affect the Chicago beer scene, Lagunitas owner and Chicago native Tony Magee claimed, “There are a lot of brewers here now, and more in the crib, so I don’t really think that the addition of one brewer will affect the trajectory Chicago is already on. I just hope to be part of it all and to have fun doing it, too.” Aside from the brewhouse, Magee hopes to open the site up to the city by offering tours and tastings.

Local brewers have gone public with their well wishes for Lagunitas. The general consensus seems to be the more the merrier. As Paul Schneider wrote for Chitown on Tap, “The biggest effect is probably that this move is a major milestone in Chicago’s growth as a craft beer city. This is the third regional craft brewery in a few months to announce plans to open a second brewery… so the fact that it landed here is huge. It should give us some swagger.”

Most of the beer made in Douglas Park will be shipped farther east, while the local impact will mostly be a shake-up of resources and talent. When companies expand at the rate of Lagunitas, there are bound to be some shifts in labor, but the opening of this new site will ultimately lead to job creation and a rise in interest and talent among Chicagoans. Lagunitas is still a California brewery with a California identity, and adding its flavor to Chicago’s mix only means fresher beer for the Midwest.

How the opening of Lagunitas will affect its immediate neighborhood of Douglas Park may not be clear for some time. The brewery has high expectations: “The site is spectacular, and it will be cool to play even a small role in the reclamation of a part of the old North Lawndale area,” says Magee. North Lawndale is a West Side neighborhood, adjacent to Douglas Park, and was once Chicago’s largest Jewish community (it housed over 60 synagogues and approximately one quarter of the city’s Jewish population). Later it became the home base of Dr. Martin Luther King’s northern civil rights movement, while today it is a filming location in Showtime’s “Shameless.”

The area has seen recent revitalization in the form of real estate development, but there is a grassroots push for more community-oriented reclamation by residents. Lawndale community organizer Marcus Betts, who’s been running everything from political forums to wine and cheese tastings, is especially optimistic about the near future of the neighborhood. Still, it’s important to keep in mind that while the opening of Lagunitas’s new brewery may potentially provide jobs to local residents, it could also present the appearance of gentrification, rather than “reclamation,” to community members. It will be important, then, as Lagunitas moves forward to their opening in 2013, to consult local community organizers as well as their developers to create the right kind of development.

Lagunitas’s opening in Douglas Park will certainly mean a great deal of change for the both the community of North Lawndale and Chicago’s craft beer community at large. The project is an ambitious one amidst a crowd of ambitious projects. Today it’s hard to believe that the prohibition movement actually started in this city.