“Welcome everybody! Just a few housekeeping announcements!” says the guy at the front of the = minibus. We settle in for the health and safety briefing that’s mandatory in any situation that involves guests or visitors these days.
“You will have noticed that we have a cooler full of beers in the bus. We are a brewery. Please enjoy. But while we are on the brewery lot, I have to tell you that no other intoxicating substances are permitted.”
While he’s speaking the engine revs up and the bus starts to move. Slowly, it pulls out of the brewery car park and on to the main road.
“OK, f**k it, we are now no longer on company property. Anybody fancy a Bourbon or a smoke?”
Our guide passes back a bottle and a vape type thing full of cannabis. Everyone on the minibus cheers. We are in California, where cannabis is now fully legal. It’s 10am. Welcome to Dip Day at Lagunitas.
I take a swig of whiskey but pass on the smoke. I’m already a bit tipsy after a breakfast burrito that weighed more than my head and a Bloody Mary that was at least 50% vodka.
When I was younger, I wanted to be a music writer and never thought I would end up writing about beer. I admired journalists like Lester Bangs or Nick Kent, who would spend weeks on a tour bus with bands such as the Rolling Stones or Iggy & the Stooges, and then turn in blood-spattered reportage that bore a passing resemblance to that of correspondents embedded with troops in Vietnam at the time. This is a bit like that. Except it isn’t, that’s a ludicrous claim. But what do you expect after vodka and Bourbon at this hour?
The rock ’n’ roll comparison isn’t coincidental. Tony Magee, who founded Lagunitas in 1993, always wanted to be a rock star. Since he sold his brewery to Heineken in 2015, he spends more of his time gigging with his band, who are apparently not too bad, than he does in the brewery.
In Tony’s footsteps
The purpose of today’s charabanc is to follow in Tony’s footsteps. We’re going to hang out at some of the places he did and visit the first accounts he ever sold Lagunitas IPA to. And we’re going to do it with the kind of spontaneous, anarchic attitude with which he somehow built the world’s biggest-selling IPA.
Sitting next to me on the bus is a woman who has just started work in the brewery’s human resources department. I’m here with a delegation from Beds & Bars who will be brewing a beer specially for their pubs tomorrow, but we’re sharing the minibus today with a bunch of new brewery employees.
My neighbour tells me that every new starter gets to go on ‘Dip Day’, the ‘dip’ being more of a full-body immersion in the storied culture of the company.
Over the next eight hours, we drink cannabis- infused, dry-hopped soda water on a beach while dolphins come by for a look. We shuck and barbecue our own oysters at a place that, for some unfathomable reason, is not called ‘Go Shuck Yourself.’
We play pool in a proper old-time saloon, and drink Lagunitas in the first bars that ever sold it, all while being told tall tales about Tony and the freewheeling attitude with which he created his business.
Craft beer is, of course, now big business. Some companies – especially those bought by global corporations such as Heineken – can face a real danger of losing the enthusiasm and optimism of their start-up days.
It’s not just breweries – studies show that any start-up company that grows bigger than 150 people loses the intimacy and cohesion that got it to that point. If you want to retain the wide-eyed joy of the early days, you have to work at it and put special measures in place.
It’s not easy to do. Efforts by big corporates to do so can easily look like they’re trying too hard.
Lagunitas recognises that its culture was as important as the truckloads of hops in building the brand’s appeal to the point where Heineken got out their cheque book. Beer politics aside, that culture is still alive and well in Petaluma, California, and forms an interesting case study for any company experiencing growing pains.
Disclosure: Heineken UK paid for the author’s flights and accommodation in California.