General Articles
Lagunitas: A Brewery With Heart / by Stephanie Derammelaere / January, 2019

There aren’t many charitable events, fundraisers, volunteer recognition events, and other benefits in the North Bay that don’t feature Lagunitas beer. The company, while known for being nonconformist, innovative interpretations of traditional beer styles, and humorous stories on its packaging, has also become synonymous with giving, as so many nonprofits rely on them for product donations, sponsorships.

Giving back is a practice that has been woven into the Lagunitas Brewing Company’s philosophy almost from its inception in 1993. The company began by founder Tony Magee experimenting with a home brew kit in his kitchen in West Marin in late 1992. By 1993, he was selling kegs out of the back of his Ford pickup to local bars throughout Marin County. He fit eight kegs in one load, and one keg would always seem to be donated to a local nonprofit organization along the way. At the time, he didn’t have a lot of money to give, but he did have the beer.

“Tony and his wife Carissa Bradner were always quiet philanthropists,” says Jim Jacobs, director of community giving of Lagunitas Brewing Company. “The philosophy to support the community has been a pillar of our existence as a company since the beginning. Tony and Carissa have instilled that in each and every employee.”

As the company grew, so did their giving. And fortunately for the thousands of nonprofits they support, their growth has been phenomenal. Within only a year after founding the business, Tony Magee moved the brewery to Petaluma when they outgrew their West Marin location, and they quickly became one of the fastest-growing craft breweries in the United States. In 2010, their production rose to 106,000 bbl (barrels, with one barrel equaling 31 gallons) from 27,000 bbl in 2004. A year later, the company had 92 employees with distribution in 32 states. In 2012, Lagunitas expanded and increased their brewing capacity to 600,000 bbl. The same year, they announced plans to open a brewery in Chicago with an additional 600,000 bbl capacity, which opened in 2014. A brewery followed in Seattle, and the company has plans to open another in Azusa, Calif. By 2013, Lagunitas Brewing was the fifth top-selling craft brewery in the United States.

In 2015, the brewery announced that Heineken International would acquire a 50 percent stake in the company to help it expand its operations globally. Because of that transaction, Lagunitas could no longer be considered a craft brewery under the Brewers Association definition of "craft," since Heineken's stake was greater than 25 percent. Less than two years later, in 2017, Heineken purchased the remaining portion of Lagunitas, making it the sole owner of the brewery. Founder Tony Magee is still closely connected to the company, but hired Maria Stipp as chief executive officer in June 2015. Most importantly for the nonprofits that have come to depend on their support, Lagunitas’ level of giving did not change when the company became part of Heineken.

Many ways to give

Lagunitas Brewing Company started its giving program by simply giving kegs of beer to local nonprofits. Today, the company has a number of programs focused on giving back to the community. A cornerstone of their program is still donating beer for charitable fundraisers and events. Thousands reach out to the company every year requesting donated product, but the brewery also researches nonprofits and reaches out to them. In fact, company representatives have gone around the country, hosting nonprofit mixers to learn more about the local issues and to get to know the organizations.

“It’s been fascinating and especially rewarding when we explain we don’t ‘require’ anything back,” says Jacobs. “We’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do. It’s also rewarding from our perspective to be part of something larger than ourselves. Without community, we can’t solve the issues in our own backyards.”

Lagunitas supports all different types of nonprofits, with few exceptions. The organizations must meet all state and federal guidelines, operate within all Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) regulations, and Lagunitas prefers requests to be made one to three months prior to an event.

Besides donating products to events, their tap rooms in Petaluma and Chicago, as well as their TapRoom pub in Seattle, are closed to the general public on Mondays and Tuesdays, exclusively to offer nonprofits free space and staffing. In addition, 100 percent of the beer sold on those nights is donated to the nonprofit. Furthermore, the brewery has a “Community Room” in Portland, Ore., that is open to nonprofits seven days a week, all year long.

“It’s set up as a pub with beer, but it’s never open to the public like a bar,” says Jacobs. “It’s a space for the nonprofit community to use for fundraisers, meetings and any other way they choose. Any beer sold during fundraisers is donated back to the nonprofit.”

In 2018, Lagunitas projects they will give away about 100,000 case equivalents across all their programs. They will have worked with approximately 4,000 nonprofits that year, with almost half this amount being local organizations in the North Bay.

“Having worked at Lagunitas for 15 years, I’ve seen an explosion of growth and opportunity in the craft beer industry,” says Jacobs. “But it’s so much more than just the liquid we sell. Every morning I get up, and am excited to open my computer and get to work. The letters and calls we receive often bring us to tears, literally. I never know what new opportunity will arise, but I know that by the end of the day, our team will have helped—even in little ways—communities across the country.”

Some local nonprofits have had the good fortune of working with Lagunitas for years, having them donate beer, swag for auction items, and even financial grants, such as Friends of the Petaluma River, Spreckles Performing Arts Center, Arlene Francis Center, Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, The River Otter Ecology Project, and Redwood Empire Food Bank. The brewery has had a 20-year relationship with the Sebastopol Community Center.

“They are like family,” says Jacobs.

Elevating giving to the (big) top

Ten years ago, Lagunitas started a “Beer Circus,” a now annual event with circus-inspired entertainment as a way to raise money for specific organizations. In 2018, 10,000 people, 30 guest breweries, and hundreds of performers participated in the beer circuses from Petaluma to London, and $86,494 was raised for the Wild at Heart Foundation, CRISP, Urban Artworks, and the Petaluma Phoenix Center.

Last year, when Lagunitas hosted its Beer Circus at the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds, 6,600 attendees helped the brewery raise $31,728 for the Phoenix Theater in Petaluma, which was in desperate need of a new roof.

“Tom Gaffy has run the Phoenix since the mid 1980s,” says Jacobs. “He’s a tutor, a mentor to students, and in my opinion a guardian angel for the youth of Petaluma. He is always in the background doing great work with little fanfare or recognition. He is an amazing man. The Phoenix provides music education, mentoring, tutoring and medical support to students who otherwise may fall through the cracks of our current educational system.”

A hands-on approach

Besides donating product or even writing a check, Lagunitas staff even dedicates themselves beyond that to personally help, hands-on, in the communities they serve. While fundraising can be a godsend to nonprofit organizations, sometimes time given can be just as valuable. Consequently, Lagunitas implemented a staff volunteer program in 2018, or “LaguLove,” which gives employees the opportunity to volunteer at local nonprofits during the workweek.

“Our community giving department had been volunteering for awhile, and we wanted to share it with the rest of our staff,” explains Jacobs. “Each month, our community giving team takes one department (based in Petaluma) out to a local Sonoma or Marin nonprofit. We’ve bathed senior dogs at Lily’s Legacy, picked weeds and harvested at Petaluma Bounty, cleaned cages at Goatlandia in Sebastopol, and boxed canned food boxes for Redwood Empire Food Bank in Santa Rosa, to name a few.”

Lagunitas plans to participate in more opportunities that can engage their whole staff. For example, in 2019 Lagunitas will be working with Mentor Me in Petaluma, both by acting as a sponsor of the Great Petaluma Footrace and by participating as The Lagunitas Walking Team.

“We’ve started the [LaguLove] program in Chicago as well and look forward to offering it to our staff in our Seattle TapRoom and Portland Community Space,” says Jacobs. “Our staff loves getting out into the community. We find it only takes one outing and they’re hooked! We’ve made them volunteers for life. Being a part of the community has always been one of the pillars of our existence. My hope down the road is to offer opportunities for fans of Lagunitas to participate with us. We’re in a position to lead. I’d like to think we can make big things happen.”

A great need close to home

Given Lagunitas’ propensity to give back to the communities they serve, it was only natural for them to help out when the firestorm disaster hit Sonoma County in the fall of 2017. In all, the brewery contributed $220,000 in 2017, plus resources, to the fire relief effort. They offered their refrigerated trucks to Redwood Empire Food Bank to bring food to the areas needed, sent staff to volunteer at nonprofits and various areas of need throughout the community, partnered with Redwood Credit Union to donate $100,000 to the North Bay Relief Fund, and even sent kegs of water to Safari West for the animals saved. The brewery donated $1 per beer from every beer sold in all four of their taprooms across the country between October 9th and November 20th of 2017. They also joined the Sonoma Pride fundraising effort by brewing a unique beer with Moonlight Brewing Co., with all proceeds going to the King Ridge Foundation.

Lagunitas’ fire relief contributions did not end in 2017, however.

“We created a special project within the overall disaster relief category called the Amphitheater program,” says Jacobs. “We created the program to help keep fire relief in the minds of the public. There is still lots of work left to do, and many people are still affected in their daily lives.”

The brewery is donating a portion of beer sales from each of the 13 shows held in the Petaluma Amphitheater in 2018 to The Sonoma County Humane Society, Sonoma Family Meal and Habitat for Humanity Sonoma County. Each organization will be receiving $5,000.

“The idea was to help keep fire relief on the minds of the community both from a fundraising perspective but also a fire awareness perspective,” says Jacobs. “Every year our community will face fire season, so why not push out awareness campaigns with a focus on giving.”

The gift of music

Beyond the plethora of local efforts Lagunitas engages in on a weekly basis, their giving went national with a partnership in 2018 with the Newport Folk Festival to provide a music education grant to Turnaround Arts, a Kennedy Center nonprofit. Funds were given to purchase instruments for an underserved school in Providence, R.I. Musician Valerie June is an ambassador for Turnaround Arts and hosted a performance with the students at Newport Folk with their new instruments.

Lagunitas had already established a relationship with the Newport Folk Festival since 2014, an annual American music festival in Newport, R.I., which began in July 1959 as a counterpart to the previously established Newport Jazz Festival. The festival is considered a premier example of artist collaboration and community enrichment. Lagunitas had donated beer to the festival and many of their artists had also performed at the Lagunitas Laguminiamphitheaterette in Petaluma.

“Newport approached Lagunitas after hearing about our giving history and relatively new grant program,” says Jacobs. “The concept was to bring the two brands closer by awarding a nonprofit music education grant. Both the Newport Festival Foundation and Lagunitas Brewing Company each contributed $5,000.”

Lagunitas also offers a grant program to nonprofits, because sometimes, cash is king. In 2018 they received more than 1,000 proposals for the $5,000 grants.

“The biggest [challenge] is the incredible need in communities across the country,” says Jacobs. “As local, state and federal funding dries up, communities are left high and dry scrambling to provide critical services from medical, to shelter, to food and education. Internally, we’re faced with more requests than we can fill in certain times of the year. Yet, my staff is so dedicated and believes in what we do—they’re great. They work tirelessly to fulfill requests. We try to leverage our experience to help as many nonprofits as possible.”

Grant award winners will be announced by late January, and will focus on animal welfare, the arts and music education.

Why giving matters

From Lagunitas’ early days of giving an extra keg of beer to local nonprofits to turn into money for the organization, their philosophy of giving back has not changed. It has also helped increase brand recognition and given them a platform to engage with their communities and the people who are ultimately their customers.

“It’s given us a voice to channel our message to our fans,” says Jacobs. “It’s definitely helped get beers into the public's hands, and welcome people into our tribe. It’s difficult to track whether it helps sell beer, although you’d think it must. But, it’s not the reason we do it. It all stemmed from the early days. We called it being "beer rich and cash poor.” Nonprofits didn’t seem to mind the donations. We’ve helped them turn beer into money for the last 25 years.”

Jacobs has shared his experiences with CSR (corporate social responsibility) with others and states that there are so many ways for companies to get on board with being a responsible business in their communities. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it also helps build a brand, creates a positive business reputation, increases sales and customer loyalty, and can help attract and retain staff.

“We need more companies to engage in CSR,” says Jacobs. “It’s easy to start a program and wonderful for employee engagement and retention. In the larger picture, consumers today expect companies to support their local communities.”

Transcendence Theatre Company

Sonoma-based Transcendence Theatre Company is one of the many nonprofit organizations in the North Bay that is fortunate enough to have a long-term sponsorship relationship with Lagunitas Brewing Company. The company produces seasonal programming of live outdoor Broadway-style concerts, including the award-winning Broadway Under the Stars. Performances are held at Jack London State Historic Park with additional performances taking place in locations throughout the North Bay, including Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, Green Music Center, Marin Center and Lincoln Theater.

“We’re a nonprofit and we reached out to Lagunitas to see if they would sponsor us for cases of beer,” says Courtney Biryukov, event and hospitality manager for Transcendence Theater Company. “Every show that we’ve had, they have given us copious amounts of amazing beer—cases upon cases through our summer series, our holiday series and our spring series. Every time they come through, and it makes all the difference. We enjoy collaborating with them.”

Lagunitas first started donating product for the theater’s summer series in 2013, and have continued giving since then. Donations which number more than 100 cases per year allow Transcendence to sell beer during the performances,’ pre-show, and intermission periods to earn some revenue, as well as provide some for free to their VIP guests.

Sine 2011, Transcendence has been named by USA Today’s 10 Best as the #2 “Best Outdoor Concert Venue You Shouldn’t Miss” in the U.S., and has received many awards including Theater of the Year by Broadway World and Best Theater Company by The Press Democrat. The Transcendence Company of actors is comprised of musical theatre artists with experience on Broadway, national and international tours, films and television.

“Most of the performers that come are either on Broadway or National Tours and come directly from Los Angeles or New York. They are extraordinarily talented people,” says Biryukov. “But they also love to do service work in the community. We do service work every time a group of actors come in. We work with other non-profits to see how we can reach out to the community and be a part of it. I love that Lagunitas is like that, as well—we are a very like-minded group of people. They’re also always supporting music and the arts.”

Dogs for Diabetics

Dogs for Diabetics (D4D) provides quality medical-alert assistance dogs to insulin-dependent diabetics through programs of training, placement, and follow-up services. Based in Concord, Calif., the organization places these highly-trained dogs with individuals all throughout the Bay Area. They save lives from the acute risk of hypoglycemia that can result in loss of consciousness, coma or even death in the space of an hour. The dogs are provided free of charge to those who turn to Dogs for Diabetics for support, and Lagunitas has sponsored specific dogs over the years.

 “Lagunitas has one 750 barrel fermentation tank named Armstrong after a service dog at Dogs for Diabetes,” says Jacobs. “Each time that tank is ‘turned over,’ meaning drained and bottled and kegged, Lagunitas has placed a portion of the proceeds, which has been donated to D4D. The monies received from the Lagunitas Armstrong Tank supports life-saving training and lifetime support of Medical-Alert Service Dogs and Diabetes Buddy Dogs for insulin-dependent diabetics. The dogs are helping empower, transform, and save lives in the diabetic community.”

Lagunitas has also assisted D4D through the development and promotion of the DOGtoberfest, a celebration of Dogs, Beer and Fun.