Free State to start bottling beer

New production center in east Lawrence to enable regional distribution of beverages

Brewer Kevin Prescott makes his way through Free State Brewing Co. as he prepares a batch of beer for fermentation Thursday. The popular brewery at 636 Mass. is expanding its beer production capability by leasing a building at 1927 Moodie Road. The goal is to make the company's beer products available for regional distribution.

Free State Brewing Co. is expanding its beer-making prowess into east Lawrence, part of a strategy to bolster the company’s specialty beers and boost sales into regional markets.

Free State will continue to own and operate its popular brewpub at 636 Mass., the first legal microbrewery in Kansas since Prohibition, but that operation soon will get some relief.

That’s because now, thanks to a change in state law sought by Free State proprietor Chuck Magerl, the company next year will open a brewing-and-bottling operation in a warehouse at 1927 Moodie Road.

The new production center will allow Free State to continue making about 2,500 barrels of beer each year downtown, while adding another 25,000 at the new location.

The extra beer capacity means that Free State will go beyond selling kegs to a handful of bars and restaurants in Lawrence, Topeka, Kansas City and Wichita – already stretching the limits of the company’s brewing equipment – and instead add customers throughout Kansas and into Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska.

The brewery also looks to start bottling beer and selling it in retail liquor stores, possibly by the end of 2008.

“Our anticipation is that by next year at this time, it will be part of the holiday offerings,” Magerl said. “You’ll be able to have bottles with your Thanksgiving dinner.”

Free State is expanding as the U.S. craft beer industry continues to grow and add market share.

Such operations increased production by 11.7 percent last year, and they’ve already upped the beer flow by 11 percent through the first half of 2007, said Cindy Jones, a spokeswoman for the Brewers Association, a trade group in Boulder, Colo. Last year’s sales hit $4.2 billion, a number expected to rise to $4.7 billion this year.

Free State’s project has been years in the making. Magerl and others with Free State have been looking for a way to build on the tremendous popularity of its products, without losing the unique atmosphere and character that come with being a Lawrence institution.

The answer comes on Moodie Road, inside a warehouse used for years by A.B. Coker, which closed in July. The 10,000-square-foot building is more than big enough to accommodate the massive brewing system that Magerl purchased from Widmer Brewing Co. in Portland, Ore., a company that had used the equipment to make 70,000 barrels of beer last year.

“It has the capability of production in magnitudes that we never even would dream of utilizing fully,” Magerl said. “We have no illusion of producing that much beer.”

But 25,000 barrels – that’s 50,000 kegs – is not out of the question, he said. And that’s still a considerable jump, considering Free State sold 800 barrels last year to a relative handful of restaurants and bars.

“We’ve had to tell our wholesaler, Standard Beverage, to put the brakes on and not go out and get any more new accounts, because we’re pushed to our limits,” Magerl said. “This will allow us to pursue that once again.”

Expanding production capacity in east Lawrence, Magerl said, also will help ease pressures on operations on Massachusetts Street.

And that has Steve Bradt smiling.

Bradt, Free State’s brewmaster, said that operating at capacity certainly was a good problem to have. But next year, after the center on Moodie Road opens, he plans to have room on Massachusetts Street to resume production of some specialty beers: Old Backus Barleywine, Owd Mac’s Imperial, and any in a series of Eccentricity brews that call for aging in old whiskey barrels for a year, maybe two, before being poured for a discerning public.

“Brewing is both an art and a science,” Bradt said. “Both of them have a lot of appeal to me, but the artistic part – the opportunity to make new flavors – is a very exciting part of the job.”

Free State has no immediate plans to add employees as part of the expansion, which is set to go online in the middle of 2008, Magerl said. But eventually he could foresee adding to his team of four brewers – Bradt, Jeff Deman, Kevin Prescott and Luke Otter – once production ramps, and perhaps some outside sales positions to help expand the Free State brand.

Magerl said that Free State had the opportunity to do the expansion in other communities in northeast Kansas, but wanted to stay close to home.

“We’re still pretty gung ho on Lawrence,” Magerl said. “Part of that is that we want to maintain the same flavor, and we want to maintain our name recognition. We want it to be a Lawrence product through and through.”