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Archive for Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Free State Brewery’s success built on humble beginnings of founder Chuck Magerl

Chuck Magrel, is all smiles as years of work and making beer have seemingly paid off. In addition to the iconic Free State Brewery in Downtown Lawrence, Magrel is also involved with Wheatfields Bakery and he is now launching bottled versions of the popular Free State Beer around Kansas.

Chuck Magrel, is all smiles as years of work and making beer have seemingly paid off. In addition to the iconic Free State Brewery in Downtown Lawrence, Magrel is also involved with Wheatfields Bakery and he is now launching bottled versions of the popular Free State Beer around Kansas.

May 25, 2010

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Bottles available

Fans of Free State Brewery are now finally free to have a six pack.

Lawrence-based Free State Brewing Co. last week began bottling its beer for the first time in the company’s 21-year history. Lawrence liquor stores began stocking the product on Friday. And distribution is expected to begin within a few days in Topeka, within about a week in Johnson County, and by the end of June in Wichita. Plans also call for the beer to be sold in parts of Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa.

Magerl plans to keep the company’s business strategy focused on the Midwest. Magerl said he doesn’t have aspirations to grow as large as Boulevard Brewing, a Kansas City-based brewery that has become the largest specialty brewer in the Midwest.

But Free State’s production plant, which employs seven, does have room to grow the business. Magerl purchased equipment from a Portland brewer that is capable of producing 70,000 barrels of beer a year — or about 23 million bottles.

“That is well beyond anything we have planned,” Magerl said. “But we have the capacity to go, and we’ll take it as it comes.”

Chuck Magerl, started brewing beer as way to drink fresh beer and ended up creating the iconic Free State Brewery while faced with that or bankruptcy. Two decades later, Free State's success has reached the point where it is getting ready to offer bottled beer to it's loyal fans.

Chuck Magerl, started brewing beer as way to drink fresh beer and ended up creating the iconic Free State Brewery while faced with that or bankruptcy. Two decades later, Free State's success has reached the point where it is getting ready to offer bottled beer to it's loyal fans.

An assembly line process as Free State's bottling plant at 19th Street and Moodie Road bottles up fresh beer for sale in local stores and bars.

An assembly line process as Free State's bottling plant at 19th Street and Moodie Road bottles up fresh beer for sale in local stores and bars.

Brewer Kevin Prescott packs bottles in cases ready for distribution. Free State Brewing Company has begun distributing its popular beer across Kansas and hopes to expand to other areas in the Midwest soon.

Brewer Kevin Prescott packs bottles in cases ready for distribution. Free State Brewing Company has begun distributing its popular beer across Kansas and hopes to expand to other areas in the Midwest soon.

Free State Brewing Company brewers, from left, Geoff Deman, and Kevin Prescott pack up fresh bottled beer at the end of the assembly line.

Free State Brewing Company brewers, from left, Geoff Deman, and Kevin Prescott pack up fresh bottled beer at the end of the assembly line.

Cardboard cases wait to be assembled and hold fresh bottles of beer at the Free State Brewing Company brewery in East Lawrence. The popular Lawrence company will soon begin distributing beer across Kansas and eventually around the Midwest.

Cardboard cases wait to be assembled and hold fresh bottles of beer at the Free State Brewing Company brewery in East Lawrence. The popular Lawrence company will soon begin distributing beer across Kansas and eventually around the Midwest.

Free State Brewing Company invested a lot of time to get the labels it wanted as it begins to distribute its beer in bottles around Kansas.

Free State Brewing Company invested a lot of time to get the labels it wanted as it begins to distribute its beer in bottles around Kansas.

Chuck Magerl was supposed to be a doctor.

It kind of sounds like the beginning of a story that would be told from a barstool at Magerl’s downtown pub and Lawrence institution, Free State Brewery.

But really, Magerl was supposed to be a doctor. He left his grandfather’s grocery store in an old Slavic Kansas City neighborhood in the 1970s to do pre-med work at Kansas University.

“I had this idealistic vision of being an Albert Schweitzer bringing health care to thousands,” Magerl says.

Then the story takes a very Lawrence-type of turn: Pre-med student becomes distracted by beer.

Yeah, that headline could run in the student newspaper every semester. But wait — as many a student has pleaded before — this really is different. Magerl didn’t get distracted by drinking beer. He got distracted by a much broader idea of beer, food and business. He’s never been able to get it out of his head.

“Some people will come through and say it smells like a horse barn,” Magerl says in his company’s production facility, surrounded by stainless steel tanks and bags of malt and hops. “They think it smells awful. They think hops smell like stinky socks. But there’s no aroma associated with beer that I don’t really love.”

•••

These days, it all looks easy.

Even at 2 in the afternoon on a Wednesday, the dining rooms of Free State Brewery are crowded. Conversations bounce off the stone and mortar walls. Patrons, beneath wood-planked ceilings, sit with dark ale and white bread, both hand-crafted. And from behind the bar, tall stainless steel kettles of home brew seemingly lord over the place.

Everything oozes Mass. Street chic.

But there is a secret here. The beverage upon which Free State Brewery was built is not beer.

Try convenience store milk.

“It’s the classic business start-up story,” Magerl said of those days 21 years ago. “I was living off credit cards, but back then grocery stores didn’t take credit cards. Anytime I needed milk or anything else I went to the Kwik Shop.”

Those times seem “just a blink of an eye” ago, Magerl says. He still remembers being seven days away from filing for bankruptcy, until he convinced a few more investors to come on board to open a microbrewery, a word that in 1989 sounded made-up.

“I still remember very clearly about eight or nine months into our first year, business began to slow down,” Magerl said, “and I had the most sinking feeling that the carnival was over.”

It wasn’t. Magerl, even at 33 years old, had just enough of a little bit of everything to hang on. He had a bit of a science background from his pre-med days. He had an engineering background from KU classes taken when he was trying to convince himself that he was going to be a environmental engineer, not a beer maker. And he had a nuts-and-bolts business background from when he first quit school to become a founding member of the management team of the Lawrence Community Mercantile.

“But mostly, he just convinced us it sounded like a fun idea,” said Phil Minkin, a Lawrence resident who signed on as one of the early investors. “I just knew he was an honest and hard-working guy.”

Minkin doesn’t like to say how many shares he signed up for. Not enough, is the stock answer.

“As I’ve said many times, I wish I had mortgaged my house and bought all I could,” Minkin said. “It has been such an immense success.”

•••

Magerl is driving a forklift.

“Coming through,” he says smiling as he steers the machine through a doorway toward a pallet of empty boxes in the company’s east Lawrence production center. Magerl's

It may be the most fun he has all day. Always dressed for a chore — often blue jeans and a work shirt — it is not often that Magerl gets to have the real fun of throwing a bag of grain over his shoulder and standing above a kettle of wort.

Instead, this business — which now includes Wheatfields Bakery in downtown Lawrence — has become a business. Paying vendors, keeping state regulators happy, worrying about everything from computerized cash registers to cranky refrigeration systems.

“I spend a lot of time taking care of things that nobody should ever notice,” Magerl said.

A team of employees now get to do more of the tasks that Magerl once found fun: the brewing, the food, the socializing.

“I still do provide suggestions on food items every week,” Magerl said. “Now, whether they get implemented or thrown in a trash bin is another matter.”

But associates say the business still has signs of Magerl’s touch everywhere. Magerl, who estimated he puts in a little more than 65 hours a week at the business, said he does try to bring a mindset to the company. It is a broad one that has as much to do with people as it does food or beer: You should embrace variety on all levels.

“What I’m probably most disheartened about is the number of people who draw their circles too tight, with questions of who is us and who is them,” Magerl said. “That’s truly unfortunate.”

That still sounds like the idealist who wanted to save the world through medicine. Magerl admits that there is still a lot of that kid in him. He doesn’t say that he’s trying to save the world through beer. That would just sound tipsy. But he does believe he’s doing more than simply mixing a concoction of hops and malt.

“What I enjoy about beer is that I see it as a social beverage,” Magerl said. “When somebody is sitting at home with a group of friends having a meal, having some snacks, drinking some beer, talking a little too loud and laughing a little too often, that’s my sense of success.”

There you go — a pleasing prescription from Lawrence’s doctor of beer.

Comments

guesswho 4 years, 6 months ago

Too bad the smoking ban will likely put him out of business.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 4 years, 6 months ago

I've known Chuck for more than 30 years, and the success of Free State Brewery (of which I'm a big fan, and I could kick myself for not investing) shows that he's usually right in his business judgements and decisions, but in the case of the smoking ban, he was clearly wrong.

But pobody's nerfect.

guesswho 4 years, 6 months ago

Nope, I love Free State. You missed the sarcasm

Boston_Corbett 4 years, 6 months ago

I bet Chuck pays his taxes, and employees.

Bill Lee 4 years, 6 months ago

The local ordinance didn't, neither will the new state law.

Kat Christian 4 years, 6 months ago

I doubt that very seriously. There's is more than smoking and having a beer at FS.

KawHawk 4 years, 6 months ago

Chuck Magerl is the essence of Lawrence and has made it a great place for everyone to live !

4theHawkS 4 years, 6 months ago

guesswho you are living in a 4 year old dream world if you still think that the smoking ban will/has put bars and restaurants out of business in downtown Mass, let alone the Lawrence institution Freestate.

guesswho 4 years, 6 months ago

Thanks below to bozo et al. It is clearly sarcasm as many owners predicted they would go out of business. I do not see that hysteria As we did years ago as it seems good and worthy businesses (such as Free State) are thriving.

Congrats on a great business, Chuck! (seriously!)

Boston_Corbett 4 years, 6 months ago

I love Chuck and his business. As others do, I recommend his place as a "must do" when tourists/newcomers visit Lawrence.

But as gueswho reminds us in an oblique fashion, Chuck repeatedly insisted that the smoking ordinance would put him out of business.

Every time I went in subsequently, I would personally remind Chuck in person when I saw him that I was there was because of the no-smoking ordinance.

We remind the public of this, because the "sky really didn't fall."

4theHawkS: that is the issue. Since so much opposition to smoking ordinances is based upon stated assumptions that all the restaurants will disappear, we need to remind others that this really is not what happens. I remind Rick Renfro of the same thing. Every few weeks in fact.

WalletInspector 4 years, 6 months ago

I live far away from Lawrence these days, and much of my life revolves around beer tourism, but even after hitting some of the all-time great destinations (Stone Bistro, Russian River, Cantillon, Dogfish Head, etc.) I would put Free State right up there alongside any of them for the beer and for the experience. One of the best places to have a beer in the world.

vuduchyld 4 years, 6 months ago

Awesome establishment...the essence of small business and also Lawrence, KS.

Thanks, LJW, for a great profile!

mysterytrain 4 years, 6 months ago

A great boss, a great business. Bravo Chuck. I believe Free State was the first Lawrence restaurant to offer health insurance to employees, years ago too. Though I no longer work there, my time there impacted my life in some really great ways, including meeting some truly great folks, both co-workers and customers. So thrilled for them about the bottling!

Boston_Corbett 4 years, 6 months ago

I agree it is a well deserved article.

A great establishment, with superior leadership and committed and motivated employees.

das 4 years, 6 months ago

A good guy like this balances out the Compton and cronies of Lawrence (just barely) ...

BigPrune 4 years, 6 months ago

Wouldn't it be funny if Compton is one of the silent partners?

weegee 4 years, 6 months ago

beobachter--Then you are doing yourself and your visitors a great disservice.

Kat Christian 4 years, 6 months ago

“What I’m probably most disheartened about is the number of people who draw their circles too tight, with questions of who is us and who is them,” Magerl said. “That’s truly unfortunate.”

I'm not registering this comment. Can someone please decipher this for me?

Thanks

irnmadn88 4 years, 6 months ago

All I can remember about that "other" beer is that it was a few beers from Colorado... back when FSB still made penny change on the pint.

Tony Kisner 4 years, 6 months ago

Chuck appears to be a poet as well. You will need to decipher for yourself. I thought it was a very interesting, thought provoking comment.

Also as good as the beer is, the food is just as good - very good.

cutny 4 years, 6 months ago

Great article. Love that place. Wish I was still 5 minutes away. Beobachter--Good to hear! One less person I'll have to wait behind next time I am there.

overthemoon 4 years, 6 months ago

The world changed the day Chuck cut off the braid. Ah well, so we all grow up sometime. Some later than others.

Irenaku 4 years, 6 months ago

My parents (mother and stepfather) live in Topeka. Every year, on my step-father's birthday, father's day and July 4th when we all get together, I bring him a jug of Oatmeal Stout. He loves it! Free State rocks, they have the best brew and chow in town, though my son does miss the Portabella burger! Congratulations, Chuck!

3crookedhearts 4 years, 6 months ago

CHUCK! Get some more Copperhead bottles out to the market! Every liquor store I've gone to is sold out! I can only drink so much of the Ad Astra!

JRS 4 years, 6 months ago

http://vids.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=vids.individual&videoid=5121596

This is a short documentary my friends and I did on local breweries when we were in school at KU.

naturalist 4 years, 6 months ago

Love Free State! I always recommend it to people who come from out of town, great beer, and don't forget the great food that I think includes tomatoes from Chuck's own garden. And it seems as if the employees love it, too, because for years the same people have been serving the beer, managing the restaurant, etc. They and their expanding families are like one big family. Signs of a good boss I'd guess.

pizzapete 4 years, 6 months ago

Built on great beer and good food I'd say. Thanks Chuck!

lounger 4 years, 6 months ago

Good story. Chuck is a bright light in lawrence. Its too bad he left the merc years ago because it REALLY went down hill after he left. Now its just full of upper management snobbish yuppies. The only thing that saves the merc is the amazing grunts that work at that location. Freestate has much more of a lawrence vibe that the merc ever thought of anyway....

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 4 years, 6 months ago

Actually, I'd say that operationally the Merc has moved closer to the model under which the Free State operates. From a strictly business standpoint, that's been successful, but as a result, the word "cooperative" in its name has lost much of its former meaning.

oliveoyl 4 years, 6 months ago

Love Freestate. Good food and good beer. I heard a possible rumor the other day that although Freestate is an institution and wonderful, they don't really give back to community or don't follow through on charities functions. Is this true? Just curious.

monkeyspunk 4 years, 6 months ago

While I can't speak for other groups that may have asked, our school used to ask Free State for donations for our fundraiser and they obliged whenever asked.

oliveoyl 4 years, 6 months ago

Okay! Good to know that it may have been just a rumor. Thanks!

rubyshoes 4 years, 6 months ago

I also know that Chuck for many, many years has supported the 4-H kids by purchasing livestock at the annual Douglas County Fair Livestock Auction.

StirrrThePot 4 years, 6 months ago

Great article, I love the last quote. Free State will always be my favorite Lawrence establishment. Way to go, FSB!!!

monkeyspunk 4 years, 6 months ago

Free State is a jewel. If that place closed, so much of what I think of as being "Lawrence" would be lost.

I almost slapped a co-worker a couple of days ago when he trashed the beer. Blasphemous!

I can smell the Oatmeal Stout...oh for the love of God, when will it be time to go home!?!

Kirk Larson 4 years, 6 months ago

I like that he is pictured wearing an Anchor Steam T-shirt. If I can't get Ad Astra, Anchor Steam is my next pick!

meggers 4 years, 6 months ago

I'm with you, Anchor's Away!

Of course, now that we can get Free State sixers for a few bucks cheaper, I'll probably stick with that. ;)

Richard Heckler 4 years, 6 months ago

Free State Brewery serves beer at the best temperatures. Most places serve beer ice cold which does not appeal to me.

The menu works and the food is not too bad.

Another plus for the brewery ..... supports local growers.

Their salads are some of the best around. Never had one that looks like the ingredients had been sitting around for awhile. When we are itchin for a salad on a night out the Brewery is at the top of the list.

Kirk Larson 4 years, 6 months ago

I have family in Manhattan. One of the observations I make to them about how Lawrence and Manhattan are evil twins (depending on which one you live in), at Free State Brewery the menu has some interesting international and vegetarian dishes whereas at Little Apple Brewery the menu has a page of nothing but beef (been awhile, may have changed).

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