Free State beer should hit shelves in ’09

Lawrence & Douglas County Fire & Medical personnel wait for investigators at the site of an Oct. 5, 2008, fire in the former AB Coker Building, 1927 Moodie Road. The building housed a new off-site brewery and bottling facility for Free State Brewing Co.

On a Sunday morning in October, Chuck Magerl received a phone call from the alarm monitoring company that watched over his latest property.

Magerl, the owner of Free State Brewing Co., had recently leased a 12,000-square-foot building in East Lawrence that was being revamped to house the company’s new beer-bottling facility.

“I didn’t get any details from the call and had actually anticipated I was going to walk into a situation where somebody had tried to jimmy a door open,” Magerl said. “On the drive over, from about two blocks away, I started seeing lights and smoke. I had that sinking feeling that it was going to be something that had a real major impact on us.”

Investigators determined an accidental fire at the site was due to an electrical malfunction stemming from a loose connection to an air compressor. Damage was estimated at $1 million to the building in the 1900 block of Moodie Road.

Six months later, Magerl and company are preparing to tap back into their expansive endeavor.

“We’re just about completed with the restoration of the physical component of the building: floors, walls, roof and ceiling. We were able to turn the lights on for the first time (in March). That felt like a major step forward,” he said.

A cue from Greensburg

Since the fire effectively gutted the structure, Magerl was given an opportunity to start from scratch in the overall design of the place. Like the post-tornado town of Greensburg, the disaster opened the door to going green.

Major changes now include a setup that recaptures wasted energy from the refrigeration systems that is used to preheat water in the brewing process. Plus, there are more skylights and ambient lighting installed to help curb electrical usage.

Magerl admits to having second-guessed the decision to move ahead with the bottling plans numerous times.

“You can think of 1,000 different reasons not to do something,” he said. “To some extent you have to gauge those risks. On a one-year or two-year basis, this is probably a terrible time. Even before we suffered the setback with the fire, I was telling people we’ll know in five years whether this was a good decision.”

Plans on tap

Although Magerl claims dealing with the insurance coverage is an “ongoing process,” he believes the company was “well-insured.” He hopes to know by July or August how that will financially play out.

As for the beer itself, bottles of his signature restaurant brands such as Wheat State Golden and Copperhead Pale Ale will be among the products offered.

“It’s still too early for me to be comfortable with any timeline for releasing bottles to the public that goes beyond ‘some time in 2009,'” said Steve Bradt, brewmaster at Free State Brewing Company, 636 Mass. “The bottling line is currently in California for a complete rebuild, and there are still a lot of unknown factors that can influence the schedule.”

Magerl and Bradt have taken business inspiration from microbreweries such as Cleveland’s Great Lakes Brewing Co., Chicago’s Goose Island Beer Co. and Oregon’s Deschutes Brewery.

“We don’t have any illusions that we’re functioning on the scale of any of those three, but there is an opportunity to make use of the experience we’ve had here downtown and move it into a wider market,” Magerl said.

As of now, the game plan is to debut solely in the state of Kansas, then move into the Kansas City market, then on to states such as Nebraska and Iowa.

Ultimately, Magerl said, the fire has simply added a new level of difficulty to an already difficult undertaking.

“But at the same time, Steve and I are real committed to making this work,” he said. “In some circles, it could be regarded as foolish. But as far as we’re concerned, it’s what’s going to carry us the next five years.”