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