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Political Donations, Trademark Infringement Lawsuit Put Lagunitas In Spotlight

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Jan 15, 2015 10:00PM

Chuck Sudo/Chicagoist

One donor we failed to mention when we looked at Mayor Emanuel’s campaign contributions last week was Lagunitas Brewing Co. The brewery donated $25,000 to Emanuel’s re-election campaign Dec. 24, which piqued the interest of folks such as Sun-Times political writer Dan Mihalopoulos and Gus Drinking Beer’s Ryan Hermes.

Hermes had some astute observations about the donation. Lagunitas owner Tony Magee talked to anyone who would listen (which was everyone) during the construction of Lagunitas’ Douglas Park brewery they were not accepting tax incentives to assist in the buildout.

As Hermes noted, what Magee wanted instead of TIFs was cutting through any and all bureaucratic red tape that may have prevented Lagunitas from opening the brewery in a swift manner. And even though there were some delays, the time frame from announcing the location to opening the doors was astounding. (The city denied they helped smooth the process along.)

Sometime after the brewery opened last summer, Lagunitas opened the purse strings. Former Gov. Pat Quinn received $25,000 for his campaign and Emanuel’s City Council floor leader, Ald. Patrick O’Connor (40th), received over $10,000 in individual and “in-kind” contributions.

That may disappoint some Lagunitas fans who would rather see Emanuel anywhere but occupying the Fifth Floor of City Hall. Magee, as he’s wont to do, took to Twitter to explain why he made the donations with the understanding that not everything is a black and white issue.

It isn’t the first time Lagunitas has been unconventional, to zag when others expected them to zig. And Magee has every right to donate to Emanuel’s campaign out of gratitude. But as Good Beer Hunting’s Michael Kiser notes, Lagunitas may be a bit too laid-back in its approach, which may not benefit them long-term now that they’re playing with craft brewing's big boys.

Tony publicly complained about Goose Island paying to fly journalists out to their Elk Mountain Hop farm (something AB has done periodically over the years). Perhaps a fair criticism, and I say that as one of those dozen or so journalists who chose to go. Gifts, especially if they go unacknowledged, can undermine a writer’s credibility and win the favor of critics. In fact, it’s the law that a journalist has to disclose that relationship, and AB enforces it through agreements beforehand. But this complaint came only months after Magee's team flew journalists across the country to the Petaluma location for the Fusion #19 project when they were working with bands in the run-up to SXSW and their Couch Trippin’ tour. I was one of the journalists on that trip too. But instead of ensuring that journalists were on the up-and-up, they’d offer you a joint on the way to the brewery in the morning. And while you were hanging out at the brewery all day. And again on the way back to the hotel. They’re so chill. They make sure people know they like weed with the same dedication that a corporate brewery has to a new marketing message — because in the end, it’s the same thing.

Kiser wrote that in an opinion piece about Lagunitas dropping a trademark infringement lawsuit against Sierra Nevada over the latter’s design of the letters “IPA” on their India Pale labels—a move that also drew criticism from craft beer consumers. That and the donations to Emanuel could make more na├»ve consumers wonder what the hell is going on.

“It may be awhile before someone like Lagunitas ever hits the 6MM barrel mark and loses their craft brewer designation from the Brewers Association,” Kiser writes. “but what the last couple days shows us is that before you ever lose the designation, consumers will strip you of the honor.”