Lawrence’s Free State Brewing Co. celebrates 25 years in business

In 1989, Free State Brewing Co. opened in Lawrence as Kansas’ first brewery since Prohibition.

At the time, the craft beer movement wasn’t moving yet — Free State was one of only about 100 breweries in the United States. Budweiser was the King of Beers, Bitter Beer Face was a bad thing, and the average consumer didn’t know a stout from an IPA.

Today there are more than 2,700 breweries in the United States, according to the Brewers Association. And Kansas’ brewing industry accounts for more than 2,700 jobs and has an economic impact of $257 million.

Despite its growing number of competitors, Free State has managed — through a dedication to quality and a recipe for slow, steady growth — to maintain its reputation as one of the best brewpubs in the Midwest.

Next week, the pioneer marks its 25th anniversary. Here’s a look at Free State’s past and a toast to the brewery’s future.

These days, it seems like a new brewery, brewpub or craft beer bar opens every week. But in the 1980s, Kansas’ liquor laws were so strict that you couldn’t order a beer with dinner at a restaurant. So opening a brewpub, where food and beer are enjoyed side-by-side, wasn’t easy.

It took four years for founder Chuck Magerl to open Free State Brewing Co.

In the mid-1980s, Magerl, who co-founded the Community Mercantile grocery store, was studying engineering at the University of Kansas. But his true passion was in beer, so the homebrewer decided to drop out of school and pursue opening a craft brewery full time.

With San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Co. as his inspiration, Magerl formulated a business plan, gathered investors and lobbied the Kansas Legislature to loosen the state’s tight liquor laws.

After a friend told Magerl about a brewpub called Grant’s Brewery Pub in Yakima, Wash., Magerl started envisioning a local brewpub — a community hub similar to German beer halls or pre-Prohibition beer gardens, where friends and families could gather over good beer and food. Magerl hailed from Kansas City, but he wanted to open his brewpub in Lawrence.

“I wanted to build the life I envisioned here,” Magerl says, explaining that he was drawn to Lawrence’s vitality and small-town feel. “There’s always new things to do, new people to meet. But you walk down the street and run into people you know. That’s good for the heart and soul.”

In the mid-1980s, there was only a handful of brewpubs in the country — the closest were in Chicago and Denver — so getting permission from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was a tricky process.

Magerl stuck it out, and in February 1989, he finally opened Free State Brewing Co. at 636 Massachusetts St., in an old bus depot next to the newly renovated Liberty Hall theater. The two businesses helped rejuvenate the north end of Massachusetts Street, which Magerl says had been abandoned.

Free State’s neighbors included a grain elevator and a moving company. The building that housed the brewery was decrepit, Magerl says, with a leaky shed roof. The stubborn entrepreneur gutted two-thirds of the two-story space and used the reclaimed wood beams to case the floor-to-ceiling windows facing the patio.

Working with Dan Carey, now a co-owner and brewmaster at New Glarus Co. in Wisconsin, Magerl installed a brew kettle, mash tun and three fermentation tanks. On that basic setup, Carey and Magerl brewed recipes for Free State’s first beer, Ad Astra Ale. The full-bodied ale is named after Kansas’ state motto, Ad Astra Per Aspera, which means “To the stars through difficulties.”

Another early Free State beer was Wheat State Golden, a light wheat beer. That beer was the best-seller among Free State customers who were new to craft brews, says Steve Bradt, one of Free State’s first bartenders.

“They wanted the Golden, or the ‘closest thing to regular beer,’ 

” Bradt says, “which meant Bud Light.”

As time went on, Free State customers became more adventurous, and Bradt took an interest in brewing.

When the brewpub opened, Magerl was head brewer, general manager and top decision-maker. As the business grew, he gave his employees more responsibility. Bradt, who took the bartending job at Free State to make money for grad school, was the brewpub’s first full-time assistant brewer.

Bradt saw the job as a new career path and dropped his grad school plans.

“I remember talking to Chuck in the early days,” Bradt says, and coming up with Free State’s mission. “We wanted to be the yardstick for the other breweries certain to come.”

Kansas City’s Boulevard Brewing Co. sold its first keg of beer in November 1989, nine months after Free State Brewing Co. opened in Lawrence. Kansas City’s first brewpub, 75th Street Brewery, opened four years later in 1993.

Boulevard’s founder, John McDonald says he and Magerl go way back.

“We were both at KU at the same time, back in the hippie ’70s,” McDonald says. McDonald also knew Magerl from working at the Community Merc, so the men consulted each other when they started drafting their beer businesses.

“We had quite a few conversations in those early days,” McDonald says.

While McDonald was tweaking recipes for Boulevard Pale Ale and Unfiltered Wheat, Bradt was coming up with recipes that came to define Free State beer.

The first recipe he developed was for a lightly sweet fall seasonal brew with Munich malt and German Hersbrucker hops. Twenty-five years later, Octoberfest is still one of Free State’s most popular beers.

In 1991, Bradt set out to make a hoppy beer. Hops are flowers used to balance the sweetness of malt with bitterness. Depending on the variety, hops can add citrus, pine or floral flavors to a beer’s flavor and aroma.

Bradt has brewed his hoppy pale ale with four varieties of hops grown in the Pacific Northwest: Centennial, Cascade, Chinook and Columbus.

Shortly after finishing the recipe for what he named Prairie Pale Ale, Bradt was relaxing at a friend’s house outside of Lawrence on a warm summer night.

“I stepped off the porch barefoot,” he says, “and felt something hit my ankle.”

He knew it was a snakebite when he saw two red dots, and his leg swelled to the hip. When Bradt returned to work, his Prairie Pale Ale had been tapped and renamed Copperhead Pale Ale by Magerl.

Copperhead Pale Ale, now one of Free State’s flagship beers, was instantly a hit: “People were proud of themselves, that they could drink something so hoppy,” Bradt says.

Since then, the popularity of hoppy beer styles (such as IPAs) has exploded. The same goes for beer aged in barrels and brews high in alcohol.

“Beer goes in waves, and it always has,” Bradt says. Not all of them are good.

In the late 1990s, there was a boom of brewpubs operated by people who were more interested in making money than quality beer, Bradt says. As a result, a lot of bad beer flooded the market and turned off many would-be craft beer drinkers.

Free State rode out that wave, which was followed by a bigger one.

Around the mid-2000s, another craft beer movement bubbled up. This “second coming of craft beer,” as Bradt calls it, was spearheaded by people who understood beer — and knew how to make it taste good.

According to the Brewers Association, the number of breweries in the United States started rising in 2006. Back then, there were 1,460 breweries in the country. At the association’s last head count in December 2013, there were 2,722, which means the number of American breweries nearly doubled in seven years.

As more people in Kansas and Missouri developed a thirst for craft brews, the demand for Free State beer grew. The brewpub started selling more of its kegs to select restaurants and bars in Lawrence, Topeka, Wichita and Kansas City.

Magerl and Bradt installed more equipment to meet demand, packing in the kettles and tanks with the organizational efficiency of a submarine. As Bradt and other Free State brewers made more Ad Astra Ale and Copperhead Pale Ale to fill orders, the beer list at the brewpub dwindled. There wasn’t enough time and space to experiment with new brews.

When Magerl started turning down orders, he knew it was time to expand operations — if only, he says, to reward employees like Bradt who, after years with Free State, were ready to grow into new positions.

In 2007, a 1950s warehouse in east Lawrence became available. The warehouse in the shadow of a grain elevator was just 2 miles from the brewpub and within walking distance of Magerl’s house.

Magerl and Bradt reworked the plumbing, gutted the electrical system and installed brewing equipment bought from Widmer Brothers Brewing Co. in Portland, Ore. But right before they started brewing beer in the new facility, an air compressor overheated, sparking a fire that ruined equipment and sidelined Free State’s new facility another nine months.

Free State started brewing in its east Lawrence facility in 2009. When Bradt became head brewer at the facility, he handed creative control of the brewpub to Geoff Deman, who worked as a busboy during Free State’s early days. Deman experiments with smaller, limited-edition batches — everything from barrel-aged beers to strong ales and super-hoppy beers such as Cloud Hopper Imperial IPA.

Earlier this month, Deman released Burroughser Weisse, a play on the sour Berliner Weisse style inspired by late literary icon (and former Lawrence resident) William S. Burroughs. The fuchsia beer got its color from hibiscus flowers.

The brewpub, Magerl says, “is our incubator and our playground — where we get to explore new ingredients and techniques.”

In 2010, Free State commissioned its first bottling line, sending six-packs of Free State’s beer to the coolers of liquor stores across Kansas and Missouri. Currently Free State bottles all of its flagship beers (Ad Astra, Copperhead, Wheat State Golden and Oatmeal Stout) as well as seasonals (Brinkley’s Maibock, Stormchaser IPA, Octoberfest and Winterfest). Free State also bottles two small-batch brews: Iron Man Imperian Stout and Cloud Hopper Imperial IPA.

Magerl says he ensures freshness by limiting Free State beer’s distribution to anywhere he can drive in a day.

“I’m very proud of our beer,” he says. “I want to make sure it’s not orphaned out there.”

Staying small is important to Magerl, who finds truth in this old rural saying: “The greatest fertility is the farmer’s footsteps in his field.”

Free State produced 10,000 barrels of beer in 2013, a year in which Boulevard produced more than 184,000.

Aside from adding distribution in Nebraska and Iowa this year, Magerl says he has no plans to rapidly expand Free State’s reach.

“We don’t have any dreams to be coast-to-coast,” he says.

McDonald, on the other hand, sold the majority of his company to Duvel Moortgat last year. The Belgian brewer plans to expand Boulevard’s distribution along the coasts and to Europe — a new $17 million fermentation facility will help in that expansion.

Despite differing business philosophies, Magerl and McDonald remain friends. Their mutual respect is reflected in their businesses: Free State and Boulevard routinely swap ingredients, and Free State has helped promote Boulevard’s Ripple Glass recycling program in Lawrence.

Cameraderie is common in the craft beer world. McDonald says smaller breweries are good for the movement as a whole because they create jobs and get people interested in beer.

“The world is better off for having these small brewers,” McDonald says. “As craft brewers, we see all this competition like a movement, almost like a religion. So I think that we see it as all of our fortunes rising.”

Free State has definitely helped Kansas’ fortunes rise over the past 25 years. The brewpub paved the way for Kansas breweries such as Tallgrass Brewing Co. in Manhattan and brewpubs such as 23rd Street Brewery in Lawrence, the Blind Tiger in Topeka, and Wichita Brewing Co. in Wichita.

On a frigid January afternoon, Magerl sat in a quiet corner of his bustling brewpub, drinking a Mosaic Pale Ale. The well-balanced brew with a kiss of grapefruit-scented hops was crafted by Deman in honor of a newly completed 7-foot mosaic mural on the brewpub’s wall.

To commemorate Free State’s 25th anniversary, Lawrence artist Lora Jost used shimmering shards of colorful glass to depict red-winged blackbirds soaring through a blue sky over bountiful fields parted by a curving blue river.

The mural, called “Nearly Spring,” reflects Magerl’s idealism about this region and his optimism for its future. Recently he visited Alsace, a fertile sliver of France next to the German border known for beer and wine.

“It’s paradise on Earth for food and beverage,” Magerl says.

When Free State Brewing Co.’s founder returned to Lawrence, he looked around and saw a paradise in the making.

“We’re going to catch up to (Alsace) in 300 years,” Magerl says.

The Kansas brewing pioneer envisions great beer, great food and lots of unique, little places where you can enjoy it with your friends and family. Free State will be one of those places, he says.

So 25 years, Magerl says, “is a good start.”