Tuesday | 26 August, 2014 | 1:58 pm

Steel history with a head

By Nick Wright

Lagunitas Brewing Co. picks up where Ryerson left off in new Chicago brewery

August 2014 - From a gritty industrial area about four miles west of downtown Chicago, where steel once was king, emanates the enchanting aroma of barley and hops. It’s not an unfamiliar odor in the Windy City, which boasts nearly three dozen craft breweries within the city limits.

Adding to the mix this past March, one of the country’s largest craft breweries by volume planted its flag in Chicago. Lagunitas Brewing Co., based in Petaluma, California, added its second brewery inside a 300,000-square-foot warehouse previously occupied by metals distributor and processor Ryerson Inc. That’s enough space to hold six NFL football fields.

The facility, formerly known as Ryerson’s West Plant, sits near the intersection of south Rockwell Avenue and west 16th Street and is surrounded by other structures that made up Ryerson’s 16th Street Complex (North, South, East and West plants). The complex totals 1.2 million square feet.

Karen Hamilton, head of marketing for Lagunitas’ Chicago brewery, says all the dirt that could be expected from years of processing and shipping metals presented a challenge. Lagunitas leased the building in March 2012 and began brewing two years later. “We had to power wash, over and over, the ceilings, walls and floors. But the cement flooring was very thick and supports [the substantial] weight” of giant stainless steel tanks and other brewing equipment, she says.


Aside from industrial grime, relics of Ryerson’s presence remain—mostly signs—but the company no longer operates at the 16th Street Complex. There are several Pawling & Harnischfeger overhead cranes, gangways loaded with old file cabinets and original fixtures in the employee locker room, green with oxidation from years of use.

“Work previously managed at this facility was dispersed to nearby locations several years ago, and any existing signage on the exterior of the building is outdated, left on by the building’s current tenants,” says Chris Bona, Ryerson’s spokesman.

Steel history

Nonetheless, the West Plant and adjacent buildings are home to about a century’s worth of steel history. Tom Eckert, former general superintendent of the 16th Street Complex from 1999 to 2007, says the 16th Street property was acquired at the dawn of the 20th century, about 30 years after Ryerson’s original facility near downtown burned in the Chicago Fire of 1871.

“I saw drawings of the original South plant dated as early as 1902,” Eckert says. Built next were the Center Plant, North Plant, Service Building, Maintenance Building, General Office and finally the West Plant. At its peak, over 1,000 employees worked at the complex. When Eckert arrived as superintendent, there were about 650. The complex was a hive of around-the-clock activity. Each day, 60 truckloads of steel would come in, and 70 to 90 would deliver to Chicago customers and inter-company plants. 

Ryerson supplied the reinforcing steel to build the famous twin corncob-shaped Marina City Towers in the 1960s. The City of Chicago commissioned Ryerson for steel bridge railings in the early 2000s, as well. Eckert calls the job “an intricate and elaborate series of flame-cut parts installed on nearly every downtown Chicago bridge structure.”

Each building at the complex supported a specific product line. The 16th Street Complex served two purposes: to support customers in the Chicago market, and act as a depot to the rest of Ryerson’s facilities across North America.

The West Plant inventoried mainly carbon steel round bar and flat bar products, but also such long steel products as structural beams, channel and tubing. Processes included horizontal and vertical band saws for cutting through 24-inch cross sections. There were 24 such saws throughout the facility. Twelve overhead cranes maneuvered material over six bays (two cranes in each bay). The plant underwent three expansions, the last of which occurred in the 1980s.

“The showpiece of the West Plant was a sophisticated vertical storage and retrieval system in the original Bays 1 and 2. The installation boasted over 4,000 storage locations,” says Eckert. Product retrieval was all automated—a cutting-edge feature back in the 1960s when the West Plant was built. “It was truly impressive and one of the highlights of any visitor tour of the complex.”


Built for brewing

Ryerson vacated the West Plant in 2007 after new ownership deemed the operation too costly to maintain and inefficient to operate. Built for a different era, the site faced logistical hurdles with residential neighborhoods surrounding it on three sides, making quick access from an expressway impractical. Eventually, the property was sold, shifting the warehousing and processing to smaller, newer facilities in Dekalb, Illinois; Eldridge, Iowa; and Burns Harbor, Indiana, says Eckert.

Luckily, the aged buildings weren’t razed like many others of their kind. The space, with high ceilings well suited to multi-story stainless steel tanks, ample floorspace, clean office areas and parking proved ideal for demands of the fifth largest craft brewery in the United States.

Tony Magee, founder of Lagunitas (and Hamilton’s brother), is a Chicago native. Aside from a desire to return to the Midwest, Chicago’s central location as a distribution hub made the choice easy for a second brewery. It will distribute to all points east of the Rocky Mountains, while the California brewery will cover the West Coast.

Currently, Lagunitas’ brewhouse has capacity for 250 barrels (one barrel equals 31 gallons, or two kegs) and a 500-bottle-per-minute bottling line. Its keg filler fills one keg per minute. A second 250 barrel brewhouse has been ordered and is slated for delivery in November, along with a second bottling line, keg filler and filtration system.

“Long-term capacity will be 1.6 million barrels per year in this facility alone,” says Hamilton. 

Other buildings from Ryerson’s 16th Street Complex were sold in 2011 to Cinespace Chicago Film Studios, one of the largest film studios in the country outside of Hollywood. Now, actors and film crews don’t have far to go for an after-work refreshment. MM

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