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Central Standard

Free State Brewing Company's Chuck Magerl On Family History And Brewing Beer

Paul Andrews/paulandrewsphotography.com

Chuck Magerl grew up surrounded by family history.

During Prohibition, his grandfather was sent to Leavenworth Penitentiary for distributing alcohol.

One great-great grandfather was the sheriff of Jackson County, Missouri --  in 1869, the governor of Missouri sent a letter, authorizing him to capture Frank and Jesse James, dead or alive.

Another ancestor ran a saloon in Kansas City; a ledger book shows he paid $7 per barrel of beer in 1909.

And, Magerl has made history of his own. He was a pioneer in the local craft beer and artisan food movements, long before those were really a thing. He also helped change the liquor laws in Kansas to open the Free State Brewing Company in Lawrence — the first legal brewery in the state after Prohibition.

“It’s a fun legacy to be able to draw on,” Magerl told host Brian Ellison on KCUR’s Central Standard.

While growing up in Kansas City, Magerl spent his Saturdays working at his grandfather’s small grocery store on the Westside, bagging and boxing groceries and delivering them up and down the hills of the neighborhood.

One of his early heroes was Albert Schweitzer, the physician and humanitarian. Inspired, Magerl went to KU and to study biology and pre-med.

“I got distracted in the course of that,” he said. “Within a few years, food became the calling again.”

In the mid-1970s, he was one of the founders of The Community Mercantile in Lawrence, a natural foods grocery co-op (now called The Merc).

Working at his grandfather’s store helped demystify the business for him.

“I had a chance to run in and out of the back room at my grandfather’s store,” he said. “I was able to look in the meat case and see what were exotic items to me at that point: pig’s feet, ox tail, snout, liver … it gave me the sense of how people provided that for their customers.

“I think that’s a really important part in anybody’s life is once you see the back room and you understand how that works, it gives you the ability to say, ‘yes, I can give that a go.’”

His grandfather was somewhat skeptical about his grandson’s foray into the business.

“Is this a co-op? Why aren’t you just joining an AG, an associated grocers?” he recalled his grandfather asking. But at the same time, he said, his grandfather felt a certain sense of pride that Magerl was continuing in the family business.

At that time, there wasn’t anything like The Community Mercantile in Lawrence. The grocery business was consolidated and uniform in some ways, he said. Groceries were delivered on trucks and put on the shelves, no questions asked.

“Mainstream was the word of the 1970s, both in the beer business and the food business. The variety was dwindling,” he said.

That was the low point in terms of beer variety and quality in the United States, he said. There weren’t many breweries — especially small, local breweries.

Not long after opening The Community Mercantile, Magerl was writing an article for a community tabloid about the history of brewers in Lawrence. During the course of his research, he wondered why Kansas used to have around 130 breweries in the 1870s. But nearly 100 years later, there were none.

“So that historical component was really the inspiration to try something new,” he said.

The answer of the disappearing breweries riddle was Prohibition. Once, the alcohol industry was big in the state, but people became concerned about its effects.

In 1881, Kansas was the first state to enact a ban on alcohol. And when Prohibition was repealed on a federal level in 1933, Kansas held on until 1948, when it began to modify some of the law.

“It’s been a slow process ever since,” Magerl said.

He had started brewing beer at home, and he took classes in brewing at the University of California, Davis. One day, a friend who had just returned from a visit to a small brewery in Yakima, Washington, told him about a new thing: brewing beer and selling it at the same location.

Credit Paul Andrews/paulandrewsphotography.com

“That prompted me to think, yeah, the idea of making beer and immediately turning around to sell it to the consumer would eliminate a whole series of test groups, consumer surveys. You immediately see, do people like this? Or what resonates with them, what’s the enjoyment level, what can we do better,” he said.

But first, the liquor laws had to change.

At that point, in the mid-1980s, if you wanted to go out to dinner, you couldn’t order beer or a glass of wine with your meal. You had to be a member of a private club of that restaurant in order to do so.

“Basically, we overhauled the entire code of alcohol law in Kansas,” he said.

He spent time in Topeka, talking to legislators. It was difficult, he said, because he didn’t have any models to show them; he couldn’t say, “Go to Des Moines, you’ll see something like this.”

“And talking about breweries … really, the only thing people had as a reference was, ‘I’ve been to that one in Golden, Colorado’ or St. Louis,” he said. “I had to explain, that’s not really what we’re talking about … more local, anchored in the immediate community.”

It came down to the last days of the session, he said, but he was successful, and Free State opened in an abandoned bus depot on the north end of Massachusetts Street in 1989.

Several years later, the same friend who told him about the brewery in Yakima was running a grain exchange to preserve heirloom grains. That friend, Thom Leonard, had a small bakery in Salina, Kansas. He wanted to move it to Lawrence, so he approached Magerl, and along with a chef, they opened WheatFields Bakery.

Now, craft breweries and artisanal food products are common in Lawrence and Kansas City. Magerl is pleased by the shifts in the food and beverage scene.

“We’re seeing extraordinary strides; it’s wonderful to see the variety out there,” he said. “People are connecting with food and beer in a way that’s not imaginable 15 years ago.”

He still feels like a pioneer.

“I still do in the sense that I’m involved every day, I haven’t retired from this business, and I’m constantly learning,” he said. “I’m reading technical bulletins, I’m reading information from all over the world having to do with beer and barley. It engages me every day.

“I think in some ways, one of the best phrases I can imagine is greeting somebody with, ‘Good to see you. Can I get you a beer?’” he said.

“What a welcoming sentence that is.”

Portrait Sessionsare intimate conversations with some of the most interesting people in Kansas City. Each conversational portrait is paired with photographic portraits by Paul Andrews.

Jen Chen is associate producer for KCUR's Central Standard. Reach out to her at jen@kcur.org.