When life hands us lemons, we’ve been taught to make lemonade. But in the case of Danny McMahon, the head brewer of Door County Brewing Company, he made beer. In 2012, he was on the brink of realizing his dream of starting a brewery with his friends, who wanted to open a restaurant with an on-site brewery. They were close to opening—only two months—and discovered that the Tied House Law wouldn’t allow for a restaurant to host a brewery on-site. His friends had to step out, and the plans to open a brewery were no more.
Or so they thought.
Danny and his father, who had been working on the business and technical aspects of the restaurant and brewery, got together. They decided that since they’d put a couple of years into the venture and were so close to opening day, they’d keep pushing forward.
“We’re a family-owned, relatively small operation,” Danny says about Door County Brewing. “The first year, myself, my dad, my little brother, and my mother were running the whole thing. It was just the four of us for the longest time. It ended up being a blessing in disguise, but it was kind of a weird start for us.”
The community of Bailey’s Harbor, where Door County Brewing is located, is just as tight-knit as Danny’s family. Eighty-five percent of the residents have lived there their entire lives and are second- and third-generation residents. The community has a huge Belgian heritage. Located on the Door Peninsula, Door County Brewing is in a unique location—a block to the east is Lake Michigan, and to the west it’s all farmland. Location plays a large factor in the operations, as the area is very seasonally driven. The farmers are busy working during the summer months, but in their absence, the community makes room for almost 500,000 tourists—Danny facetiously divulges that Chicagoans refer to Door County as the Cape Cod of the Midwest. Along with a few stores and coffee shops, the brewery is one of the few businesses in Bailey’s Harbor that’s busy enough to keep a handful of employees year-round.
Tourism aside, their location is a large part of why Door County Brewing has specialized in saisons and Belgian-style beers. They use ingredients that are found close by, which gives the beer a great sense of place. In addition to the locally sourced ingredients, the feed mill in which the brewery and taproom are located also houses their emerging barrel program. Once they move into their larger location down the street in 2017, they’ll start brewing more acidic beers that need to sit for three years in the mill.
“We’re very much into bugs, yeast, and whatever else is growing in the brewery, and that’s how we inject our house flavor into the beers, through open fermentation. We haven’t started any strictly lambic-inspired or super-acidic beers, but we do brew saisons that are open fermented and transferred into barrels where we pitch a blend of Brett and other house yeasts we’ve grown over time that we’ve harvested from here. Right now we’re really into Brett and funk and saison.”
That expansion will also provide more space for the extensive test projects that McMahon brews nonstop. He estimated that he has more than 180 different fermentation projects running currently in a variety of carboys, typically wrapped in blankets from Goodwill as a discount approach to temperature control. These projects—testing recipe tweaks, different yeast cultures, hops combinations, and the like—are the product of his incessant brew schedule. McMahon estimates that he brews on their half-barrel pilot system almost every single day—no small feat for a brewery of their size.
When asked what the town’s favorite brew is, Danny laughs and says, “The locals love our porter. It’s a very simple English porter, and it’s popular for two reasons. One is that when we started, there were probably four people in all of Door County who knew what a saison was … and all four of them worked at the brewery. So we started with a porter that is called Polka King Porter. It’s named after an old guy who passed away a while back named Freddie Kodanko.”
He goes on to say that Freddie was a potato farmer who is just as unforgettable as his namesake beer. When Freddie lost his license after too many DUIs, he found out about a loophole that lets residents drive a farm vehicle on the street without a license. Seven days a week at 5:00 p.m., Freddie’s tractor would be parked out front of the local watering hole. “Regardless of the music being played at the bar, he’d bring out a boom box and play polka music. He was the Polka King.”
For the nonlocals, Little Sister is the brew of choice. Danny describes it as “a Belgian-style wheat brewed with orange peel, coriander, and a blend of other kinds of flowers and spices, so it’s a very floral, aromatic witbier.” The companion to their Little Sister brew is Big Sister (naturally), a Belgian-style witbier brewed with coriander and hibiscus. In addition, they brew a pale ale, Ex-Cowboy Nordic Pale Ale, with Door County Brewing’s signature farmhouse yeast strain, so that it has notes of white wine, lime, mango, and grapefruit. And for the winter, they brew Silurian Stout, the perfect combination of vanilla, chocolate, and velvet to stave off winter’s chill.
Much of Danny’s inspiration for his brews comes from his time living in Minneapolis, when he was in college. “There was kind of a big boom in brewing up and down the street. Just seeing a lot of people doing a lot of creative stuff was kind of cool. I’ve always been a fan of beers that use minimal ingredients but somehow get the most flavor out of as little as possible.”
He admits his favorite Door County Brewing beer is their Grisette, which is a 4 percent ABV simple wheat saison. “There’s Pilsner malt, there’s wheat, and nothing else. We ferment it with our house yeast blend, then ferment it for a few more months with Brett. It’s super light, dry, and spicy, and has all the components that I like, but there’s nothing that’s overpowering, and you can drink it all day.”
McMahon’s spirit of experimentation has led him to embrace styles one wouldn’t necessarily expect to find in Wisconsin farmland, such as cloudy New England-style IPAs or their “Pete” pale ale that’s packed with a citrusy, slightly grassy mix of Galaxy, Simcoe, and Mosaic hops.
Using what they have close by is something they’re dedicated to as well. They consider themselves a farmhouse brewery, using local ingredients and producing beers that have a great sense of place and time.
Door County Brewing’s taproom is the heart of their business, especially between Memorial Day and Labor Day, when the tourist population swells. “Our taproom really encompasses what our brewery is about and gives people a sense of our philosophy and how we like to do things. We wouldn’t be here without a taproom.”
The aging and barrel system also live at the taproom. “It’s a great place to experiment with ingredients, different beers, and different techniques. You also get face-to-face reactions from people in the taproom, so you can see how they react to the beers. So when they drink in the taproom then see Door County’s beer at a liquor store later on, they feel that connection.”
Danny and his family love the building that they’re in, but they need more room, so they’re building a much larger taproom down the street that’ll open its doors in 2017. The brewing operations will remain at the mill, which will make room for them to grow from a 7-barrel brewhouse to a 15-barrel brewhouse and allow them to bring on more specialty beers, essentially quadrupling their capacity.
But despite their plans for growth, they’re committed to maintaining their local-centric way of operating, even if it’s on a much larger scale. “We’ll be able to do a lot of the stuff we’re already able to do, but we’ll be able to do more of it,” Danny explains. “We’ll just be able to get more of our beer into people’s hands.”