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Wisconsin beer and breweries: News and reviews
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Door County Brewing fires up its new brewery in Baileys Harbor
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The McMahons are ready to brew year-round in Door County.
Credit:Robin Shepard

Door County isn't just for summer tourists. Among the cherry blossoms that it's known for, the region is now starting to support more craft beer. Originally launched early last year, Door County Brewing is opening its new production brewery in Baileys Harbor this Memorial Day weekend.

Owner John McMahon and his sons Danny, 27, and Ben, 22, approach brewing as a family. Danny serves as the company's brewmaster, and with their new operation, the McMahons will make small batches of specialty and one-off brews. They plan to release these creations not just to taverns located around Door County, but to select bars and venues catering to beer enthusiasts throughout Wisconsin. And that means they have their eyes on Madison.

"I look at the activity that goes on there, and I think of big flavorful beers and a hoppy market," says John McMahon about beer drinkers in south-central Wisconsin. "Madison is one of those towns that really connects beer with food."

Madison has had a taste of Door County Brewing since last summer, when the company started producing its beers under contract with Sand Creek Brewing of Black River Falls. Six-packs of Door County's Polka King Porter and Little Sister Witbier regularly turn up on Dane County beer shelves. And just a few weeks ago, its two newest beers, Pastoral Farmhouse Ale and Bière De Siegle Rye Farmhouse Ale, started appearing in four-packs. These two brews, along with its Norwegian Black Ale and Grisette (a low-alcohol farmhouse ale made with lemon peel and Brettanomyces) all recently debuted during a tap takeover at Merchant during this year's Madison Craft Beer Week.

One Door County Brewing release that has garnered a lot of attention among craft beer enthusiasts is its Goat Parade Smoked Imperial Stout, a limited release sold in 22-ounce bottles. Made with molasses and a strong accent of cherry wood-smoked malt, it's a deep black and full-bodied brew, rich in chocolate maltiness.

"We wanted to make a big imperial stout that wasn’t over the top in texture, but to play off the high gravity to [create] something you don’t expect," says John.

The name Goat Parade is meant to reflect the prevalence of goats in Door County, and the McMahons have actually raised goats themselves. "Once one goat starts to move, they all move, so the joke is that it's a goat parade," John says. The city of Sister Bay pays tribute to the county's goats with its annual Roofing of the Goats Parade each May. Like other of Door County Brewing's initial releases, Goat Parade is based on Danny's home brew recipes.

Most of the beers so far have names with interesting back-stories to those familiar with life on the Door Peninsula. Polka King is a tribute to Freddie Kodanko, a well-known figure in Door County who would drive his red tractor to taverns throughout the peninsula to play polka music and enjoy a beer or two. An image of Freddie's tractor is on that beer's label. Little Sister Witbeer, meanwhile, is named for one the two islands off Sister Bay.

Originally from Texas, John McMahon lived for a time in Chicago before making Baileys Harbor his home. In 2011, he helped found the Door County Beer Festival, held each summer in a park on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Door County is considered by many as a spot for seasonal living; getting young people to stay once they finish high school is a challenge and McMahon's sons were no exception. Both went away to college, Danny to Hamline University in Minnesota and Ben to the University of Santa Fe in New Mexico. The prospects of opening a brewery and offering them a way to earn a living in Door County, year-round, was a major incentive in building this brewery, explains John.

The new Door County Brewing facility is based in a renovated, century-old building that has served as a barn, feed mill and grocery store. The McMahons have been working on rehabbing the structure since purchasing it in 2012. "It had been the eyesore of Baileys Harbor; it sat vacant for years," says John. The old barn's makeover was done in ways to bring out the old farm and feed mill character. "When we took it apart, we found the original structure. It was a real discovery -- we were able to use the old bones of the building and not hide them," he notes.

The building sports a retro farming look and feel. The entrance is made from the barn's former sliding door; an archway of stones was constructed from the building's original foundation. The basement has been turned into cellaring space, which the McMahons will use for barrel-aging and producing a line of sour beers.

Brewing is done on a seven-barrel system, which was mostly purchased new from Quality Tank Solutions of Oconomowoc. The Baileys Harbor brewery will be used for brewing small batches, one-off, kegging and a limited amount of specialty bottling. For the time being, the company will continue to have Sand Creek Brewing produce and package its regular year-round beers.

John McMahon is content for now with a focus on experimenting with beers that will be in limited release and on draught at the brewery itself. The new Door County Brewing taproom hosts a grand opening party on Saturday, May 24. Among the brews that will served there this summer are its Norwegian Black Ale and Coconut Milk Stout.

The McMahons hope ongoing success will allow them to move all production to Baileys Harbor. "We are going to have to expand from where we are in order to fulfill the demands for what we have," says John, "so we hope to eventually build a larger brewery."

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