In spite of its significant natural beauty, Door County is not an easy place to live.
Bounded on three sides by water, it’s cut off from the rest of Wisconsin, different from the rest of the state in the way a thumb is not really a finger. A large majority of the people who make it what it is for six months of the year — visitors and seasonal employees — are nowhere to be found in the off season.
But the flip side of that geographic and social isolation is an intense sense of community, of place, among those who really live there. And that is the philosophy that the new Door County Brewing Co. is putting into its beer, which this fall began appearing for sale in Madison and Milwaukee.
The brewery was founded this January by John McMahon, not a native to the Peninsula but a Chicago transplant who has called it home year round for 20 years. He used the startup to lure his 27-year-old head brewer and son, Danny, back to Door County years after he left for college in Minnesota and swore he wouldn’t return for good.
“Can I get you to move back home if I buy you a brewery?” John McMahon recalls telling his son, who had quickly become an accomplished homebrewer in college.
It worked, and the first batches of Door County Brewing beer hit shelves and taps in June. For now, Danny’s making it on the equipment at Sand Creek Brewing Co. across the state in Black River Falls, but the company’s own brewery is expected to open for business by Memorial Day. The 1800s-era building just outside Baileys Harbor has been a barn, a feed mill and a grocery store, and after extensive renovation will host the brewery and tasting room.
A chat with the gregarious John McMahon gives a sweeping sense of what the Door County identity means to him.
First, they’ll use local ingredients whenever possible. That will include grains, herbs, spices, or maybe even something a local farmer is growing that they don’t know about yet. But even though McMahon lives on a cherry orchard, don’t expect a cherry beer. Too cliche, he said.
Local sourcing is more than just label appeal though.
“The earthiness of Door County — the ground, the trees, the water, the dirt — that’s what our philosophy is about,” McMahon said. “We’re trying to ground our beers in the tradition of where we are, so we can build our community by buying local as much as we can, and make quality products and create these microeconomies around what we’re doing.”
The McMahons considered starting a brewpub but ultimately decided a production brewery was a better fit because “everybody in the community benefits.”
“A brewery, if you make good beer, will be around for a long, long time. And we will be able to hire full-time, year round. I will be able to help 30 people like my son to stay in the place they love year round and be able to live,” John McMahon said. “It’s about creating a long-term legacy of creating great beer.”
The start on that legacy consists mainly of two flagship beers so far: Polka King porter and Little Sister, a Belgian-style witbier. On the horizon are two more year-round beers — a saison and a rye saison — from what Door County Brewing calls its “rustic” series of farmhouse ales. Those should be ready in time for launch during Madison Craft Beer Week in May, McMahon said, as well as one or two seasonals to join the limited Goat Parade smoked imperial stout.
The names evoke Door County as well. The imperial stout was named for the tendency for goats to line up and follow a person outside their pen, a phenomenon that somewhat resembles a parade, McMahon said. The wit is a reference to Little Sister Bay, just across the Peninsula from the brewery’s home.
But the name with the best back story is Polka King. He’s a real man, Freddy Kodanko, whom McMahon called a “bachelor farmer” and self-anointed Polka King for his hobby of playing music at all the local summer festivals, wearing a crown and riding in the parades. Kodanko sounds like he was known for a lot of things, but one of them was driving his red Massey Ferguson tractor every day to the bar in Baileys Harbor. That’s depicted on the Polka King label, as are the slogans — “Hey hey,” “Good beer will make you want to dance” — that are Freddyisms well known by the locals, McMahon said.
A beer called Polka King is too good to pass up. Let’s take a closer look.
Polka King Porter
Brewed by: Door County Brewing Co., Baileys Harbor (on the Lake Michigan side of the Door Peninsula, about 75 minutes northeast of Green Bay)
What it’s like: A lot of good porters made around here; Ale Asylum’s Contorter and Lake Louie Tommy’s are my favorites.
Where, how much: Door County Brewing has made inroads quickly in Madison, with dozens of outlets carrying it. My six-pack was $10 at Jenifer Street Market.
The beer: Polka King pours a lovely mahogany with an aroma of roasty-sweet but clean malt with chocolate accents and a touch of hops. The flavor is more of the same, with a nip of spiciness on the very dry back end. This very well balanced beer has a quaffable medium-light body.
Booze factor: Polka King oom-pah-pah-oom-pah-pahs in at a highly repeatable 5.3 percent ABV.
The buzz: McMahon said his son’s beer is winning over Door County locals, even older folks who they didn’t really expect to become customers. The combination of drinkability and great taste that Polka King and Little Sister bring to the glass lend credence to that claim. McMahon knows his brand has cachet both with tourists and also the tight-knit year-round community — “the name opens the doors” — but it’ll be the quality that will make or break Door County Brewing Co. statewide or even into markets in Illinois and Minnesota. If the next chapters unfold as well as the first, those doors will remain open for a long, long time.
Bottom line: 3½ stars (out of four)