October 17, 2017
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Before the beer boom, there was Danny McGovern — a legend in Maine brewing

By Emily Burnham, BDN Staff

Sitting in the beautifully restored barn that houses Lake St. George Brewing, his newly-opened craft brewery in Liberty, Danny McGovern last week recalled the very first batches of homebrew he made nearly 50 years ago, growing up in Indiana.

“I was a teenager. My parents didn’t seem to have a problem with it,” said McGovern, now 64. “In fact, my family had a history in brewing — I had a great uncle on my mother’s side that was a brewer in Germany, who set up a brewery when he immigrated in the 1800s to the U.S., in Terre Haute, Indiana. I think that had a lot to do with the enthusiasm in the family about beer. I used to hear a lot about it as a little kid.”

McGovern’s youthful experimentations in brewing turned into a lifelong passion and, eventually, a career — one that’s partially or fully responsible for five different craft breweries in midcoast Maine, and that has cemented his place as one of the legends of Maine brewing.

Before there was craft beer in gas stations, before a term like “New England IPA” existed and before there were 96 craft breweries in the state (and counting), Danny McGovern, and a handful of others, were paving the way for what would become an economic powerhouse and major tourist attraction for Maine.

Lake St. George Brewing, which opened in July on a busy stretch of Route 3 in Liberty, is a 15-barrel brewery owned by brewmaster McGovern, his wife, Carol, and his daughters Elizabeth Johnston and her husband, Jeff, and Mary Weber and her husband, Matt. In the tap room and outside beer garden, they serve up a rotating array of classic McGovern brews, including Diver, an English pale ale; #96, a crisp, balanced IPA; Davistown, one of McGovern’s rich, nutty brown ales, and his signature — an oatmeal stout, a style that has been on the tap list at McGovern’s various breweries for the past 25 years.

In the 1970s, when McGovern began homebrewing in earnest, the American beer landscape was a vastly different place. When he bottled his beer, he put it in cleaned-out Pepsi bottles, since regular glass beer bottles were hard to come by. When he brewed up a porter or stout — McGovern professes a love for dark beers — he’d be hard-pressed to get anyone to drink it.

“Nobody wanted to drink them. Porters, stouts, barleywine. Way back then, the macro-breweries controlled everything. Back then, a beer that was out of the ordinary was something like Stroh’s,” he said, referring to the Detroit-made light lager, now brewed by Pabst. “People’s palates have changed tremendously, compared to today.”

In the early 1980s, McGovern and his family — including his young daughters, Mary and Elizabeth — moved to Liberty, where they’ve lived ever since. It was in Maine that McGovern began to more seriously homebrew. After meeting his future business partner Kellon Thames, the idea for starting a craft brewery was hatched, to exist alongside Maine brewing pioneers like D.L. Geary’s, Atlantic, Gritty McDuff’s, Kennebec River and Andrew’s Brewing.

McGovern and Thames launched that brewery in Liberty in 1991. They called it Lake St. George Brewing, named for the crystal clear Waldo County lake just a stone’s throw away.

“We thought it would be good to go back to the beginning, when we were picking a name for this new brewery,” said McGovern, referring to their new brewery. “It brings it all full circle.”

The original Lake St. George Brewing only lasted about three years, however, shutting down in 1994 after McGovern and Thames were unable to keep up with demand. It was with that first brewery that McGovern learned one of the most important lessons of his beer career: start bigger than you think you need to.

“I think a lot of these young, startup breweries are inclined to start with just a two barrel system. And then, if they’re successful, they quickly outgrow their setup. And then they have to put more money in to expand, and it can be really difficult for them,” said McGovern. “Start bigger than you need. Give yourself room to expand.”

After that, McGovern jumped into another start up brewery: Belfast Bay Brewing Company, which opened in 1996 on Searsport Avenue in Belfast, with McGovern as head brewer. It was there that McGovern’s Oatmeal Stout really caught on — Belfast Bay Brewing, now contract brewed in Portland, still makes it, though McGovern left the brewery in the early 2000s.

McGovern then became head brewer for yet another Belfast-based startup brewery: Marshall Wharf Brewing Company, which was founded in 2007 as part of Three Tides, a waterfront martini bar. Marshall Wharf bought Belfast Bay’s old brewing system, and McGovern came with it — as did yet another version of McGovern’s Oatmeal Stout, which, like its predecessor at Belfast Bay, is still brewed by Marshall Wharf.

It was at Marshall Wharf that McGovern became a major figure in the burgeoning Maine craft beer scene. With acclaimed brews like Pemaquid Oyster Stout, Sexy Chaos Russian Imperial Stout, and the notorious, 10 percent alcohol, deceptively easy-drinking Cant Dog Imperial IPA, McGovern helped to put Maine on the map as one of the country’s leading beer destinations.

“I think one of the hallmarks of Dan’s brewing style is that he’s curious. I don’t think there’s anything he wouldn’t be willing to try,” said David Carlson, owner of Marshall Wharf and Three Tides. “He’s also really concerned about balance. It doesn’t matter if it’s a dark beer, a light beer, an IPA — all the flavors have to be balanced. I think that’s one of the reasons he’s so well-respected in the Maine beer scene. We would not be who we are without Dan. There’s no way we’d still be here without him.”

A relaxed, even-tempered person, McGovern is hesitant to take any real credit for any of Maine’s explosive beer growth. He does admit, however, that he’s been doing it for a long time, and has amassed a wealth of knowledge about beer as both a craft and an industry. He’s given a lot of advice to a number of young brewers in Maine.

One thing he’s sure of: Don’t sell anything you wouldn’t drink yourself.

“If a beer doesn’t taste good, I don’t sell it. I’m not afraid to dump an entire batch,” said McGovern.

The restlessly creative McGovern left Marshall Wharf in 2012 to open another craft brewery — this time, with his older daughter, Mary, and in a location about as far off the beaten path as it’s possible to get in Maine. Monhegan Brewing Company, located on the island of the same name, more than ten miles off the coast of the St. George peninsula, opened in 2012. Today, it offers a rotating array of creative, diverse brews, ranging from the easy-drinking Balmy Days Citra-Hopped Kolsch, to the sweet, malty, deep-red Rusticator Doppelbock.

As if one craft brewery wasn’t enough, last year, the family decided to open another one — this time, in Liberty, where it all started. After searching the area for months, McGovern and Johnston landed on the building at 4 Marshall Shore Road, formerly home to Local Roots Market & Cafe.

When the original Lake St. George Brewing opened in 1991, nobody could have imagined that the Maine beer scene 26 years later would be such a vibrant, thriving place. But with all the growth, there’s a nagging wonder for many brewers and beer-lovers here: When will the industry reach the tipping point in terms of sheer volume of breweries?

“Soon,” said McGovern. “But I don’t think that tipping point will be catastrophic. I think it’s just going to get to a point where all these people that are wannabes are going to drop off. It’s dog-eat-dog in Portland. It’s very competitive. It just means that what’s left will be better beer.”

“I think what’s going to be important is to be a community brewery. To brew for the people in your community,” said Johnston. “Not everyone is going to travel hundreds of miles for beer. But they’ll travel a few miles down the road, if it’s made in their community.”

Though McGovern and his family own and operate two craft breweries — one of which is only accessible by boat — he still keeps a day job, going into the Hannaford Supermarket in Belfast a few days a week to work as a meat cutter, a job he’s had for more than 20 years.

“I just do it one day a week now. It helps me to re-center, with everything going on around me,” said McGovern. “I think I can still juggle all these things, but I probably should stop. But I still enjoy doing it.”

With Lake St. George and Monhegan Brewing, McGovern gets the chance to work directly with his family, and he’s understandably proud of his two daughters following him into the brewing industry. While McGovern is currently the brew master at Lake St. George, eventually, Johnston will take over, putting her, along with her sister, among the few female brewers in Maine.

“I didn’t think I’d go into brewing. I was a teacher, before this,” said Johnston, 35. “But it’s the family business. I grew up around it. There were always carboys sitting around the house. There’d be a carboy, bubbling away, in the shower. Beer and the making of it and presence of it was totally normal. The smell of a brewery, to me, smells like home.”

Lake St. George Brewing is located at 4 Marshall Shore Road in Liberty. Current hours are 3-8 p.m., Monday-Wednesday, and noon-8 p.m., Thursday-Sunday; there will be reduced hours in the winter. For more information, visit lakestgeorgebrewing.com.

 


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