A family legacy continues at Lake St. George Brewing

Tue, 08/15/2017 - 10:00pm

LIBERTY — From the moment you step through the doors of Lake St. George Brewing, it's evident that the handsomely renovated old barn is a welcoming — and much loved — place. The location houses a new 15-barrel brewery that signifies both a homecoming for one of Maine's pioneer craft brewers, and a reunion of family through the business of making great Maine beer.

Danny McGovern is a name that craft brew aficionados might recognize. McGovern, 64, grew a passion for beer while making homebrew in his home state of Indiana.

He founded the original Lake St. George Brewing Company, with then business partner Kellon Thames, in 1992 with the intention of growing the small brewery into a viable business. McGovern had a seven-barrel operation then, with various components of the brewery situated throughout his home on Lake St. George.

With that incarnation of Lake St. George, McGovern became the sixth brewer to join the Maine Brewer's Guild which is now nearly 100-strong. In fact, Lake St. George now holds Maine brewing license number 96. Interestingly, Andrew’s Brewing Company of Lincolnville— a Waldo County friend and neighbor — holds license number five.

In addition to acting as master brewer during the first inception of Lake St. George Brewing, McGovern also self-distributed his beer. This involved visiting retailers and restaurants, “knocking on doors.”

"That was when craft beer was about two percent of the market," he added.

McGovern recalled that The Waterfront Restaurant in Camden was one of his first accounts. While he didn't immediately hit it off with then co-owner Leonard Lookner, Lookner said he was willing to give McGovern's craft brew a tap at the restaurant. It didn't take too long for the two to become friendly.

"After a while, Leonard came to me and said, 'you make the best beer in Maine,' I'll always remember that." McGovern said.

McGovern explained that getting the original Lake St. George Brewing Company off the ground took about two years, and the size of the industry at the time allowed him to "do homework."

Since the craft beer market had yet to realize the popularity it has today, McGovern said he was able to call other small breweries and compare notes, receiving and dispensing friendly advice on the trade. Despite success, McGovern shuttered the original Lake St. George Brewing in 1994 as the small operation was unable to keep up with the demand for product. As his daughter, Elizabeth Johnston, 34, explained the original brewery had reached a point where the decision was to "grow, or walk away."

It didn't take long for McGovern to get back into the beer game, though. He noticed a build out slowly beginning for what would become Belfast Bay Brewing.

"I kept seeing more and more equipment, and finally I stopped by to introduce myself," McGovern said.

Before long, he was hired as the head brewer at Belfast Bay Brewing where his "McGovern's Oatmeal Stout" quickly caught on. McGovern would go on to lend his expertise as the first brewmaster at Marshall Wharf Brewing where he was responsible for some of the original beers that made the notorious Belfast-based brewery famous.

Five years ago, McGovern and his other daughter Mary Weber, 39, began work on Monhegan Brewing. Along with her husband, Matt Weber, Mary operates the small brewery which is open annually April through October. The couple live on Monhegan year-round, and McGovern said that Mary does the majority of the brewing, though both parties contribute tremendously to the daily operations of Monhegan Brewing Company.

The inspiration for the reemergence of Lake St. George Brewing came in 2015 at Thanksgiving, explained Johnston. The family was discussing opening another brewery, and it was decided that Elizabeth and her husband, Jeff, would work alongside McGovern at the reclaimed Lake St. George Brewing. Elizabeth will eventually become the master brewer, the family said.

"Mary and Elizabeth are my daughters, I'm really proud of that," said McGovern, with a slow smile spreading across his face.

McGovern noted that while there are many women in the beer industry, there aren't a large number of female brewers. Mary and Elizabeth are even members of the Pink Boots Society, an Oregon-based educational collaborative for female beer professionals.

"The idea is to support and connect female brewers," Johnston said.

McGovern and the Johnstons all laughed when asked about the commitment involved with getting the brewery ready for business.

"We've all been living here for the past three months," said McGovern. He said he is thrilled to have the brewery back in business, and emphasized the importance of it as a family endeavor.

"It's all about getting the family involved; they'll be doing this a lot longer than I will," he said with a twinkle in his eye.

Despite the larger brewery and tasting room, Lake St. George Brewing will be engaging in self-distribution, rather than contracting with a distributor.

"Noboby sells your beer better than you do," McGovern said.

He recalled the early days of craft brewing in Maine, times when you might attend a brewfest with six or eight other breweries and all know one another. Despite the industry boom, he said he still thinks of the brewing world as a small, friendly community.

Lake St. George Brewing opened in late July and will host a grand opening Friday, August 18, and Saturday, August 19. The event will feature music and pizza by Uproot Pie Company on Friday and a barbecue food truck on Saturday.

The brewery is presently open seven days a week and will remain open year-round with truncated hours in the winter (likely Thursday through Sunday).

"We want to be a community gathering spot," Johnston said of keeping winter hours.

Though there is no on-site food service at present, there will be snacks available at all times through a partnership between Lake St. George Brewing Company and the nearby Washington General Store. Johnston said the brewery will have expanded food offerings available on the weekends including a selection of daily pre-made sandwiches and hot, baked pretzels from the store.

On August 9, there were four beers on tap at Lake St. George Brewing, a balanced, tasty IPA called “No. 96,” a refreshing sour made with local blueberries called "Kerplunk," a clean, fairly light English Pale Ale called "Diver," and the newest incarnation of Danny's trademark oatmeal stout.

The oatmeal stout has a transcendent, warming flavor that makes it a perfect dark beer for all four-seasons.

Lake St. George beer will be offered in cans, the family said. A mobile canning truck will visit the brewery allowing them to can two full batches of beer in a day's time. Additionally, limited release beers will be bottled on site using a homemade counter-pressure bottle filler, and offered for sale on location.

"Anything we sell a lot of, we will offer in cans," McGovern said.

McGovern noted that they plan to debut a blonde ale in time for their grand opening. The family was visibly excited about the future of their newest endeavor, and said they genuinely enjoy being around one another, a large part of what makes working together so easy.

"It's all about getting into it and realizing what we all enjoy and are good at. I didn't know how much I would like brewing," Johnston said.

Note: Leonard Lookner is writer Jenna Lookner's late father.

Jenna Lookner can be reached at jlooknercopy@gmail.com