This story first appeared in the July 2015 issue of All About Beer Magazine. Click here to subscribe.
At the heart of most brewery stories is a love of beer and brewing. While Door County Brewing Co. founder John McMahon certainly has that, there’s a more-practical reason he launched his brewery in 2013. He wanted to give his sons a way to move home.
McMahon and his wife, Angie, left Chicago for a simpler life on Wisconsin’s Door County peninsula in 1993. They were attracted by the same thing that draws hundreds of thousands to the peninsula each summer: beautiful countryside, 300 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline and a laid-back, friendly pace.
It was an idyllic place to raise their two sons, Ben and Danny, but the McMahons knew there would be a reckoning when they grew up.
“We always knew our kids were going to leave,” McMahon says. “The challenge for young people in Door County is that there’s not a way to earn a year-round living; there’s not anything to keep you here.”
Most of the 28,000 people in Door County work service industry jobs, making hay between June and October. But even then, the average weekly income is just $554, or about $28,000 a year.
Ben and Danny did move away, settling into life in Minneapolis, six hours away. But they also fell in love with homebrewing. That’s when John realized that beer might be a ticket to bring them back. He founded the brewery in 2013, enlisted Danny as his brewer and in 2014 opened a taproom with Ben running the bar and coordinating events.
“Their interests were food and drink and music,” John says. “That’s why we started the brewery, so we could combine all the things we love as a family and give them something that they know is a long-term opportunity here.”
The beer business solves some of the crucial problems of seasonal tourism-based businesses. Door County thrives on the summer influx of visitors, but is not dependent on them, as it distributes beer statewide all year long.
“Our market is really unlimited,” McMahon says. “That’s pretty rare in an area like this, unless you’re a manufacturer.”
The McMahons are not alone. Across the country, rural areas like Door County and other blighted communities are using microbreweries to overcome entrenched economic hurdles.
Braddock, Pennsylvania, sits in the hills about 20 minutes outside Pittsburgh. Andrew Carnegie built his first steel mill there in 1890, but when the industry went bust in the 1970s, the city fell into the same rapid descent as so many rust-belt communities. In 1920, the population was 20,879 people, but today, just 2,153 call it home.
Braddock is full of abandoned homes and empty lots. While Pittsburgh rebounded on the strength of a flourishing medical and educational sector, Braddock languished on the shore of the Monongahela River just 10 miles away from Heinz Field, where residents worship their Pittsburgh Steelers.
Here, two 24-year-old Carnegie Mellon graduates are hoping a brewery can help restore the city’s lost luster. Asa Foster and Matt Katase opened The Brew Gentlemen Beer Co. tap room here in 2014, attracted by a city desperately trying to develop business and by the opportunity to do something special for a community.
“Practically, we wanted to be in an area where we could do this DIY, with no BS, no red tape, not have people breathing down our throat,” Foster says. “Ideologically, we wanted to be in an area where we could contribute to the growth of a town.”
Foster believes they can do that by pulling people and resources into the community and changing the way they see it.
“The perception for a long time was that if I go to Braddock, I’m going to get shot,” he says. “What we’re trying to do is make the most welcoming experience possible and have people come here and feel good about Braddock.”
Foster and Katase are the subjects of a new documentary, “Blood, Sweat, and Beer,” directed by Chip Hiden, who says breweries can make more than an economic impact on a town.
“A brewery can inspire a real sense of community in a place that otherwise might not have it,” he says. “People like to have them in their town; they like to spend that beer money with people they know.”
That’s what Bryan O’Neal realized shortly after opening Benford Brewing in Lancaster County, South Carolina. O’Neal was 37 when he decided he wanted out of the custom pool-building business he owned and started brewing beer. For a while he was embarrassed by his tiny operation on a farm he purchased about an hour south of Charlotte, North Carolina.
“All these breweries are in trendy locations and have these investors, and I’m out here in the middle of nowhere on my farm,” he says. “I thought people would think I was a joke, but the response is the opposite. People love it. They really dig checking it out.”
When O’Neal went to the county seeking a permit, he was told it wasn’t necessary. As he grew, local government accommodated his needs.
“They told me they loved the exposure it was bringing to the county,” he recalls. “They told me to do whatever I needed to do.”
He didn’t have big dreams for the brewery and still doesn’t. He says he loves being a one-man brewery in the boonies a lot more than he did managing a team of employees in a $2 million contracting business.
No matter. His brewery is one of the marquee stops on the county’s Ag and Art Tour. People love to drink their beer while they watch his cows eat the spent grain from the brewery in his pasture.
“People relate to the brewery as their own,” O’Neal says. “It’s weird. It’s not a cult following; it’s a pride thing.”
In the midst of another rough Wisconsin winter in Door County, where the cold bites especially hard as it whips off the marina and up a few hundred yards of silent road to Door County Brewing, the McMahons have witnessed the same phenomenon. They’re located in Baileys Harbor, the town that the locals call “the quiet side,” but on the first Friday in February the parking lot was packed with visitors in town for a pond hockey tournament the brewery sponsors.
Inside, John McMahon worked the crowd as Angie sold shirts and filled gaps behind the bar, lending a hand to her son Ben, who was busy tapping his brother’s latest beers.
For John, this is mission accomplished.