Danny McGovern on 30 Years in Maine Craft Beer

The Lake St. George Brewing Company founder on the state’s explosive suds sector.

Danny McGovern
By Will Grunewald
Photographed by Jason Frank
From our October 2021 issue

In 1991, Danny McGovern and a partner, Kellon Thames, cobbled together a shoestring budget and started work on Lake St. George Brewing Company, in the rural town of Liberty. That, though, was well before the craft-beer revolution arrived in Maine. The brewery had a short run, shutting down after several years. McGovern stuck with the industry nonetheless, first making beer for Belfast Bay Brewing, followed by Marshall Wharf Brewing. In 2012, he finally opened a place of his own again, Monhegan Brewing Company, 12 miles offshore, with his daughter Mary and son-in-law Matt, a Monhegan Island lobsterman. Then, four years later, he rebooted Lake St. George Brewing Company, this time with Mary and Matt, plus his other daughter and son-in-law, Elizabeth and Jeff, and his wife, Carol. The new spot, in a post-and-beam former barn with a leafy beer garden and a dock for boat access, is just across the lake from the original location. And three decades after diving into the business, McGovern might well be the only brewer from the early days of Maine craft beer still putting in regular shifts on the brewhouse floor.

How was it that you got into brewing ahead of so many other people?

I’d been a home brewer since I was in high school, in Indianapolis, in the early ’70s. In part, I got into it because I had a great-great-grandfather who immigrated from Germany and opened up a pub and brewery in Terre Haute, Indiana. It was always kind of a good story in the family — my aunts and uncles all talked about his old pub. It was just something where I thought, well, it’s part of the family history and maybe it should go on. There were a handful of books and some manuals, but there wasn’t much technical guidance. I made a lot of mistakes. Bad mistakes. Too hoppy. Too malty. So many other variables.

How did you make the leap to pro brewing?

That was a huge learning curve, but there were no more than a few hundred breweries in the whole country at that point — in Maine, pretty much Geary’s and Gritty’s — so I cold-called a lot of people in the business and asked questions. Most were very generous because they all knew how hard it was to start up. When we finally had all our equipment put together, I had a moment when I thought, “Oh boy, how am I actually going to make all this work?” I asked Peter Egelston, at Smuttynose, if I could go to Portsmouth and work with him for a while, and he just said, “Of course. Come on down.”

Danny McGovern started out making five gallons of beer at a time as a high-school-age home brewer. Now, he works on a 465-gallon system at Lake St. George Brewing, in Liberty.

What was it like trying to sell beer, let alone make it?

It was a different landscape in those days. There wasn’t a lot of craft beer on the market, and the response we usually got from bar owners was pretty tepid. The first customer we ever had was the Great Lost Bear, in Portland. They called one day and said, “Hey, we hear you have a brewery and we’d love to sell your beer.” We got right down there with some kegs. But the way we were doing it — small scale, no bottling line — just wasn’t sustainable at a time when taproom sales were still banned in Maine. That’s why we decided to move along to something else.

So the beer business really transformed while you were at Belfast Bay and Marshall Wharf.

For sure. There used to be a Maine brew fest at the Portland Expo, which is basically just a basketball court, and we could all fit in there because there were still so few of us. Then, all of a sudden in the early 2000s, we couldn’t fit everyone anymore. It used to be just a bunch of guys in jeans and T-shirts who enjoyed brewing, and I knew all of them. Now, if I go to a festival and look around, I haven’t met most of those people pouring beers.

Beer styles have changed a lot too.

There are a lot of strange beers around now. Or maybe just strange to me. I was at a festival in the UK a few years ago, and you’ve got all the traditional British styles, but then there’s one called Rhubarbra Streisand — a rhubarb, lactose, strawberry beer with a thick, pink foam. I’m not against that kind of stuff, but sometimes it’s just like, is it even beer? At Lake St. George, we started out with three beers: an oatmeal stout, a pale ale, and a brown ale. The stout we sell now is still based on the original recipe, but that’s the only one that even comes close to what we used to do. Pale ales and IPAs have changed so much.

After taproom sales were legalized, in 2011, did you ever wonder if you were a couple of decades too early with the first Lake St. George?

Sometimes, yeah. If the taproom concept had been viable, it would have helped a lot. And as soon as that law passed, I started thinking about opening my own brewery again. That’s how Monhegan came about. It wouldn’t make any sense to brew and can beer out there, then send it back to the mainland. Now, we can be out in the boondocks at Lake St. George too, with 950 people in the town and others coming from surrounding towns and much farther away, and we can do just fine.

Juggling two breweries as a family can’t always be easy.

It’s been a ton of work. It’s a lot of fun too. I wanted to be an owner again. We try to make it so that anybody can come in and find something they want to drink, but I also get to brew what I like. I’ll probably never make a pumpkin-spice beer, for instance. But maybe my kids will. And I think they should do that, because their generation wants it. We’re always evolving. My daughters and their husbands do a lot of the heavy lifting now. They don’t want me pulling beers anymore, but they want me in the brewhouse on brew days. Maybe I’ll eventually just be coming in here to sit and drink beer, and that will be good too.