For the past two years I’ve heard rumblings of good beer being brewed on Monhegan Island. Since their distribution is almost non-existent, you have to visit the island to drink beer from Monhegan Brewing Company.
Each time I’d build up the itch to go, however, I’d look at a map, assess the hours of travel involved and put it off for another day.
But on an impossibly perfect day in August, I build up the gusto for the journey, and, with my wife and our 8-week-old son, make my way to the island that inspired Edward Hopper and N.C. Wyeth in search of great craft beer.
As we drive to our ferry in Boothbay Harbor, I tell my wife about Monhegan Island’s head brewer, Danny McGovern. He is the reason my hopes are so high for the brews that await us.
McGovern opened a brewery in the early ’90s called Lake St. George Brewing. When that brewery closed, he moved on to Belfast Bay Brewing, where he worked on the iconic Maine beers Lobster Ale and McGovern’s Oatmeal Stout.
Following his time at Belfast Bay, McGovern was hired by newly opened Marshall Wharf Brewing in Belfast to help create recipes for their signature heavily hopped, high alcohol beers.
After his tenure at Marshall Wharf, Mary and Matt Weber, his daughter and son-in-law, swayed McGovern into starting Monhegan Brewing Company in July 2013.
I reach the end of McGovern’s impressive resume, and my wife points out our ferry terminal, where a few dozen tourists in wide-brimmed hats and dark sunglasses wait under the Pier 8 sign.
Our hour-and-a-half boat ride on the Balmy Days II is breathtaking. The water is pocked with technicolored lobster buoys. Small islands shimmer on the horizon. Sailboats drift across the water with mainsails puffed out like a fighter’s chest.
It’s easy to see why artists have flocked to Monhegan Island for generations.
The ferryboat eases next to the dock, and four hours after leaving our house in Cape Elizabeth, we set foot on Monhegan Island. And boy am I thirsty.
A sunburnt dockworker directs us to the brewery. Take a right, follow the road to the church and head up the hill.
Past the church we trudge up the road with our son in tow, and my wife questions whether there is indeed a brewery at the top of this hill. Just as I’m wondering the same thing, she spots a sign in the shape of an arrow with the words “Monhegan Brewing Company” hand-painted in blue letters.
We follow the sign and from behind a wall of lobster traps, we hear the sounds of merriment that can only mean one thing: we have arrived.
The brewery is a clapboard building much like the other structures on the island. Inside the tasting room we order a flight of beers from an affable Mary Weber.
At a picnic table next to the stacks of lobster traps, we dig in.
First up is the Burnt Head Berliner Weiss. This beer has a bright straw appearance and a subtle sour aroma. A Berliner weiss is a low-alcohol, tart German beer that dates back to the 1600s. Burnt Head has a light tart flavor from the use of lactobacillus (a “good” bacteria used in yogurt production).
Its light body and mild tartness are wildly refreshing.
Next up is the Quad English Style Pale Ale. This beer was originally brewed for Monhegan’s quadricentennial celebrations, but it was so well received, it became a mainstay. It has a dark copper appearance and nice malt aroma. This is a straight-forward English style ale with plenty of malt backbone and a slight hop kick at the end.
After the English ale, the Crow’s Nest IPA really pops with its hop-forward characteristics and 7.5 percent alcohol by volume.
Crow’s Nest pours a light caramel appearance with a lot of pine aroma coming off the glass. The flavor boasts a lot of pine and citrus flavors with a big pine finish. This is an old school style American IPA, and I like it a lot.
The menacing dark horse of the flight is the Mad Cow Milk Stout. This stout pours with a deep black appearance and gives off a strong roasty aroma. The use of lactose (milk sugars) in the brewing process gives Mad Cow a silky body. The flavor runs from roasted coffee to sweet malt to dark chocolate. This is a beautiful stout, drinkable even on an 85-degree day in August.
Matt Weber comes by our table, attracted, as most people are these days, by the sight of our 2-month-yold son. Following introductions, Weber, a longtime Monhegan resident, takes us through the process of starting a brewery on a remote island, from shipping in the brew tanks and ingredients to getting the permits, to the joy of having his beer brewed by his father-in-law, Danny McGovern.
“As soon as you mention Danny’s name, people are like, ‘Oh, you have him brewing for you?’ ” Weber says.
Soon Danny McGovern walks up to our table and joins the conversation. McGovern explains that he still lives on the mainland and comes to the island about once a week to brew.
It’s easy talking to the avuncular McGovern as he gives me a tour of the modest brewery. He exudes no air of arrogance despite his prowess in the industry.
With the impending departure of our ferry, we say our goodbyes and sip the last of our beers.
On the walk to the dock, my wife and I joke that we should intentionally miss our ferry and start a new life on the island. But, alas, our responsibilities on the mainland call from afar, and we board the boat.
We vow, however, to return to this enchanted island for another afternoon at Monhegan Brewing Company.