Welcome to Michigan’s Most Remote Brewery
Beaver Island's Whiskey Point Brewing Co.
By Patrick Sullivan | March 10, 2018
After years of planning and honing his beer-making skills, this spring, Patrick McGinnity plans to open Beaver Island’s first microbrewery.
Opening a craft brewery is challenging. Opening one on a remote island in Lake Michigan that’s either a 15-minute plane ride or a two-and-a-half-hour ferry ride from the mainland — that’s on another level entirely.
Northern Express talked to McGinnity about the Whiskey Point Brewing Co. and the challenges of making beer — and running a successful year-round business — on an island of 500+ people.
Northern Express: I read that a Coast Guard cutter had to break ice in order for fuel to be delivered to the island this week and saw on Facebook that you celebrated the fact that gasoline won’t have to be rationed. Does that happen there every winter?
Patrick McGinnity: No. It actually hasn’t happened since before I moved back here in 2013. The last time it happened, they cleared some of the harbor to try to get the [Beaver Island ferry boat] Emerald Isle out, basically to pick up tanker trucks with gasoline on them.
Express: So the Coast Guard cutter is out there right now.
McGinnity: Yes. There’s one of them out there right now, and there’s another, I believe, on the way.
Express: That’s an appropriate thing to be happening while we’re having this conversation. To open a brewery in the middle of Lake Michigan sounds like a daunting task.
McGinnity: To be honest, there are lots of challenges involved with starting a brewery here as opposed to on the mainland. First, there are all those supplies that have to get here, be it co2, grains, hops, equipment, or packaging. We also have to plan ahead far enough in the fall so we don't end up having to fly a pallet of malt over in order to brew for St. Patrick's Day.
Express: What other challenges have you faced as a result being in such a remote locale?
McGinnity: One of the challenges is that we don’t have a brewery down the street. Charlevoix might be our next town, but it’s a long ways away, more financially than geographically. It’s expensive to go out and look at a couple of other breweries if you have to find out how they do something. That kind of isolation has been a little bit of a challenge. It reminds me of when I was in high school and middle school here, when I decided that I wanted to play Dungeons and Dragons, but nobody else knew how to play it. So basically, I had to start reading everything and doing it, but not having anybody who’s ever played a round, you know? You don’t know if you play it the way everybody else does. You play it the way you interpreted the rules.
Express: Sort of like learning a language from a book and having to guess how all of the words sound.
McGinnity: Exactly. You don’t have one experienced person who you can go to, who you can say, “Is this really what this sounds like?”
And then this is going to sound kind of silly, but one of the other challenges is we don’t have a huge variety of beer available on the island. So to get members of the company familiar with various types of beer, we have to order online if we want to do a deep dive into Pilsners or something like that. There’s a store in Charleviox that will drop them off at the plane for us. You can’t just go to local beer shop. We’ve just got a couple stores that carry a pretty good variety, but [the variety offered] doesn’t change much.
Express: You’ve got be the most remote brewery in Michigan. Have you looked into it? Will you be the most out-of-the-way in the U.S.?
McGinnity: There’s actually one in Michigan that’s more remote, as the crow flies, by about a mile. It’s near Paradise, in Tahquamenon Falls State Park. It’s one mile farther from Sault Ste. Marie than we are from Charlevoix.
Express: Hold on. That doesn’t count. That’s not over water.
McGinnity: It kind of depends on how you describe it. You know, we’re the only one in Michigan you have to take a boat to get to, or a plane to get to.
Express: Is there another comparable brewery in the U.S.?
McGinnity: I think probably the most comparable would be the Monhegan Brewing Co. in Maine. They are at least an hour offshore, but of course the boat runs year-round because it’s saltwater. It’s run by a lobster fisherman, his wife, and, I think, his father-in-law. He brews beer in the offseason. The business is open year-round, like ours will be, but things just have to be really dialed down for the really slow season. It’s not like people can just drive an extra 15 minutes to get to you. They’ve got to do a lot more to get here.
Express: Why did you name the brewery Whiskey Point?
McGinnity: There’s two reasons. The not-very-sexy reason is that there’s a Beaver Island Brewing Co. in Minnesota that’s been in operation for quite a while and obviously they have the name the trademark. The other reason, though, is I like the idea of this historical landmark that ties to the brewery. [McGinnity’s brewery is located halfway between the island’s ferry dock and Whiskey Point, a spot on the bay where mid-19th Century settlers traded with Native Americans.] I’m very interested in the history of the island, and I like the idea of having a name that’s historically oriented rather than just the name of the island as a whole.
Express: What do you have planned for your first few beers?
McGinnity: We have the obligatory IPA. I love IPAs, I love a lot of hops flavor and character — but without a huge amount of alcohol. So big IPAs aren’t my thing. We have an amber ale that’s one of my favorite beers that I’ve ever brewed. We have a porter, because there’s always somebody asking for the dark beer. And the fourth regular beer will probably be a lager, once we get up and rolling. And the last one — we’re going to have five taps — we’ll have one of those be something experimental, nothing too weird, because we’re not really competing with other breweries, but hopefully we’ll try out some fun things, see if we can mix up the rotation a little bit.
Express: I understand you’ve identified a local hop that’s unique to the island and now grows wild. What do you know about that hop, and what do you know about the history of brewing on the island?
McGinnity: Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot of documented history of brewing on the island. It may be one of those things that was taken for granted at the time, and a lot of folks didn’t mention it when they were brewing their own beer early on. But I’m fairly certain that there were some house beers around the island. We’ve found different varieties of hops at several farms. The one that I like the best I think might actually be a landrace hop [a hop cultivar that’s been selectively bred and becomes particularly well-suited to its environment]. It might even be native to the island, I’m not really sure. But it was found in a wooded area that’s never been a farm as far as anyone knows. I’m hoping to be able to develop this hop more, because it doesn’t taste or smell anything like the ones that I’ve purchased and grown here, but it has a really pleasant aroma, and I like the characteristics of it a lot. This spring I’d like to replace everything in my very small hop yard with offshoots of just this one plant.
Express: It sounds like it could develop your own distinctive signature beer.
McGinnity: Yes. I think it could be very exciting. I have this ambition: I’d like to brew a beer where all of the ingredients come from Beaver Island — but with no real farming infrastructure, trying to grow barley here would be a stretch. Maybe someday in the future. But to brew some beer with all Beaver Island hops, that would be great.
Express: What are the local ingredients that you could use?
McGinnity: I’m working on an IPA that uses juniper berries. We’ve got plenty of junipers. There’s spruce tips that are used in a lot of the hoppy IPAs. There’s tons of things. Cranberries. And of course apples. We’ll also have a winemaking license and be able to do ciders. Mead. Things like that.
Express: Tell me about the brewery’s home. You’re going to be located in old storefront near the bay, and it looks like you’ve had to a lot of work to get into shape. What’s the story of that building, and what’s it been like turning it into a brewpub?
McGinnity: The land itself was purchased from King Jesse Strang in the 1800s. The building was built between 1901 and 1903 by a man named John Grill. I just found a piece of wood with his name stamped on it — it was part of a packing crate that had been sent to the island. He built the building for the Beaver Island Lumber Company, which used it as their lumber company store, a general store. At the time I’m assuming it may have been the main or the only store on the island. In the ’30s it was purchased by the McDonaugh family, and they turned it into a grocery store, and it’s still in the same family. They have a larger store next-door to it now. For the last 20 years or so, it was a wooden boat shop.
Express: And then the place became available…
McGinnity: Last spring that unit became vacated because the St. James Boat Shop built a new building nearby, and so we immediately jumped on the opportunity to have a space right on the harbor, an historic building with a lot of character. The building project actually turned out to be quite extensive. We had to update pretty much all of the plumbing, electrical, HVAC. All that kind of stuff, because we’re changing the use of it and inviting the public in, so it’s got to be up to code. And then we’re also adding the fact that we are doing manufacturing in there, so the brewing side has to be equipped for the brewing systems and the fermentation. It’s been quite an undertaking, but I’m honored to be working in such an old building with a lot of artifacts. We’re doing everything we can to preserve as much of it as we can. It should be an amazing place to hang out and have a beer come this summer.
Express: If I understand correctly, you are lucky that you’re on an island without too many other distractions because in addition to opening a brewery, brewing beer, getting licensed, and renovating the building, you are also the island’s full-time librarian, and you and your wife, Larissa, are raising three children.
McGinnity: It’s good that I don’t have too many other breweries to go to because it allows me to spend my free time at our brewery working on things instead of drinking other people’s beer [laughs]. It has been incredibly busy, but I’m sure it’s going to be a lot more busy once it’s an open place, because right now if I’m tired, and I don’t want to go work [on the brewery], I just don’t do it. Once we’re open, we’ll just have to make sure we have staffing in place so I can occasionally take an evening off.
Express: When do you plan to open?
McGinnity: If we’re not open and operational by Memorial Day weekend, I’d be really surprised. I think we’ll be open before then, but there are just too many things that are contingent upon other things right now.
Express: What do you think opening of a new brewery means for the island?
McGinnity: There’s a lot of people that kind of shake their head and they say, “I don’t know. This is a tough place to run a business.” And I agree. But this is a very rewarding place to run a business. And if we could bring some positive changes to the economy, that would be a very gratifying thing for me. I think it’s something that Beaver Island needs right now. Something fresh and new that will let people see that a lot of things are possible.