We Can All Just Get Along (Except the Lobstermen)
How Monhegan Brewing Company survives on a remote Maine island
by Tom Major
Monhegan Island’s lobsters, like the people who eat them, are migratory. In the summer, tourists and rusticators flock to the island while the lobsters crawl toward the mainland. Come late fall, lobsters head home to deeper water as the summer folks return to shore.
Matt Weber knows a lot about both migratory species. He’s been hauling traps on the island since 1995 and he’s the co-owner and cellarer of Monhegan Brewing Company, a seasonal brewery with a taproom that’s open from early May to Indiginous Peoples’ Day. His wife, co-owner Mary Weber, is also the head brewer and business manager.
Matt could have attended College of the Atlantic, in Bar Harbor, after high school, but he deferred his enrollment to be a ski bum at Sugarloaf for a couple winters. Of his decision to start lobstering rather than return to school, he quipped, “I went to a different College of the Atlantic.”
The idea for their island brewery was born when Mary’s father, master brewer Danny McGovern, tasted the Webers’ well water and proclaimed it pure enough for brewing. McGovern’s beer career began in 1992, and includes many years brewing for Belfast Bay and Marshall Wharf brewing companies. In 2013, he helped Mary and Matt install a seven-barrel brewhouse with three fermenters, launching what was then Maine’s 40th craft brewery.
In 2017, McGovern helped his other daughter and son-in-law, Elizabeth and Jeffrey Johnston, reopen his first brewery, Lake St. George Brewing, in Liberty. The two sister breweries share more than McGovern’s expert guidance. The Webers have what’s called a “tenant agreement” with Lake St. George by which they use the equipment at the Liberty brewery to keg and can Monhegan’s most popular beers. This arrangement is necessary because pallets of empty aluminum cans may not survive the often rough 1o-mile ferry ride to the island.
Monhegan’s brewery and taproom are located at the edge of the island’s tiny village and next door to the Webers’ home. Stacks of Matt’s lobster traps border the beer garden and the deck railing is enclosed with bright blue mesh trapwire. The coastal-chic aesthetic is actually pragmatic: when their insurance company insisted the railings be enclosed, the Webers found that trapwire was less expensive than balusters.
Mary brews a wide range of beer styles to appeal to the wide range of visitors. Crow’s Nest IPA is hazy and hoppy enough for any beer snob, but Monhegan Light Golden Ale is so clear and crisp that it’ll satisfy fans of Bud Light. See Ya Manana, a margarita-inspired gose with lime and agave, named after a small island nearby, caters to the cocktail and wine-spritzer crowd. Mary and Elizabeth collaborated on Sibling Rivalry, a rich, dark, malty American amber ale. And for those who order based on alcohol content, the Rusticator Doppelbock is a thick, sweet, toffee-flavored beer with an 8.4% ABV.
Most Monhegan businesses try to complement rather than compete with each other. For example, when the tap room opened this spring, the Webers were selling lobster rolls out of The Bait Bag, a little food truck parked beside the brewery. Trapping the lobsters himself allowed Matt to serve generous portions for only $13. But when the nearby Fish House reopened for the season in early June, the Webers switched to serving lobster fritters. “In an island economy, you want to be sensitive about taking someone else’s piece of the pie,” Mary said.
The island’s farmers’ co-op grows hops that the Webers use in some of their beers, and the brewery gives the co-op spent mash for fertilizer.
Monhegan Coffee Roasters, opened by Carley and Mott Feibusch this past June, also demonstrates the mutual benefits of intra-island cooperation. Mary sells their coffee beans by the pound at the taproom and uses them in her Mad Cow Milk Stout. Carley’s artwork is on cans of Monhegan Flyaway Rye IPA. The Feibuschs hope to open a café right across the road from the brewery within the next couple years.
“There’s definitely opportunity out here,” Mott said as he roasted a batch of Barnacle Blend, “but you have to make it yourself.”
Matt Weber certainly agrees. To the familiar question of which seasonal self-employment he prefers, Matt replied, “Everyone in craft beer is happy and they are all really nice. … Most lobstermen I know are miserable. It’s a cutthroat business. They would sink your boat and burn your truck as soon as help you.”
He paused, in the Maine storytelling tradition, to make sure his listeners thought they knew his answer. “But I started lobstering first and I will probably be doing it when I am done brewing,” he said. “Nobody has asked me to choose, but it would be a no-brainer.” Then, with a dramatic glance at the brewery behind him, Matt added, “Don’t tell Mary I said that.”