It’s a warm Tuesday in December and the drive on Highway 61 from Duluth to Two Harbors is a quick one. In the half-hour it takes to arrive, the weather changes dramatically—the kind of rapid shift for which Lake Superior is notorious. Today, however, instead of going from beautiful to blustery, the long gray blanket of cloud that’s persisted all morning breaks and turns to sunshine.
Pulling into town, the highway traffic slows to a trickle and a quaint strip of colorful boutique coffee shops, galleries, and restaurants line either side of the street. A right turn off Highway 61 onto 7th Street and the boutiques give way to a slew of vacant storefronts, industrial warehouses rusting at the seams, and potholed streets. At the end of the street, where the railroad tracks terminate at the colossal black ore dock jutting into Agate Bay, sits a cabin-red building with a wrap-around deck that stands out in its newness: Castle Danger Brewing.
Around back, the loading dock’s garage door is open. Clint MacFarlane spots me from across the brewhouse floor and strides past towers of vibrant cans intermingled with 60-barrel fermenters and racks of malted barley with his hand extended in welcome. He’s a tall man with a thin frame, short-cropped hair, and groomed goatee—not exactly the prototypical burly bearded brewer. From the location of the brewery to his personal appearance, plus the story of how he and his wife Jamie started Castle Danger, it’s apparent the Two Harbors native is walking his own path.
“When I grew up, First Avenue was the downtown […] This was the center of the city, and it’s been dying since,” Clint explains as we sit down at a table in the taproom overlooking the street. “When we were looking at properties around town, all the business owners said, ‘If you don’t do it on Highway 61, you’re pretty much done before you get going.’”
But the idea of bringing business back to old downtown held a special significance for Clint. “For me, it was always important because I spent a lot of my time down here as a kid,” he says, noting how he grew up in town and graduated high school in 1998. There’s an equanimity in Clint’s voice—calm and intentional—that relays a thoughtful personality. “[Now], in summertime, there’s thousands of people that are coming down here that wouldn’t have, and so we’re hoping some people take notice and it starts to spur some more development.”
After high school, Clint decided to forgo college and instead moved to the Twin Cities in 2000 to find a job. There, he worked in the printing industry for nine months before being laid off after returning from a family vacation to Europe. He moved back to Two Harbors and continued working in the printing industry until 2005, when he married Jamie and the two took over her family’s resort, Castle Haven Cabins, in nearby Castle Danger.
Jamie’s grandparents started the lakeside resort and passed it down to her parents, who in turn passed it down to Jamie and Clint. During the years they operated Castle Haven, each of her family members worked side jobs to supplement the resort income and to fill the time during the slower months. “Jamie’s grandparents, they were commercial fishermen; Jamie’s parents, her mom ran a quilt shop and her dad does excavating,” Clint says. When he and Jamie took over the business, Clint started considering what his side project would be. Beer came straight to mind. He had been homebrewing since 2006 and, after mulling it over with Jamie, they decided to build a brewery on the resort.
Clint had never visited a brewery before opening Castle Danger; at the time, the number of breweries in Minnesota was in the twenties. Instead, he prepared by researching production brewing and drew from his experience homebrewing. They constructed a 700-square-foot addition to the resort’s laundry facility and installed a three-barrel brewhouse and two fermenters. For three years, Clint and Jamie produced kegs for local distribution from the tiny space, with visitors regularly knocking on the door looking to fill growlers.
“I think back at it now and I’m just like, ‘What were you thinking starting that small?’” Clint says. “But I learned a lot and that’s how we learned our processes.”
It turned out to be a blessing in disguise, Jamie explains, since the original brewery was built prior to the taproom bill. Starting small (with an smaller initial investment) gave them the flexibility to build a larger facility in a higher-trafficked town like Two Harbors once the new taproom law was in place.
In 2012, Clint hired the company’s third employee, his good friend Mason Williams, and taught him to brew Castle Danger’s lineup on the three-barrel system. They brought on Jamie’s cousin Mandy and her husband Lon Larson as part-owners, purchased a vacant lot owned by the Two Harbors Moose Lodge, and began construction on the new brewery in November 2013.
Little did they know a full month of sub-zero temperatures and record snowfall was on its way. Snow fell by the foot as Jamie’s dad dug the foundation and Clint shoveled snow and dirt to prepare each phase of construction. Despite the harshest winter in recent memory, they were up and brewing by July 2014 and the taproom was open to the public in August.
Being located in a tourist town whose population swells and contracts has informed Castle Danger’s approach to brewing, Clint says—specifically, the styles of beer he puts on tap. He explains how he’s guiding his team, which now includes Mason and Jeremy King (formerly of Canal Park Brewing), toward a more empathetic approach to brewing, keeping in mind that many local residents are new to craft beer. Not only that, but he says he sees many tourists from the Twin Cities coming to Castle Danger’s taproom for their first foray into craft beer, too, never having visited one of the dozens of taprooms back home. “People are on vacation and they think, ‘Oh well, great. Let’s go check out the brewery,’” he explains. “They probably wouldn’t do that at home.”
Regardless of his patrons’ previous experience with craft beer, Clint hopes that every Castle Danger beer imparts a sense of life on the North Shore. “It’s really rugged and simple at the same time, and we try to emulate that as much as we can, not only through our branding but also through our processes,” he says. “Our brewing is fairly simple—it’s just simple infusion brewing—but it’s worked well for us.”
As the company grows and expands, Clint is handing off the brewing responsibilities to Mason and Jeremy. While it’s tough to let go of the hands-on part of the process, Clint is embracing his new task of tackling the big-picture logistics that keep Castle Danger running. These days, his time is spent sourcing raw ingredients and assessing the marketplace to glean what styles of beer drinkers are demanding. He’s also writing a quality-assurance book to better standardize procedures in the brewhouse.
Occasionally, Clint steps back and allows himself to fully appreciate how far their little brewery has come. He and Jamie entertain thoughts of handing down the brewery to their own kids, ages seven and five, who can be found playing in the brewery after school. In the meantime, Clint is doing all he can to make sure his new family members—the brewing team, taproom staff, and patrons—feel at home.
One such patron, a thin older man in his 70s who looks like he stumbled in from the Moose Lodge across the street, is sitting at the end of the bar. As I put on my coat and get ready to leave, he stands up and beckons to Clint, excitedly sharing with him how he’s been spreading the word around town about all the great beer at Castle Danger. Clint greets the man by name and thanks him for the free publicity with a modest smile and a warm handshake. Instead of moving on to the dozens of tasks he still has left to do, Clint invites the man to stick around for another pint. He does, and as the door closes behind me, I can hear the two bantering back and forth, like old friends.