A Journey Around the World Led Mike Donahue to Opening a Brewery in France
written by Kate Robinson
Benjamin Franklin never actually said, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy,” but being a native of Philadelphia, he would have had reason enough to. With xx breweries in and around the city, Philadelphia is, and has always been, an inspiring beer town. Perhaps then, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that native Mike Donohue, born in Mount Airy and graduate of nearby La Salle College High School, became a brewer. The fact that he’s doing it in Paris, however, might raise an eyebrow or two. If old Ben, Francophile that he was, was indeed also a beer enthusiast, he might have been disappointed by what the French had on tap back in the day; lucky for us, Mike is part of a healthy pack of new brewers putting a fresh spin on traditional French beers with a bit of New World daring.
Express de Lyon, a craft-minded bar in Paris’ 12th arrondissement, is surprisingly busy for a Thursday night. Thirty-somethings just off work discuss plans for the coming holidays over pints of BrewDog, Nøgne and beers from closer to home. Elbowing my way through a cluster of beer geeks, I find Mike leaning on the corner of the polished zinc bar. The olive green rubber boots poking out from under his work pants are a tell-tale sign this American half of Montreuil-based Deck & Donohue brewery has just finished a long day of boiling, mashing and probably a good deal of hosing things down.
“We’re brewing our 100th batch tomorrow,” says Mike, with subdued satisfaction when we settle into a booth for a pint. The brewery, which he founded with his college friend Thomas Deck, sold its first beer in March of 2014 and hasn’t had a dull moment since. “If you’re a brewery of any size and you can brew a hundred batches in your first year, then you’re selling a decent amount. We’re small, so this doesn’t represent much beer, but it does represent a lot of work.”
So how did a guy from Philly end up making beer in Paris with guy from eastern France? Beer that’s become so popular so quickly, neither have had much time to enjoy the experience yet. The full answer to that question spans nearly two decades and three continents, but Mike’s interest in beer has unexpected roots: traditional English folk-dancing. A co-worker at the Mount Airy Weavers Way Co-Op in Philadelphia, two blocks down from where he grew up, turned him on to Morris dancing when he worked at the store in high school. The group he later joined in college would introduce him to craft beer and the English pub tradition. But, as Mike says with a laugh, “Everything started with Weavers Way.” And that goes beyond beer; another co-worker would later be the link to meeting his future wife, Tomoko.
The young Mike began discovering craft beer in the early 2000s, around the same time the industry was coming into its own; he remembers sneaking sips of Tuppers’ Hop Pocket and Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA from his of-age team members. Trips to England, where he discovered traditional ale and a pub culture where drinking went hand in hand with eating and making friends, fanned his curiosity. Home brewing was the inevitable next step. But it wasn’t enough.
“After tasting so many beers and doing the home brewing, I wanted to try to have my own beer. Having a brewery seemed the best way to have a beer that represents me. Obviously, now it’s not just me, there are two of us,” says Mike.
Donohue met Deck in Washington, D.C. in 2002. What began as friends sharing a few beers in college became the basis for their future brewery. But it would be several years of travel—Japan for Mike, the US and France for Thomas—and indecision before the time was right to start a business. So how did they keep the conversation going? “I logged a lot of Beer Advocate reviews,” says Mike with a grin. “Around 500, and Thomas probably did more.” Today, their recipes all arise from a common understanding they developed through years of sharing and discovering beers.
“Each of our beers starts with a concept of a beer that we like to drink or the way we think a classic beer style should taste, or the way we want it to taste,” explains Mike. “I’m pretty proud that we’ve been able to turn these concepts into beers. We still have work to do, but they’re all more or less how we want them to taste,” he says.
Mike points to the dry, hoppy beers of the West Coast as his big influences, but also the pubs and breweries that make East Coast towns like Philadelphia stand out. “Philadelphia has a really great craft beer scene. Many of the breweries from around Philadelphia, like Victory, or Tröegs, are able to create flavorful, balanced and dry beer that’s more accessible for the general population. That’s always been attractive to me and I think that’s a definite influence on the beer we make today,” he explains.
This blend of tradition and novelty seems to work well with the curious French drinker. While the beer scene in Paris is growing rapidly—it seems like a new brewery, bar or bottle shop opens its doors every month—beer knowledge and culture among French drinkers is still developing. “I’ve always enjoyed French beers, though they tend to be fairly similar, with less creativity than you see in the American craft industry. There’s more dedication to making a traditional style,” says Mike. “There are some really great examples of the blanche, brune, ambrée—the colors of the French beer rainbow. It’s kind of limiting, but it’s also an opportunity to show that you can make different things. Our brown ale is really about this idea of colors and beer. We wanted to make a beer that’s dark, but not heavy like the brown ales usually are here; flavorful, but still light.”
These flavors have been ten years in the making. After college, the aforementioned years of indecision and distance intervened, taking Mike across the world, to graduate school and eventually back to Philadelphia. Somewhere in there he knew he needed some professional brewing experience if this idea to open a brewery with Thomas was ever going to pan out. “A guy I knew in Japan had moved to San Francisco. He had a place to stay and I had nothing really lined up, so my plan was to go there and become a brewer,” says Mike.
And that’s what he did. After applying to just about every brewery he could think of, Mike finally landed a job in the brew pub at 21st Amendment. He eventually moved to the brewery where he learned the basics of professional brewing on a small scale. A year later, convinced he knew everything he needed to open a brewery, Mike left to pursue a degree in environmental management—to have job options just in case the brewery didn’t work out. “I probably wasn’t going to make a lot of money, but at least I’d have some to open a brewery later,” he admits.
One day, Mike sat down to put his brewery on paper and made a damning discovery: he had no idea how to open a production brewery. “I tried to lay out the steps and I was like, ‘Oh, where do I buy that? How much does that cost? How much space do I need for that?’ Practical concerns that apply to any business, not just a business that sells alcohol,” he says.
Back from another stint in Japan, Mike searched unsuccessfully for a job in environmental management in the Philadelphia area. Flying Fish Brewing Co. was about to enter a growth phase, moving from a 25 barrel system to a 50 barrel system, and Mike had just the right amount of experience and good timing to get a foot in the door. “I remember seeing that beer in our family’s refrigerator when I was in middle school,” he says. “I always figured I’d be living in Philadelphia again, but I didn’t think I’d be working in that brewery.” Three years later, Mike was ready to join Thomas in Paris and see if their dream was a feasible—and drinkable—reality.
Historically, France has not reserved the same warm affection for beer as it has for wine. Everything about setting up a brewery in Paris— legal, financial, logistical—was more difficult than Mike or Thomas thought it would be. Finding an affordable, accessible space in the city center was impossible; they had better luck in Montreuil, a former agricultural and industrial powerhouse that is now one of Paris’ fastest-developing suburbs. Mike’s tackling the added challenge of learning and working in a foreign language through French classes he hurries to after work twice a week. “For the first six months, I didn’t really care about working every day. I thought ‘I’m tough, I can keep going, [and] eventually it’ll calm down.’ But it doesn’t work like that. It’s a machine that keeps rolling, so now it’s about trying to find some perspective, to remain focused on quality and all the things we really want to do,” says Mike.
While Mike has settled far from Philadelphia, his connection to the city has taken on more interesting relevance. Friends and ex-coworkers have already been over to visit the brewery; Mike doesn’t rule out collaborations with friends from the Philadelphia beer community, but for now, the brewery is focused on building community here in Paris, where it’s an exciting time to be contributing to the craft beer conversation. The voice of Deck & Donohue is heard in ways that reflect what’s important to the founders: Saturday open hours give curious visitors a chance to learn about beer and brewing; regular events with other local businesses foster a sense of solidarity based on craftsmanship and quality; a partnership with a local farmer turns their spent grains into seasonal, organic produce available through a program similar to a CSA.
Despite a tremendously successful first year, Deck & Donohue are not about to change gears. “We want to build our brand and focus on our beers, connect with a public that isn’t used to drinking beer. I can remember that my first IPA was Tuppers’ Hop Pocket. If some French 18-year-old tries our Indigo IPA and they remember it ten years later, that would be really cool,” says Mike.