It started with the flip of a coin.
Jason and Sarah White weren’t thinking about opening a brewery when they pulled over on the side of a freeway in the early hours of the morning in July of 2020.
They had just spent a week and a half reuniting with family in Gills Rock over the July Fourth holiday, and in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Door County was pulling at them and their three young girls (Harper, 7; Scarlett, 5; and Devin, 4) more strongly than ever. The girls cried as they pulled away from Door County, and so did Mom and Dad.
They spent most of the drive home to Fort Collins, Colorado, talking about buying a cottage in Gills Rock and debating moving there. When they hit a fox on the freeway at 1:30 in the morning, Sarah took it as a sign.
“We have to stop,” she said. “Let’s get a hotel room and think it over with a clear head in the morning.”
The family of five pulled into a hotel and fell asleep unsure if, come the next morning, they would be driving east or west.
From Peaches to the Peach Barn
Jason and Sarah have been together since they met at a party at the University of Iowa, where she was an 18 year-old standout defender on the women’s soccer team and he was a 19 year-old star shortstop who was eventually drafted by the Baltimore Orioles.
After grad school at the University of Minnesota, Sarah began a career in strategy and innovation for health systems and got a job in Denver, near Jason’s hometown of Fort Collins.
And after a torn labrum put an end to his baseball career, Jason turned to coaching high school baseball. His assistant coach enticed him to help sell peaches by the side of the road, which Jason joked about until he realized how many people bought peaches by the side of the road. Soon he was pitching farms on becoming their distributor and launched his own distribution company.
They were happy there in Fort Collins, but Sarah had long had a soft spot for Door County. Her family’s connection to the peninsula was born out of tragedy. Her grandparents, Harry and Sally, had five children. When their second son, Gilbert “Gibby” Schwartz, was 19, he was killed in a car accident, devastating the family. Harry and Sally realized they needed a place to heal and sought a space to spend time together with their family. They found it in a sliver of land on Garrett Bay, where they built a cabin.
“It’s always been a second home,” Sarah said. “In the summer, there will be over 150 of us who come back here to be together.”
It took a while for Sarah to sell Jason on this remote corner of Wisconsin, but when she finally dragged him up for a Fourth of July gathering 15 years ago, his eyes opened wide.
“I had no idea how great it is,” he said. “I fell in love with the place right away, and we haven’t been anywhere else on the Fourth of July since then.”
When the girls came, they fell in love with it, too, which made leaving it in 2020 harder than ever.
A Coin Flip
In a hotel in Iowa Jason, Sarah and their girls woke up early, but they didn’t lean on clear heads to make a decision. Instead, they stopped talking and injected chance into the equation by flipping a coin.
“Heads, we go back to Door County and look at the property we wanted to buy,” Sarah said. “Tails, we go to Colorado and back to reality.”
Life came up heads. They turned around with their hearts set on a cottage in Gills Rock, but when they called the real estate agent the next morning, there was already an accepted offer on the property. So they turned around again and headed toward Colorado, with one dream gone but determined to find their way back to it.
They eventually found a property that wasn’t your typical Door County dream home: June Olson’s home on Highway 42 in Sister Bay, where her husband Glenn had long operated an auto body shop. They bought the property after viewing it through a FaceTime call.
Their next step was to figure out what to do with it. They discussed more than a dozen business possibilities with the village, each of which presented hurdles or was a nonstarter, before stumbling on to one business model that was glaringly absent in the village: a brewery. Soon they were making plans to open Peach Barn Farmhouse & Brewery.
Jason had been a home brewer for more than a decade, but he had never worked in a brewery. A college teammate had opened Karben4 Brewery in Madison, however, and was happy to help him learn the ropes. Now Jason creates the recipes and contracts with Karben4 to make the beer in Madison. He hopes to eventually bring some brewing in-house in small batches, but in the meantime, the focus of the brewery has been on family and community.
“We’ve been coming up here for 20 years, and it’s always been about family,” Sarah said. “We wanted that in the brewery.”
Jason set about building. They opened on July 6, 2021, with only an outdoor beer garden, nooks of lawn furniture and hammocks, and perhaps most importantly, a sandbox.
The Whites live on-site, across the beer garden from the bar, where the sandbox and toys have become a communal playground for dozens of kids on a typical night.
“When we travel somewhere, we try to go places where we can get a beer – or two beers – and the kids aren’t going to get hurt and are going to be entertained,” Jason said. “We built this place to be a kid-friendly, family atmosphere.”
They focused on creating areas for every type of individual – swing chairs, bar stools, living-room spaces – all scattered in nooks. Board games are on one wall and an ice cream freezer on another. In the aesthetic, Jason aimed more for a family room or coffee shop than a bar or taproom.
“We had our values centered around family and centered around a community space,” Sarah said. “In Door County, often it’s the one time a year that a whole large family gets together, and it’s nice to create a space with room for that to happen.”
Chad Kodanko has seen a lot of business owners come and go during the 14 years that he has been a part owner of Husby’s Food and Spirits down the road.
“They are the perfect example of what Door County needs,” Kodanko said. “You have a young family raising kids here and embedding themselves into the community in every way. You couldn’t ask for a better scenario with a new business coming into your town. And on top of that, they’re good people.”
The Whites have hosted numerous fundraisers and opened the space to community forums on youth mental health and gun violence. They’ve welcomed get-out-the-vote drives and Pride celebrations.
“I love them,” said Owen Alabado, founder of Northern Door Pride and a member of The Knobs, an improv comedy troupe that has hosted a half dozen packed shows on the brewery’s stage. “They’re willing to take chances and risks. They just do it.”
“Just doing it” extends to running for office. In January of 2023, Sarah put her name in the ring for a vacant Sister Bay trustee seat, becoming part of a historic transition to a majority-female board in the village in April.
Behind the bar, you’ll often see Sarah taking orders with one or all of the girls hanging on her legs or shoulders, and Jason behind them pouring beers or tinkering with one of his many in-process carpentry projects.
Grandpa Harry and Grandma Sally would certainly smile at the site, knowing that a family tragedy, through three generations, has now turned into the kind of family space they sought when they bought that property on Garrett Bay in 1958.
And on tap, there’s a beer for them. Where Harry Met Sally is a farmhouse ale and one of the most popular beers at Peach Barn. If you buy it in a can, you can admire the label and find a poem, written by Sarah’s sister: “Love is a legacy that lasts and grows. Three generations later, we’re planting seeds. Sprouting families and still drinking beer!”
In the end, the coin flip makes a great story, but it might just be coincidence. Harry and Sally may just have made the decision for this family decades earlier.