New brewery taps into downtown Winona
Kilat Fitzgerald /Winonan
A local brewery is set to open its doors and taps in downtown Winona in mid-March, next to Levee Park. Island City Brewing is the center of local culture and homegrown craft beer, where the emphasis is put on the process. They can only sell what they make, ensuring customers get an authentic taste of what Winona can produce.
Colton Altobell, the owner and CEO of Island City Brewing was director of Camp Olson for 10 years, which is a family camp that focuses on youth development, healthy living and social responsibility. His experience lies in the ability to bring people together. Applying this knowledge to Island City Brewery means anyone looking for a community-based location will find one by the levee.
“I just always thought Winona could use a brewery or two,” Altobell said.
The pride of drinking local comes from the culture that surrounds it. Supporting local businesses not only gives people a chance to explore, but it also strengthens an economy close to home.
Tommy Rodengen, the head brewer of Island City Brewing, says their focus is on the process. Rodengen met Altobell while he was a naturalist at Camp Olson. The two held a mutual love for beer, as well as complimentary skill sets that would make for a potent pair. Altobell came from the nonprofit sector and Rodengen from academia. Together, these men are opening the brewery in Winona.
Four beers are set for launch in the March opening. Island City is currently brewing a red, a California common, an India Pale Ale and a Berliner Vice. The Berliner Vice is described by Rodengen as “complicated,” taking several days to brew.
As for the common, Rodengen said, “We want to make a beer that’s approachable to people, and something pale and goes down easy, so that a ‘Mic Golden’ drinker could come in and say ‘you know, I had one of their beers, and it wasn’t crazy, I would go back.’ A gateway beer, I guess you would call it.”
The “after five o’clock worker’s beer,” according to Rodengen, could likely draw a crowd on its own. However, the expert’s opinion may sway one’s first pick.
“I like red,” Rodengen said. “I like the color, I like the taste, I like something I can drink a lot of.”
For those with a taste for the bitter side, the India Pale Ale is the easy go-to option. For Rodengen, covering this demand is among his easier endeavors.
“IPAs are not really exciting for brewers,” Rodengen said. “They’re not really technical, they just take a long time. It is usually double the amount of hops that are in any sort of other beer. People dig them, so we want to make sure we get our market right.”
A brewer’s job includes conducting several tests to ensure the process stays true to its integrity. The most important component in the complicated brewing process is the water.
“I dig the water and I dig how it interacts with the malt we put in,” Rodengen said. “I find it routinely interesting every time I take a pH measurement or take a simple laboratory test.”
Through a reverse osmosis technique, the water is treated and softened to the right state where it can become the best beer possible. Through the process of dry hopping, the flavor and aroma truly begin to take shape. There are many variables to consider when making something that could turn out sour, hoppy, sweet or bitter.
“We have a dedicated employee that just watches the tank,” Rodengen said. “There’s more jobs in the brewery world than you’d think.”
Everything from the timing of when to move the beer and add the hops, what temperature to do so at, along with other reactions, make a difference in the consistency and chemistry which results in the final brewed product. Though Rodengen did not go to a professional brewmaster school, his background includes a master’s degree in biogeochemistry.
“The last thing we want to be is a pretentious brewery; we want to make a beer that’s for the people; that they can enjoy,” Rodengen said.
Altobell added that the process of brewing beer for people to enjoy requires collaboration.
“We’re interested in experimenting and following our own creative curiosity when it comes to brewing, but we also want to hear what people want, and make that for them too,” Altobell said.
Both online and on the ground, there has been a lot of support from the Winona community. Many students on the Winona State University campus, however, are unaware of the new business in town.
“I’ll for sure check it out,” Carter Swensen, a senior majoring in business administration said. “I like brewery tours, so I’d love to go there, give it a shot.”
Senior Dillon Erickson, a senior majoring in molecular and cellular biology, was indifferent to the idea, but recognized the pros it could bring.
“Me, personally, I wouldn’t really care for it,” Erickson said. “I guess on an economic level, I think it would be a very good thing, and I guess a little more interesting of a diversion for certain people here.”
Ailen Butler, a business administration and management senior from Argentina, said with enthusiasm, “That sounds really cool, like a really good idea.”
The brewery is adorned with local artwork and a small raised stage for listening to local bands as a party sips a beverage brewed 50 feet from where they stand.
“We’ll see how the community wants to use it,” Altobell said.
Altobell is reminded of a quote from local brewing predecessor Peter Bub, “What Winona makes, makes Winona.”
Rodengen said, “We are serving a community here.”
Altobell said the biggest obstacle they had to overcome was obtaining a federal license, which took about eight months to process.
“It was never a question in our minds of ‘if,’ it was always just ‘when,’” Altobell said.
The amount of oversight that goes into such a business shows the importance of legal advice. Though there was not anything to flex on the federal level, the local support made the municipal level a breeze in comparison.
“The city council has been great, Mayor Mark [Peterson] was supportive right off the bat,” Altobell said.
Island City Brewery is more than a place to drink. It is a place where science and art fuse to make an array of products to be enjoyed. Any person curious about the craft beer scene will have a perfect place to start, and craft brew veterans will find a new spectrum to test their limits.
Deeper downtown, a new bar called Port 507 is in the works for its own opening next to Sammy’s Pizza on the intersection of Johnson and Second. While it aims for a more relaxed and laid back vibe, the options for an expanding social scene continues to grow in Winona.
By Kilat Fitzgerald