From a Fire to Portage Brewing Company 2.0: A letter from co-founder Jeff Vondenkamp

The exterior of the rebuilt Portage Brewing Company in Walker, Minnesota // Photo via Portage Brewing Company

I’ll never forget the morning of January 6th, 2019, when we awoke to news that our brewery was destroyed. Through a barrage of missed calls and texts, I managed to get my dad on the phone—all I could hear beneath the sirens and yelling was the faintest, “it’s gone, the brewery is gone.”

A firefighter stands among the remains of Portage Brewing Company // Photo via Portage Brewing Company

From the 35 area volunteer firefighters who were first on the scene, Joe Arndt, a fellow owner of our brewery, witnessed and helped fight the blaze. He and other fellow firefighters couldn’t believe their eyes, considering many of them visited the brewery the night before, celebrating a birthday on their department. We can’t thank these guys enough for all they continue to volunteer for and do, protecting our community from tragedies such as these. In the end, the building was a total loss and had to be demolished.

That day, and the weeks that followed, were some of the hardest for our family and team. This place—where we spent thousands of hours caring, creating, and communing with people we care about, over a product we’re all so passionate about—gone, cast out into the cold Minnesota air. Making sense of the mess left behind was like trying to assemble a puzzle with half the pieces missing. Dumping our beer to prevent the tank jackets from cracking (ever leave a can of beer in the freezer?), destroying our barrel program in the streets, and blocking access to our building from this community were some of the hurdles we now faced.

This story isn’t about loss or despair, though, but something of the opposite. It’s a story about resilience (coincidentally, the Camp Fire Resilience IPA project was our next beer release before the fire), and reminders of what our brewery meant to our industry and the cultural shift happening now in our small town of Walker, Minnesota. It’s about this brewing community and the many who came to our aid. Even before I could grasp what happened that morning, hundreds of calls and text messages had already poured in—messages of support from fellow brewery members (as far as Panama), many of whom we’ve never met or served at our facility. What this industry means to me now is hard to describe, but I am forever grateful and committed to its development.

The second memory I have from that day was a call from Jackson Greer, now head brewer at Modist Brewing in Minneapolis. Jack is from Walker, and has become a friend over the years. We’ve collaborated in the past, shared beer stories (some of which I still find hard to believe), and generally connected around our industry’s future. He offered us any support we’d need from Modist. This was the first moment when I knew things were going to be okay. We never could’ve expected what came next from them, an offer to rebrew our Sun Protection Factor collaboration, but this time with all sales being donated to our rebuild effort. In the end, Modist helped us to successfully reach our fundraising goals for construction to begin. I still to this day cannot express how much this project meant for our project to gain momentum—we are forever grateful to those folks.

The list of people and organizations who came to our aid really does goes on and on (we’ve actually listed them all at the bottom of this piece). Very notably though, and within five days of the fire, a group of fellow local businesses, musicians, and friends put together a benefit for our team. This wasn’t a fundraiser, but a night to celebrate the last few drops of our beer we had left. People traveled in from all over the U.S. to give us a hug and give thanks. We spent the night jamming out to Corey Medina & Brothers, and looked back on all the good memories at our brewery.

The remains of Portage Brewing after a fire destroyed the building // Photo via Portage Brewing Company

Chapter Two: how in the heck are we going to rebuild this brewery? This will be my biggest piece of advice to all you brewery owners out there: buy good insurance. Thankfully, we were convinced early on to select the best policy possible, a decision that could’ve actually prevented our rebuild from happening. In the end, it kept our paid staff wages flowing and gave us the runway to start anew. Phase one of this process was finding a good architect, one who could help us build our dream facility. Serendipitously, a friend and stellar architect who helped build 3 Floyds new brewpub distillery, offered us his services. Linden Group flew here to learn about the community of Walker, and they did a stellar job. We chatted space vision, budget constraints, and within three months of the fire, had a plan. He, and our previous contractor, Hidden Paradise Builders, came together and construction broke ground in May of 2019.

Patrons fill the new Portage Brewing Company taproom // Photo via Portage Brewing Company

I want to get back to our industry though, because it’s probably the most vital part of this story. We honestly wouldn’t be back if hadn’t been for you all—fellow breweries, brewery employees, beer bars, and beer purveyors. Our craft is what kept us engaged and moving along. From as far away as Vietnam and from people as distant as complete strangers, this entire industry came to our aid. AEGIR Brewing, Bemidji Brewing, Bent Paddle Brewing, Falling Knife Brewing, Klockow Brewing, Modist Brewing, Turtle’s Bar and Grill, No Rules Beer Group, to name a few—along with the dozens of other breweries who donated bottles for silent auctions or hosted beer release donation events—thank you.

All-in-all, the donations we received from businesses, Indiegogo backers, GoFundMe, silent auctions, and beer releases, made what you saw at our Grand Reopening on December 7, 2019, a reality. Without this support, we wouldn’t be here. Our new facility showcases a more automated and expanded 10-barrel brewhouse, an extensive oak program for initiatives like our Portage Reserve Membership, a beer cafe inspired taproom, and much larger patio spaces. Hiring the necessary experts to help us design this space, while redrafting our business plan, and learning from as many fellow brewers as we could, has helped us return better than before. Please visit our website at portagebeer.com for details.

On ahead,

Jeff Vondenkamp
Co-Owner, Head Brewer
Portage Brewing Company

Thank you’s: Northern Namaste Yoga, Corey Medina & Brothers, Chase On The Lake, Paul Nye & Jeff Menten, Falling Knife Brewing, Stanley’s Bar and Grill, Kaffe Havn, Reeds Sporting Goods, Trappers Landing and Lodge, Leer Title, Red Cow North Loop, Shorewood Liquor, Stinson Liquor, Crawford Brewing Equipment, AEGIR Brewing, Bemidji Brewing, Bent Paddle Brewing, Klockow Brewing, Modist Brewing, Turtle’s Bar and Grill, No Rules Beer Group, Lynn Mineer & Steve Reiter