Surrounded by the Chippewa National Forest, the small town of Walker, Minnesota, is a port to Walker Bay on the western edge of Leech Lake, and is a thoroughfare for bicycles, canoes, kayaks, motorized boats, and all kinds of nature lovers. Most buildings in downtown slope toward the lake: the local economy literally rising from the water.
It’s only natural then that the aesthetic of the town’s new brewery, Portage Brewing Company, is just as intertwined with the outdoors.
“The whole vision for Portage is taking beer outside,” says Jeff Vondenkamp, co-founder and head brewer. Jeff founded the company with an ownership team comprised of family and friends from the community: Mark Vondenkamp, Jan Vondenkamp, Joe Arndt, and Carolyn Arndt.
Walker’s population is just under 1,000, but Jeff sees a market with a thirst for quality beer. The steady tourism industry and affordable real estate helped him make the decision.
Jeff is a native to Elk River, but his path to Portage began in Minneapolis where he started homebrewing. He got more into brewing when, in February 2014, he moved to San Francisco to work in the tech industry. By the fall of 2015, Jeff knew the desk life wasn’t right for him and decided to leave his job and embark on a solo-trip through South Asia (which he chronicled for The Growler). During his five-month trek, Jeff pondered his next steps with Mark, his father, back home, which led to the idea to open their own brewery.
When Jeff returned home from his trip, he spent a month working as an apprentice in the brewhouse of San Francisco’s Black Sands Brewery, and dedicated himself to making Portage Brewing a reality. This past year, Jeff built brewery equipment, shadowed and brewed with Mat Waddell at Wild Mind Artisan Ales in Minneapolis, and worked on a business plan to address the seasonal flow of visitors to Walker.
While he and the team built out the taproom and brewery in Walker, Jeff decompressed by hitting the area’s bike trails and collecting wild yeast samples. One of those samples yielded the brewery’s house wild strain, which is featured in Portage’s Wild IPA and will be a core ingredient at the brewery. “It’s got strong apricot, berry, and stone fruit flavors, then that Brett / lacto sour tinge too,” he explains. After blending with a Saccharomyces strain, he says, “It does some crazy stuff.”
The beer at Portage will not be defined by classic styles, Jeff says, but by complexity and crushability. “From use of locally harvested wild yeast, to late hop additions that preserve hop oils, to use of various proteins like wheat for enhanced mouthfeel—our beers are aimed to provide flavorful sessionability,” he explains
Portage’s malt-forward beers will use more traditional English yeast strains, he notes, but he still doesn’t expect to be a brewery that’s easily defined. Citing Sweden’s Omnipollo Brewery as inspiration, his recipes emphasize complexity and end flavor. “[Omnipollo] doesn’t leave one stone unturned, in terms of ways to make a beer more complex,” he says, which is a philosophy he’s taken to heart. Wheat is a common ingredient that Jeff uses to create the creamy mouthfeel that he prefers over a dry or bitter beer.
The brewery is a four-story building that once held Walker’s first hospital. The basement level holds a five-barrel electric brewhouse manufactured by Stout Tanks and Kettles. The three fermentation tanks give a total capacity of 15 barrels in the brewhouse to start, with room for vertical expansion.
The first floor holds the taproom and an event space/overflow room that will double as an art gallery to display local work. Similar to Wicked Wort in Robbinsdale, the taproom overlooks the brewhouse below. The interior is outfitted with knotted pine paneling and entire tree trunks repurposed as pillars, which complete the feel of a Northwoods getaway.
The brewery held a soft opening on April 21 and 22, and they will continue to be open Friday and Saturdays until their grand opening, which is still to be announced.
“Going from San Francisco to Walker is a pretty massive shift, but I love the area,” says the 29-year-old. While the population of Walker changes with the weather, Jeff’s focus is to make sure it’s a community space first, where local artists can exhibit work and where his neighbors can grab a non-glass growler to bring along in the boat when they aren’t drinking a pint on premise.
Brewer: Jeff Vondenkamp
Beer: Coffee Cake Blonde Ale, Cocoa Wheat Porter, Lakefellow Pale Ale, Wild IPA
Address: 107 South 5th Street, Walker, MN 56484
Hours: Friday, 4–9pm; Saturday 2–9pm