The culture of Winona, Minnesota, is largely shaped by the town’s location along the Mississippi River. Surrounded by water and the picturesque bluffs of the river valley, the city embodies its natural surroundings. So too does its new brewery opening March 17, Island City Brewing Company, situated adjacent to Levee Park, a man-made protection that keeps downtown from flooding when the river runs high.
“We have future plans to incorporate the enthusiasm of being outdoors into our taproom,” says brewery co-founder Colton Altobell. “That’s our theme, as much as it’s possible.”
Island City was born out of the outdoors. It was 10 years ago at a camp in northern Minnesota where the two founders, Altobell and his business partner Tommy Rodengen first met. Altobell ran the camp and Rodengen was a staff naturalist.
It was years after the camp, though, where Rodengen and Altobell connected over beer.
“[Tommy] had been working for Lucid and we reconnected at that time,” reminisces Altobell. Rodengen had undertaken an apprenticeship program in Minnetonka. As the two talked about their love of beer, they realized that Rodengen’s scientific background and Altobell’s experience managing people are complementary skillsets for their own brewery.
Altobell also joined Lucid’s staff, later moving to Lakes & Legends in Minneapolis. As the two gained experience and industry connections, they dreamt of opening a brewery in Altobell’s hometown of Winona. When Lucid moved out of Minnetonka and had brewhouse equipment for sale, it was too good to be true. The two bought the brewing equipment and founded Island City.
Island City will be the first operating brewery in Winona since Bub’s Brewing Company closed doors in 1969. The community is excited, Altobell notes, and the two have dedicated themselves to their start-up, planning to be open six days per week and pouring local beer in the taproom and, later, distributing to surrounding cities.
The building itself is a former train transfer station and they’ve incorporated the original red brick into the taproom’s aesthetic. There are abandoned railroad tracks outside their parking lot, and windows mark where the building once opened for rail cars to be serviced. It’s 5,000 square feet, split equally between brewhouse and taproom.
The brewhouse features a 15-barrel system that will make a variety of gateway and experimental ales. “We want you to know that you’re in a brewery,” explains Rodengen, which is why the taproom is open and connected to the production space. Installing the brewery’s 30-barrel fermenters was a considerable challenge inside the historic building. “I think we’ve got an inch and a half between the ceiling and the top of tank,” he says nervously, noting that it took “chains and hoists, and sweat and anger” to get them into place. There is room to grow in the future, but only laterally.
The taproom is a mixture of traditional bar seating, beer hall tables, couches, and lounge chairs. Five-foot half walls on castors separate brewhouse from taproom, similar to the setup at Lakes & Legends. The mobility allows for multiple uses of the space, including, hopefully, live music. Island City is testing the acoustics of their building ahead of the upcoming Mid West Music Fest. Altobell and Rodengen would like to see live music become a regular feature if the public embraces it.
Island City will launch with four flagships that make up a full color spectrum: a SMASH red ale, a California common, and an IPA. There is a gateway approach to the lineup, but with an emphasis on carefully concocted recipes. To mix it up, they’re including a Berliner weisse. “I think the style is approachable for a lot of people,” Rodengen says, noting it’s tart, champagne-like character will intrigue first time drinkers. “We use a unique lacto blend that’s not really used on a commercial scale yet,” he adds, so it will provide a new experience for beer enthusiasts as well.
Island City also plans seasonal offerings, a pilot series and experimental recipes, such as an “Anti-hop series” that would use botanicals like locally grown lavender as a bittering agent.
“We’re willing to play,” he says, adding that “the neighborhood here really appreciates local.”
That local flavor is what Island City seeks to capture in their beers and the visitor experience. With time, Altobell and Rodengen want Island City to become a de facto community center for meetings, artistic and musical gatherings, and more.
To fully integrate into the community’s outdoors spirit, they plan to eventually can their beer, meaning customers can enjoy a pint in-house and then bring the beer to the bike trails or beaches that line the city. To start, though, they’re happy to be pouring Winona-made beer in-house, with their eyes on getting kegs to local bars and eventually growing into the tri-state region along the Mississippi River Valley.
Brewer: Tommy Rodengen
Beer: Lost Compass IPA, Moonlight White Berliner Weisse, High Forest Red Ale, Latsch Local Common
Address: 65 East Front Street, Winona, MN 55987
Hours: Tue–Thu: 4pm–10pm; Fri–Sat: 12pm–12am; Sunday: 12pm–8pm