On the night of Jan. 5, Portage Brewing Company in Walker, Minn. was busy with customers. Among them was a group of volunteer firefighters. One was celebrating a birthday, and everyone from the crew was there, even the fire marshal.
They were back the next morning, under less celebratory circumstances. The brewery was on fire and they were tasked with putting it out.
Unfortunately, that early morning fire on Jan. 6 destroyed the building — a former hospital — housing the year-and-a-half-old brewery. Around $100,000 worth of equipment was lost to the catastrophe, along with 1,500 gallons of beer that had to be dumped, said co-owner Jeff Vondenkamp.
“It was — I was a mess,” said Vondenkamp, who founded Portage with his parents and two other partners.
The cause of the fire is unknown and there were no injuries.
Familiar to cabin-goers near Leech Lake, about three hours north of the Twin Cities, Portage Brewing Company was in the middle of a 50 percent production increase.
“We started very small, and were just getting ready to expand into wholesale,” Vondenkamp said.
The idea for Portage sparked while Vondenkamp, a home brewer, was traveling through Southeast Asia. His father had been talking to the Realtor who sold him his cabin about a property in the area, and they began bandying about the idea to turn it into a brewery. Vondenkamp was in Nepal when he got a call from his dad about moving up to northern Minnesota and going into business together.
In its short life, the brewery “has become a centering piece of the community,” Vondenkamp said.
Now the community is responding in kind.
A GoFundMe page is raising money to help the proprietors rebuild.
Craft breweries that Portage has collaborated on beers with in the past, like Modist Brewing Co., have offered to remake some of those beers to sell statewide and raise awareness of Portage’s plight. Other breweries are reaching out to offer help by hosting events, even cleaning kegs.
Modist lead brewer Jackson Greer grew up in Walker, so the connection was "natural," he said. The brewery is currently working out details to reissue their collaboration beer, can it, and offer the proceeds to Portage.
The brewing industry in Minnesota is a "very tight-knit community," Greer said. "Everybody seems to always be there helping each other out when you need it. And this kind of thing doesn't happen very often, so we just want to help out."
Vondenkamp is humbled by the support.
“It’s just crazy, with all the bad that’s gone down, what’s coming from it,” he said. “It’s nice to see people stepping forward and just being there for us.”
The owners are already meeting with architects and contractors to figure out next steps. Vondenkamp expects Portage to be back up and running within a year. If there’s a silver lining to losing their building, it’s this, he said: “Now we get to build our dream brewery.”