We have a beer for everybody, we don’t want to be the brewer that has 12 IPAs and maybe a Stout, we want have something for the masses… (on offering light beers to sours).

Douglas Irwin

CEO, Island City Brewing Company

We chatted beer with Douglas Irwin of Island City Brewing in Winona, Minnesota. We talk about beginnings, the process of brewing and creating new beers, covid and the business, and what’s coming up for Island City Brewing.
This podcast is sponsored by Balancing Act.  
Balancing Act.
Amy Gabay 00:00
This podcast is brought to you by Balancing Act, Teach, Coach, Mentor, Inspire, a collection of candid observations on the challenges facing business leaders today. Balancing Act is authored by Dr. Andrew Temte and is available today on Amazon and other fine bookstores. We chatted beer with Doug Irwin of Island City Brewing in Winona, Minnesota. We talked about beginning, the process of brewing and creating new beers, COVID in the business, and what’s coming up for Island City Brewing. You can find more conversations, food reviews, live music and events on our website, lacrosselocal.com. I’m Amy.

Brent Hanifl 00:44
And I’m Brent.

Amy Gabay 00:45
And this is La Crosse Local.

Doug Irwin 00:47
I’m Doug Irwin. I was born in Wisconsin, northern Wisconsin, moved to the Green Bay area. You know, as a kid moved out to Winona for college. Stayed in town here and then shortly after getting out of college, I met some guys who were brewing beer at home and started brewing with them. Really liked it. You know, number one as a college student, or just out of college, it’s a cheap way to make good beer. You know, you get your bottles or something like 50 cents to 1 dollar a bottle, which when you’re looking for, you know, IPAs, or heavy beers, that’s a pretty good rate. But then also, I just like creating stuff, always like, you know, cooking food for people as a kid, as a high schooler, you know, college student, even now. And beer is one of those things, too, but not everybody knows how to make it. So when you can make beer and bring it to your, you know, family events or your buddy’s house, it’s a cool thing to be able to show off. The other thing I like about making beer is just the fact that it is so diverse with styles and tastes, you can usually find something that everybody likes.

Brent Hanifl 01:56
Going from that kind of background of the homebrewing scene, what led to the creation of Island City Brewing? Like what was that process like going from the, you know, kind of the beginnings to this brewery?

Doug Irwin 02:05
I’m not even actually the guy to answer that. I came into this brewery about nine months after they open the doors. So there were, you know, two other guys that started the company, got their funding together, had to, you know, get their licensing set up in the city. You know, get their licensing set up through the state and the federal entities. And they did a lot of the footwork. When I came in, you know, I started as sales and there was, you know, there was some circumstances that needed to be straightened out with the guys who created it and the board. And things were just going were not going super smoothly. So I found myself in a position where I could help take over some of the stuff. And now here we are, four years later, we’re still going, so we were able to smooth that out. But yeah, I wasn’t here for the creation of it. But I do remember having conversations with buddies in town about you know, hey, wouldn’t it be cool if there was a brewery in Winona, and there were guys already starting it. So that was cool. And now that it’s kind of crazy to find myself in this position where I’m running a brewery, just the right amount of circumstances got me here now.

Brent Hanifl 03:18
For Island City Brewing, you know, how does your beer kind of stand apart? What’s the process like when you’re creating a new beverage?

Doug Irwin 03:25
Sure, sure. So one of the things we really pride ourselves on, I pride us on is, is that we have a beer for everybody. And so what we don’t want is we don’t want to be the brewery that has 12 IPAs, and then maybe a stout, you know. We want to have something for the masses. So when people come in and say, hey, I only drink light beer, we have that. If someone comes in and goes, I love hops, we have that. We have our dark beer, we have our sour beer, we have our beers in between. And so when I’m looking at our menu, I want to make sure that there’s something you know, for everybody. And what I really love doing is when I’m working behind the bar, and we get those groups of people who come in and go, you know, hey, this person over here doesn’t even drink beer, they drink wine. What do you have? And we’ll find something.

Brent Hanifl 04:14
What are some of your favorite beers that you guys are working on right now? I mean, do you have a rotating sort of arsenal of different ones that come and go or do you have some staples?

Doug Irwin 04:23
Yeah, so we definitely have some staples. And those are just, you know, beers that we you know, we made maybe as a pilot or maybe as a one off, and they just went really well. They either, you know, sell out really fast or we have a lot of customers asking for them. But we’ve got stuff that have been around since day one. We’ve tweaked recipes and changed them up a little bit as we’ve learned, but we’ve got a solid Red Lager that’s been here since opening day, and a really solid sour beer that’s been here since opening day. Our Double IPA has been around since probably six months since from when we opened. So we have those. And my job, you know, my head Brewer makes all the big batches here. My job is to brew the pilot batches. So those are only 30 gallon batches so I get to do some of the crazy stuff. Stuff that we’re not really settled on making or ideas that we might have. And those have been taking off really well, too. And that allows us the flexibility to pump out more different beers more consistently. Yeah, I would say I don’t really have a favorite beer that we make. I like to tell people that it’s the beer, beer drinking for me, it’s very situational. So if I’m working hard, and it’s a hot day, I’m drinking a light beer. If I’m relaxing for the night, I’m probably drinking a double IPA. When it’s cold outside, I’m drinking more stouts. It’s very situational for me. And that’s again, a thing that I like about beers. It’s very diverse. And so I just, I like switching it up all the time.

Brent Hanifl 05:55
You know, you’re talking about people coming in and trying the various beers, but you also have non alcoholic drinks available. Everything from kombucha to your standard sodas. Do you guys create your own hard seltzers?

Doug Irwin 06:07
Yeah, we did just get into that about a year ago. Right as you know, seltzers are flooding the market. And that was something that, you know, we wanted to make, but wanted to make sure that we knew we were doing first because we, you know, we brew in a relatively large system for a town this size. So to make 500 gallons of something you want to have some confidence behind that. So, you know, we did a lot of research, we found a lot of articles, we put together a plan, said, hey, this could work, we made it. And I thought it went really well. It gives a gluten free option for people. Here’s a really, really light option for people. And then it also is just, you know, a different offering for us to have.

Brent Hanifl 06:49
So the fun question, you know, this past year has just been, you know, devastating for businesses. How did COVID affect your business?

Doug Irwin 06:57
Yeah, that’s a great question. So, I mean, obviously, I think like a lot of other people when we were first shut down, you know, St. Patrick’s Day, we didn’t really know what to do. Everybody except for myself and my head Brewer was laid off as we tried to figure it out. But what really happened is this year has took a lot of flexibility. And I think for us and possibly other businesses that are you know, seen in the community, it kind of changed your focus. And so for us specifically, when things started opening back up, and we could serve outside, we put a lot of money and time into our outdoor area. So now our parking lot up front, instead of being a parking lot we have about 30 picnic tables, and we have a tent and a stage out there because people are still more comfortable being outside. But this is something that we maybe didn’t focus on before that we should have. But it forced us to create that outdoor area. And it’s really helped our business now that we have opened back up. So yeah, that was just, it was a very interesting move for us and time for us to kind of navigate.

Brent Hanifl 08:13
Yeah, it seems kind of interesting, the stories I’ve heard of related to COVID and how businesses have pivoted, and sometimes it’s been of course devastating. But its sometimes for the better. Businesses are opening up, restrictions kind of lessening, what’s coming up for the brewery through 2021, even 2022? What are you excited about?

Doug Irwin 08:29
Yeah, so I’m excited to see what we can do with our new space, essentially. We actually just are in the process of opening an outside bar. So I bought a big storage container, insulated it, because we were making so much more beer now that we need more cold storage. So I’m storing cold beer out there, but I also turned it into an outside bar. One of the things we found out, you know, after COVID, after people started coming back out, is with our added space outside, we only have one service spot for beer. So our you know, our bottleneck was how fast we could serve beer. So now we need to serve beer faster. I’m making a way to do that. We’re creating this outside patio downtown Winona, and I’m just excited to see, you know, us move forward as a premier spot to hang out outside. So I’m really excited for the shows that we can do out there, for the community that we can build in downtown Winona and see where that takes us.

Brent Hanifl 09:30
You guys do have a premium location there to be outdoors. So if people want to find out more, you know, stop down for a beer even if they don’t live in Winona, maybe they want to come down the Great River Road. Where’s the best avenue to find out more information?

Doug Irwin 09:42
Yeah, so we keep our Facebook events up to date. That’s going to be the biggest one. We typically have that linked in to our website. I mean, that’s all. Island City Brew – either islandcitybrewing.com or Island City Brewing Company on Facebook. Those are going to be the most consistent ways to find out we’re doing.

Amy Gabay 10:04
La Crosse Local Podcast is a production of River Travel Media. Do you have an interview idea you’d like to share with us? Message us on Facebook at La Crosse Local. Find out more about us at lacrosselocal.com and you can subscribe to the La Crosse Local Podcast on your favorite podcast app. If you like us, rate us five stars. We appreciate it.


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