Deb Winter had inspiration strike when she launched Deb’s Brewtopia in Elkader, Iowa. Creating her dream was a leap of faith, and the business is becoming a unique feature of the community.
“The funny thing is I never intended to open a taproom,” Winter said. “I have never been fond of ‘bars’ and the shenanigans that go on there. But my husband kept telling me that I can create whatever environment I envision.”
The idea began one day when Winter paused to self-reflect. She had been working as a long-term office manager and wanted something different. Her first decision was to move from Waterloo to Elkader.
Then, she asked herself two questions: “If I could do anything I wanted, what would that be?” And, “If I could create my own heaven or utopia, what would I create?”
For Winter, the answer was a “brewtopia,” which is loosely defined as a place full of favorite beers.
Fortunately, she had some experience.
Winter had been brewing beer as a hobby for three years and started growing hops, a flower used as the primary flavoring and stability ingredient in beer. It didn’t take long for her passion to take hold.
“I’ve been hooked ever since,” Winter said.
To establish in Elkader, she went about searching for the right spot for her business.
The city is known for its scenic wooded hills and sits along the Turkey River northwest of Dubuque. The city offers several recreational, art and historic attractions. Approximately 1,000 people call it home.
Winter discovered that the former Clayton County Register building in Elkader was for sale.
“It needed lots of work, but I saw its potential and purchased it,” she said.
However, turning this site into a brewtopia wasn’t easy.
She had to manage each stage of an extensive remodel and construction project plus the process to become a licensed brewery and taproom.
“The licensing procedure was a challenge getting through federal, state, and local (requirements),” Winter said.
She took these on with in her words “determination and lots of patience.”
For more than a year while renovating, Winter lived onsite in a small office suite in the front of the building.
“I had to create a means to bathe or shower,” she said. “I went out and purchased a dog sprayer hose, ceiling hooks, string, a Hula-Hoop and a shower curtain that I hung from the ceiling right in front of the hand sink. Then, I stood in a tote, sprayed myself off and dumped the water when I was finished.”
Her innovation and perseverance paid off.
In 2013, Winter’s business received its license as a wholesale distributor. This allowed her to distribute beer to restaurants, bars and grocery stores throughout Iowa. The next step was to sell onsite.
Another Elkader resident, Julie Carlisle Kane, met Winter during the renovation phase. “I became very interested in her restoration project. It was then when I discovered her (Deb’s) talent at brewing beer. We became friends with the love of old buildings and great brews,” Carlisle Kane said.
She is the proprietor of the Elkader Jail House Inn, so she had a front-row seat in watching Winter’s business develop. Carlisle Kane also helped prepare for the brewtopia’s public debut.
“In May of 2019, I opened my building up as a brewery/taproom where I now serve my beers to the public,” Winter said.
On the evening of the grand opening, Carlisle Kane donated tables and served as a guest bartender.
Today, Winter has stopped distribution because her business sells every ounce she brews. The building looks like a home. She personalized it with color, decorations and family photos. Her husband built many of the fixtures and bartends in the evening, after his day job.
Winter is confident she was able to achieve her vision. She created a haven where people can relax and talk to each other, without being distracted by the Internet or television.
“I have a place where families feel welcome to bring in food, play games and hang out together,” Winter said. “A place where people don’t need to look at beer as something that makes people behave badly.”
She continues to do all the brewing and growing of hops. The beverage menu includes eye-catching names with some reflecting aspects of the community, like Register Building IPA, Fire Station Irish Red, Keystone Blond and Nellie’s Pale Ale.
“Our community has very much needed and welcomed the addition of an award-winning brewer,” Carlisle Kane said. “I personally love the space that she has created, not only for myself but also for my friends, family and guests.”
Visitors find their way to the brewtopia by looking for a VW van on the logo. The vehicle usually is parked outside the building. There’s a special story behind the van, which Winter is happy to share with anyone who stops by.
She continues to spend long hours brewing beer and is at the brewtopia more than at home. Although she said, “After being open for almost three months now, I couldn’t be happier with what has been created, along with my customers.”
Sherri Edwards is a freelance writer from Dubuque.