Four friends with deep ties to their community and the brotherhood of fire fighters are opening 5 Alarm Brewing Co. in Lake Mills.
“It started when we were all sitting around drinking beer, like all good ideas,” Jim Boehmer said with a laugh, as the partners and their families put finishing touches on the establishment for a soft opening in November. Boehmer is a 25-year veteran of the Lake Mills Fire Department and the athletic director and teacher at the local school.
“It was all fun and games, but within two to three weeks, we went from talking about it to having signed a purchase agreement,” said Ross Hanson, 15-year fireman and Lake Mills public works director.
Nathan Ostrander has spent 13 years on the fire department and owns Lake Mills Pump Service. Jason Peterson, the fire rookie of the group, has served two years on the volunteer department and owns Peterson Sanitation. Jason is the main brewer for 5 Alarm Brewing Co.
Nathan pointed out that all three of the younger men had Jim for a teacher.
“Well, proof that not all teachers are successful,” Jim shot back.
Even the business location at 211 W. Main St. is steeped in Lake Mills history and fire lore.
“The original building here burned down in 1959 or 1960, in what they call ‘the Lake Mills fire,” said Jim.
It was rebuilt in 1961 and served as a furniture business and later a clothing store. A photograph of the town’s original fire truck in front of the old building hangs on the bar wall.
“A Code 3 fire is a big fire for us here in Lake Mills, but a 5 Alarm fire is what people would know as a big fire in a bigger city that everybody reports,” Jim explained.
The partners stripped and renovated the narrow building with the help of friends. The red, black, and gray interior features industrial finishes and a long concrete bar with glossy sealant. The walls are decorated with historical photos and old fire service equipment. Sitting at the bar, patrons get a spectacular view through the front windows of a landscape mural painted on a building wall across the street. The brewing equipment is visible in a glass-enclosed room at the back.
Jason got started with home brewing when he took a class at Lake Time Brewery in Clear Lake.
“They sent us home with a kit and a burner. A lot of kits start with extract, but I started moving to all grain. Now my beer is 100 percent from scratch. That’s what makes it fascinating. Endless possibilities and combinations.”
The process starts with four hours of brewing, while ingredients are steeped. Then the mixture takes three weeks to ferment and finish.
“So it takes a long time to figure out if it’s any good,” Jason said.
After tinkering with recipes for the last five years and trying out his brews on family and friends, he wanted more unbiased opinion.
“You never truly know until you get outside that group if it’s any good. So we started doing tastings,” said Jason
Nathan added, “In the three tastings we’ve done, we didn’t find any beer left in the sampling glasses, so everybody liked it. Jason has a New England IPA that’s unbelievably good, a vanilla porter, and different variations of wheat beer. There’s a huge following for IPA and stouts around here. People don’t want the normal bar experience, they want to meet the brewer, look at the brew system, know that he added a little more caramel or whatever.”
Jason now has about 30 recipes, and 5 Alarm Brewing Co. has the capacity to brew eight varieties at a time.
“We use a lot of local ingredients, like honey from a local beekeeper and aronia berries from several growers in this area,” he said. “We have eight different barrel fermenters. We’ll make about 240 gallons of different varieties a month. I want to have three to four flagship beers and another four or five seasonals every month.”
Ross pointed out the brewery is not only using locally-grown products, but involves other small businesses in town. Like many craft breweries in the area, 5 Alarm doesn’t serve food but encourages patrons to order delivery or carry-out meals from Lake Mills restaurants.
“My dad used to say, 'if you’re good at what you’re doing, then continue.' And we’re not good at making hamburgers,” Ross said. “But we have Teluwhat Grille House, Main Street Pizza, Ay Jalisco, and others. They’re all excited for us to open up because they’re hoping we’ll bring a crowd to town.”
The Lake Mills business joins a growing number of small breweries and craft beer bars in North Iowa communities, including Clear Lake, Mason City, Northwood, and Forest City.
“Brewers in general are a great network of guys who’ll share new stuff,” Jason said. “I take everything I’ve learned and what I think will be good and adjust from there. No competition there at all.”
The partners are waiting for final word on their brewing license, so in the meantime they are opening as a tap house, selling other craft beers, hard ciders, and Iowa wines.
“The Midwest is full of craft beers, so we’ll lean on that pretty heavily,” Nathan said. “We want to get open and let people view the facilities.”