Scott Whitson and his friends Jason Levenhagen and Jeff Hempstead have been brewing beer together for about a decade and talking about opening their own brewery for about six years. But they never planned to open their business, BIT Brewery, during a pandemic. Still, since they opened in July they’ve been making the best of things as the first brewery and one of a handful of restaurants in Central City.
“It is what it is. COVID allowed us to have a little bit more time to open, but it is the time of COVID, so that hasn’t been awesome for business,” Whitson said. “But it has been OK. We have people coming from Cedar Rapids and surrounding communities. And people in Central City have been very supportive.”
He said the brewery serves enough food to be exempt from Gov. Kim Reynold’s proclamation shutting bars due to the coronavirus, and they are practicing social distancing of seating, requiring masks be worn by staff and taking other precautions. They also offer carryout.
For Whitson, at least, the timing hasn’t been so bad. He was laid off from his job running a medical practice in March, when the pandemic arrived in Iowa. As of last week, he’s now officially working full time at the brewery. Levenhagen is a vocal teacher for the Central City Community School District, and Hempstead is a dental assistant.
“I just think it happened for a reason,” Whitson said. “That was one of the big motivators to get this open.”
The trio, working with their landlord, spent almost a year renovating two adjacent storefronts in downtown Central City.
“It’s one of the oldest buildings in Central City, in the historic district,” Whitson said. “We were really just trying to get a good building, and when this one came about, we thought it was very fitting with our plan.”
He said bringing the historic space back to life was satisfying.
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“It was a lot of work, but we really enjoyed it. There was a huge sense of accomplishment,” he said. “We did almost everything … we exposed old brick, built the bar, installed new floor, built tables. We pretty much built the entire brewery.”
He and Levenhagen are both on the Central City Council and would like to see more such revitalizations in the town.
“We all love the town, and we all like historic preservation,” Whitson said. “I like bringing things back, making sure they stick around.”
Along with beer, they serve food, focused on pizzas cooked in their brick oven, which uses both gas and wood.
“We make our own crust that includes our beer, make all homemade sauces, and we pretty much have new pizzas and new beers every week,” Whitson said.
They rotate their beer selection and aim to keep a sour, cider, dark beer, a middle range beer like an amber and an IPA on tap.
Whitson said he enjoys brewing because it is both an art and a science.
“It’s kind of a lengthy process, but at the end of the day, it’s kind of like Christmas. You kind of have an idea of what you’re getting, but until you open that present, you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get,” he said. “We’re getting better at knowing, but there are always surprises.”
He said they weren’t impacted by the Aug. 10 derecho — it’s path of destruction hit just three miles south of Central City. But he said they’ve seen people coming from other, badly hit parts of Linn County, looking for some relief and to escape the vistas of downed trees and damaged buildings.
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“We are getting quite a few people coming here, just kind of looking to get away from all of that,” he said.
None of the trio had professional cooking experience before opening the brewery, but they were home cooks and created their recipes with lots of trial and error.
“It helps us be creative,” Whitson said. “There wasn’t a really good wood-fired brick oven pizza place in the immediate area around us. We didn’t want to compete with the local restaurants, so we decided to do something different.”
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If You Go
• What: BIT Brewery
• Where: 26 Fourth St. N, Central City
• Hours: 4 to 9 p.m. Thursday, 4 to 10 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday. The brewery is normally open until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday but changed hours under Gov. Kim Reynold’s proclamation that restaurants must close at 10 p.m. due to the coronavirus pandemic.
• Details: (319) 438-3100, bitbrew3.com