Derelict Hamm's brewery finds new beer-brewing, liquor-distilling occupants

  • Article by: MICHAEL RIETMULDER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 3, 2014 - 2:00 PM

Flat Earth Brewing and distillers 11 Wells are staking claims to the old Hamm’s brewery and to a piece of St. Paul history.


Bob McManus, left, and Lee Egbert opened 11 Wells Distillery in the Hamm’s building. “It’s not hard to close your eyes and know what went on, all the activity that was here,” McManus said.

Please excuse the crumbling brick, broken windows and rampant graffiti. They’re remodeling.

After sitting vacant since 1997, the old Hamm’s brewery site is back in the beer (and booze) biz. The historic St. Paul brewery-turned-urban-blight is mounting a comeback, thanks in part to a veteran brewery and a start-up distillery.

Last Saturday, vagrants and urban explorers were replaced by 30 or so invited beer fans touring Flat Earth Brewing Co.’s new space in the roughly 150-year-old Hamm’s complex on the East Side. “All we did was button it up at first,” said Franco Claseman, Flat Earth’s director of operations. “We had continuous break-ins and stuff. The goal was to get all the windows boarded up and get things secure, and start getting the message out that we were going to move in.”

In fall of 2012, the St. Paul beer-makers decided to relocate their Highland Park brewery to the shuttered Hamm’s grounds. They opened to the public this April for tours and tastings. Flat Earth controls about 48,000 square feet, a significant increase from its smaller, taproom-less origins, where it maxed out production at 1,500 barrels per year. The brewery could double that output within one year in its new space, Claseman said.

But for all its taproom- and barrel-boosting potential, the move also was a chance to do something positive for the city, said Claseman, who, like Flat Earth’s majority owner, John Warner, is a St. Paul native. “With so much history here and in such bad shape, we felt it was a shame that it was rotting,” he said. “We decided we would try and preserve it. Now we’ve got other people joining in.”

From across the alley, 11 Wells distillery launched its Minnesota 13 white whiskey last month, forming a trio of businesses along with Flat Earth and Urban Organics — an aquaponic farm and fishery — to open in the same section of the Hamm’s campus, which at its peak sprawled among about 40 buildings. Two weeks ago, 11 Wells owners Lee Egbert and Bob McManus drew hundreds of spirit lovers and curious neighborhood dwellers to their still-raw space for their first open house. The distilling duo will open its doors again on July 19 for another round of tours and tastings.

“It’s not hard to close your eyes and know what went on, all the activity that was here,” said McManus, sitting in what was once the brewery’s pipe shop. “It’s really exciting to be here and helping put the buildings back into productive use again.”

Last summer the city approved a combined total of $250,000 in grant money and $400,000 in loans to Flat Earth and 11 Wells to help renovate their long-ignored spaces. While both businesses are operational, plenty of work remains. The 11 Wells brain trust envisions a cocktail room in the old blacksmith shop and a second-story malting facility. Flat Earth is trying to get its taproom up to code, convert the fire-damaged carpenter’s shop into a beer garden and add event spaces on the second and third floors.

When Flat Earth got inside the building, they discovered scrappers had removed 80 pounds of copper from the elevators in its space, rendering the existing lifts useless, Claseman said. “There’s challenges galore ahead of us. Slowly but surely, we’ll do ’em right.”

The East Side, which long had a roughneck reputation, was buffeted by a series of economic impacts — 3M moving its headquarters to Maplewood in 1962, Whirlpool closing its St. Paul plant in the 1980s and the Hamm’s brewery closing a decade later (at which time it was owned by Stroh Brewing).

But the area, already home to destination-worthy Strip Club Meat and Fish, is enjoying something of a food-and-drink renaissance. In late 2012, Ward 6 joined the melting pot of ethnic restaurants along Payne Avenue, with newbie brunch and lunch joint Cook St. Paul and Tongue in Cheek recently opening on the same drag.

“There’s kind of an underdog-fight feel going that all these businesses feel right now,” said Egbert, who also owns Dashfire Bitters Co. “We tell our friends the East Side’s going to be the new Northeast [Minneapolis].”

It’s hard to picture PedalPubs traversing the hilly Payne-Phalen and Dayton’s Bluff neighborhoods. But as the Hamm’s brewery gets a second life, Minnesotans can relive the past. A steamfitter hired by McManus began his career as a 19-year-old at Hamm’s.

“It’s amazing,” Egbert said. “Somehow, somewhere, whether it was their first drink when they were in high school or whatever it was, it seems like everybody’s got an attachment to the Hamm’s brewery.”

Here’s hoping for another century of brewing and distilling at the old Hamm’s site.

Michael Rietmulder writes about bars, beer and nightlife.

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  • David Schouvieller of Bloomington took a photo of, from left, Jackie Schouvieller of Bloomington, Todd Saul of Milwaukee and Cheryl Moran of Milwaukee during a recent visit to the Flat Earth Brewing Co. in the old Hamm’s building in St. Paul.

  • The old Hamm’s brewery building.

  • Franco Claseman of Flat Earth Brewing poured samples for beer enthusiasts during a tour last Saturday. “There’s challenges galore ahead of us,” he said. “Slowly but surely, we’ll do ’em right.”

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