The ceilings at the old Hamm’s brewery in St. Paul gaped and the rooftop sagged. The floors were littered with concrete crumble, pigeon poop, paint chips and other post-industrial detritus.
For 15 years, one of the more imposing buildings on the 8-acre brewery complex on the East Side — a six-story brick bunker known as Stockhouse No. 3 — sat empty, waiting for a patron with a checkbook and a good idea.
Enter Twin Cities public relations exec Fred Haberman, with partners Dave and Kristen Koontz Haider, and Chris Ames, who formed a new company called Urban Organics last year. Their idea? Aquaponics — repurposing the former brewery space into an urban fish and produce farm.
The company plans to raise tilapia, a mild-tasting, warm-water fish, in 3,500-gallon tubs, five on each floor of the old stockhouse, as well as lettuce and herbs.
But the bigger idea — the “grand experiment,” as Haberman puts it — involves producing healthy food locally, without having to truck it from distant southern climes, thus reducing the Earth’s carbon footprint. And rehabbing a portion of a neighborhood eyesore, which has attracted its share of homeless, raucous partyers, may spawn further economic development even beyond the complex.
The Stockhouse “looked like the set from the ‘Saw’ movie,” said Koontz Haider, referring to a 2004 horror film that largely takes place in a subterranean bathroom. When asked what it smelled like, Koontz Haider wrinkled her nose and replied, “sewery.”
Beyond Urban Organics, city officials say Flat Earth Brewing, a St. Paul-based craft-beer operation, is contemplating a move to the site, although company representatives did not respond to e-mails seeking comment.
So far, the nascent Urban Organics business has raised about $1 million in private backing, and the city received a $403,000 grant from the state to help clean up the Hamm’s site, most of which the city still owns. If all goes according to plan, the first phase of the operation involving three floors should be up and running this fall, employing 12 people.
Initially, the products will be sold to local restaurants and food co-ops, but eventually, the owners are eyeing schools and a broader scope of grocers and retailers as potential customers.
“Everyone we talk to wants the product,” Haberman said.
The story behind the firm’s founding and its search for space is a mix of serendipity and determined resolve.
About two years ago, Koontz Haider was watching a news report featuring Will Allen, executive director of Growing Power, a nonprofit in Milwaukee, and a pioneer in the urban agriculture movement.
The recipient of a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation genius grant, Allen was named one of Time magazine’s Most Influential People in 2010 for his work in turning inner-city “food deserts” into “food oases,” providing access to fresh and healthy foods to inner-city residents. First Lady Michelle Obama also has lauded Allen’s work, part of which embraces aquaponics.
The Haiders decided to start their own aquaponics business and soon attracted their friend, Haberman, CEO of a marketing agency known for working with food and social justice causes, to the fold. The Haiders — Dave’s background is in construction and Kristen’s in human resources — met Haberman while working together on the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships in Minneapolis, which Haberman founded in 2006. Ames, the financial brains of the operation, also was recruited.
The foursome partnered with Pentair Aquatic Ecosystems, a division of the Swiss firm with Golden Valley ties that purchased several small aquaculture and aquaponics firms last year. While Pentair isn’t disclosing financial details regarding their partnership, the company is “helping them with the design of their system and equipment,” said Bob Miller, Pentair’s vice president of aquaculture.
‘Poop loop’ process
The growing process for tilapia, from fingerling to plump one-pounders, takes six to nine months.
The water will flow from the fish tanks to a mechanical filtration system that removes the “solids,” as Haider describes the fish waste. Then it will flow through a biological filtration system that converts ammonia to nitrites, which are then converted to nitrates. The nitrates are consumed by plants, which then filter the water for the fish.
The cycle — known as the “poop loop” — begins anew.
Betsy Wieland of the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture said interest in aquaponics has been growing in the past five years. Enthusiasts are “people who think creatively; they tend to be outside-the-box thinkers,” she said.
For an operation that aspires to be as sophisticated as Urban Organics, a space big enough to house the big tubs and related equipment was needed. After a two-year search, the city of St. Paul approached the firm with the idea of taking some of the space at the Hamm’s brewery site off E. Minnehaha Avenue.
Haider immediately was drawn to the idea; he grew up on the East Side, and his great-grandfather worked at Hamm’s.
In its 1950s heyday, Hamm’s was the nation’s fifth-largest beer company, employing 2,000 people at breweries in St. Paul, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Houston. And many Minnesotans likely can recall the Hamm’s bear in TV commercials touting beer “From the Land of Sky Blue Waters.”
“It is one of the most iconic beers of Minnesota,” said Doug Hoverson, a Minneapolis author who wrote a 2007 book, “Land of Amber Waters: The History of Brewing in Minnesota.”
A series of ownership changes, as well as the company’s delay in grasping the light-beer craze, doomed Hamm’s. It couldn’t compete with the marketing might of Miller Brewing Co. and Anheuser Busch. When the brewery closed in 1997, 350 people lost their jobs.
As the city encourages redevelopment of the complex, “we’re hoping people will rediscover the East Side,” said Cecile Bedor, St. Paul’s director of Planning and Economic Development. “We’re hoping to attract other users, as well. A lot of people are intrigued with the site. It is a very cool area.”