The historic Jordan Brewery has survived a lot during its 150-year life — Prohibition, a fire, abandonment and a long-ago plan by the city to tear it down.
Now the question is whether the ivy-covered limestone gem, a rare specimen of Minnesota’s early brewing history, will recover from the Summer Deluge of 2014.
Soaked by rain, a massive chunk of a hill tumbled into the brewery building, crashing through a back wall and filling a top-floor apartment with trees, rocks and mud. No one was hurt, but the renters have had to move out. Plans to restore part of the building to its original use with a microbrewery and taproom have been put in serious doubt.
This week the owners learned they are looking at a $7.5 million-plus price tag — none of it covered by insurance — to stabilize what remains of the hillside so that the building is safe again. Together with the city, they are contacting the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to see if it can provide assistance.
There’s no assurance that aid will come. Even if it does, the repairs could take more than a year, said Barbara Lee, one of the building’s owners.
“It will take at least that long for FEMA, the engineers, and the contractors to complete the project if it can be done at all,” she said. “We are hoping that they don’t determine it a total loss.”
Kathleen Klehr, executive director of the Scott County Historical Society, said the loss of the old brewery building would be devastating.
“It’s an absolute visual icon of the city,” Klehr said. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places and serves as a key gateway to Jordan’s downtown district, which also is on the register.
And, Klehr said, the Jordan brewery building is the only one among several that once operated in the county whose structure and features are still intact.
Started in 1866, the Jordan Brewery was at one time one of two in the city. Its founders built it at the foot of a river bluff on purpose, so that caves could be carved into the hillside to keep beer cool while it aged.
Over the years the brewery passed to other owners and for a while was known as the Schutz and Hilgers Brewery. It was purchased by the Mankato Brewery in 1946 but closed three years later.
Lee’s grandmother bought the vacant property in 1972 at a tax delinquency auction. The building, which had been severely damaged by a fire, was restored in 1990 with apartments on the top floors and retail space on the ground level.
The store space had been vacant for about two years when Tim Roets, a home brewing enthusiast from Chaska, took a look at it on a whim last summer.
“When I first saw it with those laagering caves built into the hillside, it knocked me out,” Roets said. The building was the reason he decided to pursue his dream of opening a small-batch brewery and taproom.
Roets said he’s looking for other space while holding out a slim hope the hillside issues can be fixed soon.
He will have to reconfigure a brewing system he had spent months designing to fit the old building. But he feels lucky he hadn’t bought any major equipment yet. “I was going to pull the trigger right after the Fourth of July,” said Roets, who hoped to be open by early fall.
Roets said there was little damage to the space he had rented. Lee said that except for the damaged back wall, the rest of the building appears solid. She’s arranging for a structural engineer to inspect it.
The old brewery is so sturdy that Roets’ son, who lives below the damaged apartment, heard only the sound of glass breaking when the hillside smashed through the upper unit’s wall.
“He said it sounded like someone dropped a box of Christmas ornaments,” Roets said.
But some of Roets’ investment in getting the space ready — like painting and installing floor coatings — will be wasted if he has to start over someplace else.
“We’re trying to keep him in Jordan,” said Tom Nikunen, Jordan’s interim city administrator. The city had welcomed the prospect of a microbrewery, eager to be part of the craft brewing trend that’s spread from the cities to the suburbs.
In December the city approved a $5,000 grant to help Lee and co-owner Kevin Breeggemann finance building improvements connected to the microbrewery development.
Nikunen said the city now is helping the building owners pursue assistance from the state as well as FEMA. Klehr said her organization has steered them to the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota, hoping that the building’s status on the national register could help in the effort to get aid.
Lee is hopeful, too, while understanding that she and Breeggemann are in the early stages of a long bureaucratic process. Their plight is made worse by the fact that without tenants, they no longer have rental revenue to finance the ambitious repair project.
“We’re really struggling,” Lee said. “If this drags on for a long time, it’s going to be tough to hang on.”