David Kreitzer and Phil Gagné have enough artifacts from Minnesota’s brewing history to start a museum.
Together with a friend’s collection, they have more than 400 bottles, cases, advertisements and other items from the days when Jacob Schmidt Brewing Co. and other big brewers dominated the regional market.
Kreitzer said he may have more pictures of legendary Jacob Schmidt owner and banker Otto Bremer in his home’s basement than he saw when recently visiting the Otto Bremer Foundation.
Kreitzer and Gagné collected much of the stuff working together at the historic Schmidt Brewery in St. Paul, with Gagné serving as brewmaster until brewing shut down in 2002. Kreitzer, then just in his 20s, was the last CEO of Gopher State Ethanol, a short-lived biofuel refining operation on the Schmidt site that was conceived as a way to keep the brewery afloat. It closed in 2004.
They had other work, but stayed on after the shutdown to look after the brewery site through a dormant period that has finally come to a close with construction beginning on 247 loft apartments in the Schmidt brew house and bottle house and 13 new townhouses.
With that project underway, Kreitzer is moving forward with this own plan for the back of the Schmidt site: the Fort Road Brewing Co. brewpub.
Yes, the return of brewing to the Schmidt site looks promising. And yes, it will have a museum.
The brewpub will be in a modern, 65,000-square-foot warehouse that sits behind the oldest part of the historic brewery between W. 7th Street and the Mississippi River.
Fort Road Brewing will be a far more modest beer-making operation than what went on for years in the Schmidt facility, at only about 3,470 barrels a year. Gagné is aboard as brewmaster and he plans to brew beers in multiple styles, with the hope of even producing limited amounts from recipes of contest-winning home brewers.
They plan to put in a 16,000-square-foot restaurant, with areas for games such as indoor bocce ball. Kreitzer is looking for a partner with restaurant experience and plans to be open later this year.
Both are clearly motivated by the history of the Jacob Schmidt site. It’s quite a story, going back to the Cave Brewery that opened there in 1855. Jacob Schmidt Brewing Co. took over the site 45 years later.
Schmidt’s son-in-law Adolf Bremer and his brother Otto Bremer were principal shareholders, and at one time the founder of Bremer Financial Corp. was probably better known for brewing than banking.
Hendry deserves a portrait
Perhaps a small portrait of the Minneapolis investor Bruce Hendry should one day hang alongside Otto Bremer’s in Fort Road Brewing Co.’s museum. Hendry has been part of the story since August 1991, when he signed a purchase agreement to buy the Schmidt brewery from the bankrupt company that then owned it, the G. Heileman Brewing Co.
Hendry led the investor group that resumed brewing at the Schmidt plant, and for a time it worked, with brands such as Landmark, Pig’s Eye and the venerable Grain Belt. By 1997 the brewing company had started looking into an ethanol plant as a way to leverage costs and keep the whole operation viable.
Ethanol production lasted two years longer than brewing, but shut down in 2004 and then liquidated. Hendry ended up owning a nearly 15-acre historic brewery site with the investor Glen Nelson.
Ideas came and went for new uses, and what finally came together was a plan by Plymouth-based apartment developer Dominium to build more than 200 units of artist lofts.
But years went by, as it was about as complex as real estate projects get. Kreitzer said he believes the agreement with Dominium had 14 amendments, with the sale finally closing last November.
The West 7th/Fort Road Federation community group had already acquired other parts of the site, so that left Hendry and Nelson with a vacant modern warehouse and a unique asset, a 1,050-foot well into the Mount Simon aquifer.
It was drilled for a big-volume brewery, and today it’s for walk-up water customers bringing their own jugs to the well house. The Hendry group bills the water as organic, and in 1980 tests found the water to more than 36,000 years old.
Hendry and Kreitzer think a well that reaches a deep aquifer that now has restricted access in the Twin Cities is an asset that will only get more valuable. Meanwhile, its water happens to be perfect for brewing beer.
Hendry said he is grateful to Kreitzer and Gagné for shepherding the Schmidt landmark into the hands of capable owners, one reason he is supporting the Fort Road Brewing brewpub project and discussing with Kreitzer eventually transferring ownership of the real estate on favorable terms. “I really do think it’s the highest and best use” of the warehouse space and well, Hendry said.
But it seems Hendry, too, remains motivated by Schmidt brewing history.
“The ethanol plant was ill-conceived and deserved to die,” Hendry said. “But the brewery wasn’t and shouldn’t have died. And I have always felt bad about that.”