Craft breweries and taprooms with contemporary designs may be sprouting like hops on a hillside, but Minnesota’s beer-making legacy still lingers in the hulking brick fortresses built a century or more ago.
There may be no better way to peek behind those storied walls than to partake in a Minnesota History Center “beer crawl,” which links the past to the present and allows for a wee bit of sampling along the way.
“Do you like beer?” home brewer and tour guide Dave Silvester asked as he kicked off a recent Saturday excursion. Rousing replies in the affirmative quickly followed.
With stops at four locations — Schmidt’s, Hamm’s, Great Waters and Summit — the view into St. Paul’s hoppy past allows ample time for tastings and enough historical knowledge to impress friends at your next kegger. (Hamm’s employed women as chemists, for example, but did not let them enter the brewery, believing their mere presence would disrupt the yeast.)
Parked in an air-conditioned tour bus outside the former Schmidt brewery on W. 7th Street, Silvester asked us to imagine that we were on the edge of the wilderness frontier, just as St. Paul’s storied brewing industry was beginning its ascent.
Not far from that site in 1848, a German immigrant named Anthony Yoerg established the state’s first commercial brewery.
That stretch along W. 7th Street became one of several clusters of breweries and distilleries in St. Paul because of its perfect mix of geology and topography: easy grain delivery via the Mississippi River, plentiful aquifers, and sandstone bluffs soft enough to carve out and store lager-style beer during fermentation.
St. Paul launched a dozen breweries, and become known as the beer capital of the state. But the names of Jacob Schmidt and Theodore Hamm have endured in the minds of Minnesotans largely because of the imprint of their imposing buildings.
The 16-acre site of the Jacob Schmidt Brewing Co., with a commanding view of the river bluff, stands apart with its towering brick chimney, floating catwalk and striking Romanesque architecture. Known first as the Cave Brewery, Schmidt bought the operation from another brewer in 1900 and hired Chicago architect Bernard Barthel to help design an expansion, according to research by architectural historian Paul Clifford Larson.
Those buildings, reminiscent of the castles in Schmidt’s native Bavaria, lent a medieval flair to the place that continues to captivate.
“Brewery architecture was one of the ways the brewery owners could show off,” said Doug Hoverson, whose 2007 book about the state’s brewing history, “Land of Amber Waters,” is a key source for the history tour.
The former Theo. Hamm Brewing Co. site is the only other survivor from St. Paul’s golden age. Though Hamm’s became the more famous of the two brands, the brewery’s warren of bunkerlike buildings is much less striking visually.
Hamm launched his operation in 1865 in the Swede Hollow neighborhood on the city’s East Side, and his sons continued on after his death. But during a massive expansion in the 1950s and ’60s, in which Hamm’s rose to become the nation’s fifth-largest brewer, many of the arched windows and other ornamental details of the older structures were bricked over.
“The stock houses that they were building in the 1950s were more prized for their efficiency than their beauty,” said Hoverson, who led the History Center beer tour when it was launched three years ago.
“They had all the curb appeal of the old St. Paul Dayton’s.”
The creativity, it seemed, was being poured into commercials that established the iconic Hamm’s Bear and toe-tapping jingles.
While the Hamm’s brewery may have lost much of its original architectural luster, the building that the turn-of-the-century mogul purchased as headquarters for his vast and varied business operations remains a gem.
The historic Hamm Building in downtown St. Paul is not only the state’s largest surviving terra cotta building, but it is infused with beer themes inside and out.
At one of the sipping and listening stops on the History Museum’s tour, we learned that construction of the building began in 1915 as a department store, but the owner abandoned the project during the economic insecurity of World War I.
It was designed by the local architectural firm of Toltz, King and Day, and sat empty until Hamm, who also owned a nearby saloon, snapped it up.
The Beaux Arts-style building, completed in 1919, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Great Waters Brewery has been brewing its mellow, British-style cask beer from the building’s ground floor since 1997. The microbrewer still taps into the 550-foot well that was dug when the St. Paul Cathedral was located on the site, giving it dibs on claims that its beer is made with “holy water.”
In its day, boxing matches were held in the Hamm Building basement, according to tour guides, and an underground glass door shows evidence of bullet holes and a whiff of its gangster past.
Hamm family members still run philanthropies and other businesses out of the upper floors of the building, and family lawyers keep the tradition alive by enjoying lunch regularly at Great Waters.
But the lasting homage to Hamm and his beer resides in a series of decorative tiles on the building’s exterior. Cherub-like figures are shown sowing, growing and reaping hops and other grains. The playful motifs are placed along three horizontal bands wrapping around three sides of the building.
Kristel Hansen, property manager of the Hamm Building, said it’s delicate work to keep the ornamental motifs of the building in tiptop shape, because only a few companies still work in terra cotta, which can be as delicate as pottery.
While the Hamm Building has stayed relatively functional over the past century, the massive industrial brewery buildings have struggled until recently.
Brewing at the Hamm’s plant ceased in 1997 after Stroh’s, which had taken over operations in 1983, walked away and gave the keys back to the city.
The last of the kegs rolled out of the former Schmidt brewery in 2002, about a century after Jacob Schmidt took the helm. An afterlife as an ethanol plant caved to neighborhood complaints of noise and stink.
For decades these empty and declining structures have bedeviled big-thinking developers and city planners alike. But both sites have seen a rebirth in the past few years.
The Schmidt brewhouse and bottle house, built in the early 1900s and 1916, respectively, now hold artists’ lofts and workspaces.
At the Hamm’s site, Flat Earth Brewing (one of the sampling stops on the tour) has brought beer-making back. In nearby buildings, the 11 Wells distillery is making spirits and Urban Organics has set up a sustainable fish-farming operation.
In yet another sign that beer is a beverage that crosses the historical divide, all are tapping into the same massive aquifer that led Theodore Hamm to locate his beer-making operation there 150 years ago.