A bus ride into Minneapolis’ brewing history

Minnesota Historical Society tours offer an in-depth look at the stories behind Minnesota’s beer industry

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An 1895 lithograph of the Minneapolis milling district. The Minnesota Historical Society offers a variety of bus tours that delve into the Twin Cities’ brewing history and other landmarks. // Image via Wikipedia

Minneapolis and St. Paul aren’t the oldest cities on the Mississippi River—in fact, they aren’t even the oldest in the Metro. St. Anthony pre-dated Minneapolis before it was absorbed into the larger Mill City. Regardless, at 166 years young there is a lot of history in the Twin Cities, filled with stories of lumber, flour, and, of course, beer.

While there are plenty of great resources available on local beer history, ranging from (Growler contributor) Doug Hoverson’s “Land of Amber Waters” to the August Schell Museum of Brewing at the Schell’s brewery in New Ulm, they tend to be focused on the history of the beer itself instead of the community at large. History, as we know, is a sum of its parts, and the best way to grasp it is to get up close and personal with it. Tours with the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) provide an opportunity to do just that, offering a range of bus and walking options that cover neighborhoods and their roots, including the industry, people, and beer linked to a region, as well as the grittier details of different areas like red light districts and sordid urban legends.

The “Old Saint Anthony” tour is a two-and-a-half hour charter bus tour across town that visits the city’s oldest house, oldest church, oldest commercial building, and the world’s largest flour mills. These sites are complemented by a discussion of the Minneapolis Brewing Company (now Grain Belt Brewing) and stops at Nye’s Polonaise Room, the former Industrial Exposition Building, BF Nelson Park, and the Bulldog NE (which was originally an Oddfellows Hall). The majority of the tour time is spent on the bus, with the only times on foot being at the beer destinations.

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Photo by Loren Green

The bus departed with 25–30 people from the Mill City Museum, a fitting selection given Minneapolis’ place in history as the one-time flour milling capital of the world, from 1880 to 1930 or so. It was a mixed-age crowd, with most passengers appearing to be in the mid-40 range. Our host, Rod, led a narrative discussion from the front of the bus about key buildings and locations as the bus drove down St. Anthony Main, SE Fifth Street, across Nicollet Island, and into Northeast Minneapolis.

The hour-and-a-half history lesson was a lot to absorb, but connecting the historical facts to physical locations made it more memorable. It’s a great experience to hear about a building’s former life and then see the same building as it is today. Frequent stops were made outside buildings near the University of Minnesota, where there are myriad locations with storied histories—likely unknown to current residents. The same can be said for places around Nicollet Island. An awkward moment occurred when the bus stopped outside a well-kept house to discuss the island’s history and interrupted the homeowners’ dinner on the front patio. Two minutes later, the bus drove a block forward, details of another story were shared, and life returned to normal on the patio.

The Old Saint Anthony crawl ended in Northeast, circling past the Minneapolis Brewing Company—Grain Belt Brewery—building. As we drove by, Rod detailed how a Sunday afternoon fire in 1893 would have destroyed the location had employees not rushed to douse the building in water. While these tales can be found in books, the firsthand experience of this guided tour and the opportunities it presented to ask questions of the host that go beyond the basics was a unique way to interact with history. The title of “pub crawl” is perhaps misleading, as pub stops serve more as intermissions than the main feature of the Old Saint Anthony tour, but their inclusion still serves as an important way to connect the present to the past in an interesting way.

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The Hamm’s Brewery in St. Paul is part of the Minnesota Historical Society’s St. Paul Brewing History Bus Tour // Photo courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

The next MNHS pub crawls takes place August 12 and 19, and feature St. Paul’s Summit Hill. The tour will follow the neighborhood’s old street car path and discuss the unique architecture of the 19th century homes and hotels, visit the former haunts of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and stop at W.A. Frost and the University Club. The cost is $25. More information, about this tour and others, can be found here.

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