The Jacob Schmidt Brewing Company site, that conspicuous, Germanic cluster of 19th-century industrial buildings sandwiched between West 7th Street, James Avenue and Shepard Road, has been through a lot of changes over the past 160 years.
Built in 1855 as Cave Brewery—”German immigrants were brewing beer there before Minnesota even became a state,” says local historian and expert in all things German Dave Bredemus—the place went through several name (and ownership) changes, at one point rising to number seven on the list of biggest U.S. breweries by volume, until it closed for good in the early 2000s. Gopher State Ethanol bought the parcel and briefly used it to produce fuel-grade ethanol, but the operation smelled and sounded far worse than the brewery ever had, and pressure from locals eventually forced the company to shut its doors.
The site, one of the largest disused industrial spaces in the Twin Cities, sat idle through the housing boom and bust of the mid–late 2000s, attracting attention as a redevelopment candidate only after the market began to recover. Over the past few years, Minneapolis-based Dominium and the Fort Road Federation (which still owns parts of the property) have spearheaded a project to redevelop the main brewery building into about 240 artist lofts, 95% of which are now occupied. As state historic preservation guidelines require, the project preserves the exterior’s distinctive architectural features and some other features of the property, including a recently uncovered, fully authentic rathskeller. In fact, says Bredemus, “[Y]ou’d have to go all the way to New Ulm to find a structure that preserves 19th century German architecture as well as [the Schmidt site].”
That’s why the Fort Road Federation, FILO Productions, and Dominium have teamed up to put on a singular event to celebrate the essential German-ness of the Schmidt site—and of St. Paul itself. And so Germanfest was born.
“We wanted to keep it simple,” says Kevin Weinhandl, FILO’s president and one of the driving forces behind the event. The planners wanted to distinguish the festival from the more raucous, one-note Oktoberfest celebrations that erupt in various cities during the early fall. The GermanFest, says Weinhandl, is about “creating awareness of the space,” while educating locals about the cultural heritage of their city and region. Germanfest’s website stresses its “family-friendly” nature, although—yes—there will be two beer gardens, and of-age adults will be free to carry libations throughout the entire fenced-in space.
Everyone loves beer, argues Bredemus, but it’s just one facet of German culture. St. Paul itself is still about 25% ethnically German, and Minnesota as a whole is closer to 40%, according to self-reported data. But unlike the Italians and Irish—who put on one of the city’s biggest shows every year in the Irish Fair of Minnesota—first- and second-generation German immigrants were basically forced by the temperance/Prohibition movement and wartime hysteria to renounce traditions that didn’t fit the dominant Anglo-Saxon narrative. Germanfest, say Bredemus and Weinhandl, is first and foremost about “rediscovering” the heritage that so many of us share.
Schedule and Highlights
Germanfest kicks off at 5 pm on Friday, June 20, with a VIP party that features German and German-style beer (about a dozen varieties just between Schell’s and Paulaner) and wine (three from Germany and five U.S. vintages), live music from Alpenstern, and general merrymaking. Tickets are $35 apiece, and space is limited to 1,000.
Festival hours are 10am–10pm on the 21st and 10am–7 pm on the 22nd, with a main stage that features various live music acts and a kids’ stage that boasts magicians, dancing, and other fun activities. A nearby community stage will host German trivia and a relighting ceremony for the Schmidt sign—which was lit between about 1950 and 1990—that the governor may attend at 8:30pm on Saturday. The rathskeller will be open to the public, and two World Cup matches (Germany vs. Ghana on Saturday and USA vs. Portugal on Sunday) will be televised on a total of 12 screens.
For history buffs, GermanFest will welcome a who’s who of Upper Midwestern/German history experts and feature several tours, the exact number and timing of which will depend on capacity and demand. Highlights include walking and bus tours of St. Paul’s German breweries, German-centric sites around various St. Paul neighborhoods, and the Stone House (the oldest saloon in Minnesota) near the High Bridge. And if you’re hungry? Well, this is the Twin Cities circa 2014, so there will be a bunch of food trucks to keep you busy.
Oh, and in case you need directions, the official address of the Schmidt site is 882 West 7th St., St. Paul. But it’s kind of hard to miss.
A “Marquee Event” for St. Paul
This might be St. Paul’s first Germanfest, but FILO and its partners are aiming high. “We want to steadily grow the event over the next five years,” says Weinhandl, “potentially adopting the Grand Old Days model and expanding down West 7th Street.” The goal is to create a “marquee” summer event that rivals Taste of Minnesota. Ultimately, Weinhandl and his crew hope to find a model that resonates with festival-goers from well outside the Twin Cities. “We want to create an experience,” he says, not just a place for people to drink outside.
Down the road, other neighborhood associations, in other cities, could take note. St. Paul’s first annual Germanfest will be, shockingly, the first non-Oktoberfest event of its kind in the United States, but it doesn’t have to stay in St. Paul. Its organizers aren’t going to stop their counterparts in Chicago, Seattle, Pittsburgh, Detroit—anywhere with strong German tradition—from emulating their model. Daresay they’d be proud.