John Orth: Minneapolis’ OG craft brewer

A historical photo of Orth's Brewery // Photo courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

Historic photo of Orth Brewery, located at 1228 Marshall Northeast, Minneapolis // Photo courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

In 1854, to celebrate the completion of the first railroad connecting the East Coast to the Mississippi River, the owners of the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad (CRI&P RW) invited approximately 1,200 distinguished Eastern notables and investors to travel by rail to Rock Island, Illinois, and from there by steamboat to St. Anthony Falls in fledgling Minnesota Territory, all at the railroad’s expense.

According to the Saint Anthony newspaper North-Western Democrat, and recounted in the Minnesota Historical Society’s 2004 publication “Merrily Over the Prairie: The Grand Excursion Ventures to Saint Anthony Falls,” the passengers arrived at St. Anthony Falls “via a flotilla of seven massive steamboats, expecting to find a land peopled by “semi-barbarians, living in rude huts with all the wilding of nature around them,” only to find the well-established city of St. Anthony waiting for them. By then, St. Anthony was home to several hotels (including the elegant St. Charles hotel, located near the riverfront on Marshall and 6th Avenue Southeast), several newspapers, a bookstore, a drugstore, a community of artisans and laborers, and the region’s first brewery: John Orth Brewing Company.

The unexpected presence of alcohol was much appreciated by members of the excursion. Abolitionist James Babcock noted that some of his fellow travelers indulged in alcohol for medicinal uses:

The miserable muddy water of the Mississippi, afforded a considerable number of men and women an opportunity to guard against injury by a few drops of brandy and the flasks of liquor [possibly brought in from St. Paul for the occasion, where Pierre “Pig’s Eye” Parrant’s distilleries were still producing hard alcohol] were numerous along the table. I have no doubt, however, that a majority really used the ardent as a supposed antidote to the water, and they were the more easily persuaded to try it because a few had found themselves unwell at Chicago and did not come to the river.

There was also plenty of beer at hand, supplied by local brewer John Orth, an immigrant from the Alsace region of Germany who had come to Minnesota by way of Pennsylvania when he was 27 years old, and the first German immigrant to settle in St. Anthony. Upon arrival, he put to use the skills he’d learned in Germany and opened Minnesota’s second brewery (the first being Anthony Yoerg’s brewery in St. Paul) in November 1850: a wooden structure 18-by-30 feet located at 1228 Marshall Street Northeast, near the site that would eventually become the massive Grain Belt Brewing complex years after his death. “I am now prepared to supply the citizens of the Territory with Ale and Beer, which will be found equal—yes superior—to what is brought from below,” he announced in the May 31, 1851, issue of the St. Anthony Express. “I am now demonstrating that malt liquors of the very best quality can be manufactured in Minnesota.”

By May of 1875, Orth was operating 18 breweries, making him the biggest producer of beer in the region. The beer itself was stored in vats on Nicollet Island, in caves dug specifically into the sandstone cliffs and filled with a reported 2,500 tons of ice; these “ice vats” cost Orth $13,000 to build and maintain (the equivalent of almost $300,000 today). For his beer, Orth used water brought up from an 87-feet-deep well, while the hops were brought in all from way from Oneida, New York. The cost wasn’t an issue, though: according to a May 1876 article in the Minneapolis Tribune, Orth had produced $10,000 worth of beer in that month alone.

In 1883, Orth’s sons, John W., Edward S., and Alfred H., took over most of the business for their father while the senior Orth retained a position as president of the company. The brewery headquarters in Minneapolis had expanded well beyond its original tiny wooden shack, spreading out into several city blocks bordering on the property owned by Pierre Bottineau in Northeast Minneapolis. Ads for Orth Beer could be seen in newspapers all over the state, and Orth was one of the most respected businessmen in Minneapolis.

A photo of the 1889 electrical fire // Photo courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

A photo of the 1889 electrical fire // Photo courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

In 1886, Orth decided to go back to Europe and visit the family he’d left behind nearly 40 years before. While overseas, he fell ill with what was described as “hay fever,” which blossomed into a respiratory affliction he never managed to heal from. Eight months later, in June 1887, John Orth passed away on the train from Chicago to Minneapolis. He was 66 years old with a personal estate valued at what would be nearly $3.5 million today, which was divided among his five children and his wife, Mary. His son, John Jr., took over his role as president of John Orth Brewing Company, but he lacked his father’s drive and business ingenuity. An electrical fire in the main brewery in Minneapolis in 1889 had already caused significant damage to the facilities, and when Orth Brewery was invited to sell beverages at the 1893 World Fair in Chicago, John Jr. passed on the opportunity—and the possible financial windfall it would have brought.

In 1890, the John Orth Brewing Company joined with the Heinrich Brewing Association, the F.D. Norenberg Brewery, and the Germania Brewing Association to form the Minneapolis Brewing and Malting Company. The combined facilities would eventually become the palatial Grain Belt Brewing Company complex, its iconic yellow brick towers still well-known to this day.