The Old and New of Minnesota’s Iconic Breweries
By David Sandager
After years of standing vacant, Minnesota breweries of yesteryear are enjoying a renaissance. For close to a century the names Hamm’s, Schmidt, and Grain Belt were synonymous with beer in Minnesota, and their histories are inextricably linked to the rise and fall of a Golden Age of Minnesota brewing. They loomed large in their respective neighborhoods, above Swede Hollow, along West Seventh in St. Paul, and on the East Bank of the Mississippi in Minneapolis. After brewing operations at these Twin Cities breweries ceased, their majestic brick buildings sat empty, reminders of a long-gone era. However, the historic Hamm’s brewery complex is enjoying a revival, and small businesses and developers have taken over the Schmidt and Grain Belt campuses.
Theodore Hamm, the founding father of the company that would produce a beloved bear and a jingle known to millions, inherited the Excelsior Brewery in 1864 from A. F. Keller. In 1965, he established the Theodore Hamm Brewing Company. His descendants built Hamm’s into the nation’s fifth largest brewery, and the Hamm’s campus expanded to meet the national demand for their “sky-blue-water” product. A succession of owners, including Heublein, Olympia, and Stroh, continued to use the site until 1997, ending a 130-year heyday of brewing in East St. Paul.
Seventeen years later, brewing is set to return to the Hamm’s Brewery. The team from Flat Earth Brewing moved their brewery operations to the former keg-washing room of the old Hamm’s brewery—building #8. Flat Earth’s Director of Operations, Franco Claseman, says brewing has begun on the Hamm’s site and growlers are available for sale. Tours are available on Tuesdays at 5:30pm and on Saturdays at 1:00pm and 5:00pm. People interested in visiting Flat Earth’s new Hamm’s site can send an email to [email protected]. Claseman does ask that people bring a non-perishable food item for the food shelf when they swing on by for a tour.
Flat Earth also owns buildings #7 and #9, the former carpentry sites, on the Hamm’s brewery compound. When I stopped by, work was being done to remodel space for an eventual taproom replete with a retail store and large bar area. The brewery is hoping to have its taproom and beer garden up and running in the near future. Claseman explained that the beer garden would be outside in the old carpenter’s shop, which had burned down, and will be transformed into a patio space. While lots of work is still coming for Flat Earth’s space, Claseman encourages people to stop in to sample products, take a tour, pick up a growler, and check out the before-and-after photos highlighting Flat Earth’s efforts to bring brewing back to the Hamm’s brewery.
11 Wells Spirits
The 6,400 square foot pipefitting and electric shop, originally opened in 1955 on the Hamm’s brewery campus, is being repurposed as the office, laboratory, and distilling space for 11 Wells Sprits. The name pays homage to the eleven artesian wells found beneath the original Hamm’s complex.
Robert McManus and his business partner Joel Chirhart took me on a tour of the first and second floor of their distillery space. Compared to other buildings on the Hamm’s campus, theirs is one of the more intact structures left standing. The first floor houses the distillery’s three 600-gallon open top fermentation units, mash tun, and locally-made still. As we walked through the distillery, McManus and Chirhart proudly displayed two bags of Minnesota 13 seed corn they are using to replicate the legendary Minnesotan Prohibition-era moonshine. In addition to the moonshine, the distillery will produce gins, various whiskeys, and rum.
They hope local interest in distilling will continue to gain momentum on the heels of Minnesota’s craft beer boom. McManus pointed to the “Surly Bill,” passed by the 2011 Minnesota Legislature, as having “precipitated the whole movement” of local distilleries by lowering the licensing fees for craft distilleries. He and Chirhart look to the recent and ongoing success of smaller scale distilleries in Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and California as an example of what Minnesota could become. Chirhart is the current treasurer of the Minnesota Distillers Guild, an industry group that brings together the many distilleries that have popped up across Minnesota in the last several years.
When asked about the significance of occupying part of the historic Hamm’s space, both Chirhart and McManus spoke about the importance of continuing the tradition of the brewery. The Hamm’s brewery is a historic landmark of Minnesota brewing and McManus said it “feels great to be resurrecting these sites.” He and Chirhart agreed that there will be Hamm’s memorabilia in their tasting room space. All the proper paperwork has been processed and the team at 11 Wells is up and running. Expect their first products on store shelves “relatively soon.”
Across from the 11 Wells Spirit building stands the old Hamm’s Store House, the home of another small business using the artesian wells. Jennifer Weismann, spokesperson for Urban Organics, described their business as “Stock House #3 [converted] into an aquaponics farm.” Aquaponics is a sustainable farming method combining aquaculture (raising aquatic animals in tanks) and hydroponics (cultivating plants in water) that Urban Organics uses to produce fish and plants for harvesting year round.
“Urban Organics also drilled a new well, tapping into the same deep aquifer beneath ancient bedrock the Hamm’s Brewery used for beer making years ago,” stated Weismann. She stressed that this water is “pristine and free of modern contaminants” and emphasized the fact that the Hamm’s building they occupy was “basically designed for the task” of aquaponics. Urban Organics plans on expanding to all six floors of Stock House #3, and hopes to employ 20 people for peak production time.
The Hamm’s connection runs deep for one of Urban Organics’ partners. St. Paul native David Haider’s great-grandfather worked at the Hamm’s brewery for over 40 years. Weismann echoed the 11 Wells team sentiment about revitalizing the historic brewery.
“[I]t’s an honor to restore the building and bring economic viability to the neighborhood.”