A basement find at age 10 is still inspiring Tom Keim almost 50 years later.
“I found a crusty case of returnables and it was the most beautiful thing,” he recalls. At 10 years old, the Yoerg beer that once filled the bottles didn’t interest him—it was the packaging and the colors. “I was fascinated by the labels,” he remembers. Yoerg was already a dead brand at that time. The brewery, founded in 1848, had closed in 1952. The branding, however, set Keim on a lifelong mission.
Keim, now 59, will bottle the first batch of Yoerg beer in over 60 years on June 30, reviving a historic brand that pre-dates Minnesota’s statehood and is among the country’s most collectible breweriana. “It wasn’t until the last four or five years I found out how collectible this stuff is,” Keim says. As a child, he just thought Yoerg looked cool. It wasn’t until the internet era when he discovered its popularity.
Keim has wanted to revive the brand since the 1970s, he says, which is when he got into the beer business via sales and imports. Since then, he’s watched the name carefully, waiting for his opportunity (another party had already registered the name with the state). Four years ago he was doing his “yearly lament” about how he’d like to resurrect the label when his girlfriend and business partner, Carole Minogue, saw that the registration had lapsed. Keim quickly filed paperwork and hired a lawyer with experience acquiring trademarks on family name brands. With about 40 Yoergs in the United States, Keim says, it took a few years to get the trademark, but he finally achieved his goal.
He shopped his idea with various breweries in St. Paul, from veterans to start-ups, but couldn’t reach an agreement that worked for both businesses. Tired of waiting, he decided the beer was more important than returning Yoerg to its former hometown. Instead he reached a deal with contract brewers Octopi Brewing in Waunakee, Wisconsin.
“We’re going to be a gypsy brewery,” says Keim. “I’m a marketing guy. I’ve been in the business for 40 years, but I like to sell. I’m not a brewer.” Octopi stood out because of their products on the shelves (brewed contractually and with a non-disclosure agreement), and their head brewer Mike Krause’s knowledge of German techniques like steam brewing impressed Keim.
When Yoerg originally closed, they donated 38 boxes of information to the Minnesota Historical Society. Keim and Minogue have searched those boxes, reading invoices and compiling a list of ingredients and recipes. While they couldn’t confirm the yeast originally used to brew Yoerg, Keim made an educated guess that Yoerg’s flagship lager was a dampf beer, given Anthony Yoerg’s German roots.
“We’re cheating a little bit,” Keim admits, referring to his recreating of Yoerg Beer, noting how they’re taking influence from another steam lager, the California common. “There’s something about the San Francisco yeast that gives a rocky head and a fatness on the palate that a regular lager doesn’t have,” he says.
Through test batches, Keim and his team have reached a historically-influenced recipe that he says will fill a niche in the current lager market. Although the yeast they’re using is expensive and has to be cultivated immediately, making it a challenging brew cycle that demands a top brewer, Krause, who has also worked for Wisconsin’s O’so Brewing, has been up to the challenge. It was Krause who suggested Celeia hops to help balance the lager. “It’s one thing to have a story, but that sells one six-pack,” says Keim. “For you to come back and buy a second, the beer’s got to be good.”
Ultimately, Keim would like Yoerg to return to St. Paul, and he’s been eying historic buildings with the intent to open a showcase nanobrewery. It will be pre-Prohibition themed, built around the Yoerg story and beer history in Minnesota, he says. While the brewery could conceivably sell ales as well, he’d do so under another name. “I don’t want to mess with the Yoerg brand.”
“The family has come out of the woodwork contacting me,” he says, with many Yoergs excited at the revival. “We’re doing everything right and using the original artwork,” he explains, which has fostered goodwill. Keim envisions Yoerg 2016 as a continuation instead of a remake.
“We want to act like the brewery never closed and never aged,” he says. The red and white artwork, circa roughly 1910, is here to stay. “This is the label until I die.”
Yoerg’s lineup will include:
- Yoerg’s Beer – Their flagship lager produced in the classic Bavarian “dampf” (steam) or California common style, releasing in late June 2016 in six-packs of 12-ounce bottles and half barrels.
- Yoerg’s Bock Beer — A traditional bock, releasing in late fall 2016 in four-packs of 12-ounce bottles and half barrels.
- Yoerg’s Picnic Beer – Their summer seasonal, a pilsner, due out in summer 2017 in six-packs of 12-ounce bottles and half barrels. They are exploring large bottle options.
- Yoerg’s Strong Beer — Their winter seasonal, a doppelbock, due out in winter 2017 in four-packs of 12-ounce bottles and half barrels.