Then and now: Uncovering Duluth’s storied People’s Brewing Co.

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Barrels of beer are delivered by horseback from People’s Brewery in this 1908 photo // Image Detail, Archives and Special Collections, Kathryn A. Martin Library, University of Minnesota Duluth

People’s Brewing was operational from 1908 until Prohibition in 1920. From 1920–1933, they produced soft drinks like 7-UP. When Prohibition ended, they brewed again up until 1957, when they fell victim to the price wars brought on by mass-produced beer.

According to Hoverson’s book “Land of Amber Waters: The History of Brewing in Minnesota,” People’s produced as much as 75,000 barrels a year in its heyday and shipped malt beverages all the way to Puerto Rico. People’s brewed several different kinds of beer, though Hoverson says the beers were probably very similar—basic American-style lagers that catered to the palates of their primarily Eastern European customers.

One beer produced by People’s was called “Ruff’s Stout,” but Hoverson says “stout” referred to the strength rather than the style of the beer. The malt liquor was later renamed Olde English 600 and, in the 1950s, sold to a brewery in Spokane. When that brewery folded, it was bought by Weinhard, then Pabst, and finally Miller. Though the recipe has likely changed along with the name, and the beverage doesn’t appeal to most contemporary craft beer connoisseurs, today’s Olde English 800 is a relic of People’s Brewing Company.

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Brewery workers fill kegs at People’s Brewing sometime between 1934–1938 // Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections, Kathryn A. Martin Library, University of Minnesota Duluth

People’s Brewing Company was a formidable five-story brick building located at 4230 West Second Street. The three upper floors of the building have been destroyed but some brewery remnants can be found in and under two existing Duluth businesses: Brock White Company, a construction supplier, and Servpro, a restoration and cleaning company.

Kevin Buck, owner of Servpro, says Brock White is on the site of the old retail portion of the brewery while Servepro is located where the bottling and brewing took place. He has heard that a number of underground tunnels exist around and between the businesses.

According to Buck and several Servepro employees, the brewery’s history lives on in more than just the physical structure—many claim the building is haunted. While working late at night, different people have heard curious noises: machinery whirring, bottles clanking, guys talking—all reminiscent of a beer bottling line. Thankfully, the occurrences haven’t been terribly disruptive, though one time every motion-sensing alarm in the building was mysteriously tripped while company members were away at a convention.

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Ten old fermentation tanks from People’s Brewery are still in the basement below Servpro in Duluth // Photo by Melissa Maki

When Servepro renovated, the simplest and most cost effective path was to wall up the vat room. The space can still be accessed, but it takes a little effort. After agreeing to enter at your own risk, you climb a ladder, maneuver onto a shaky platform, crouch through an undersized door, and dodge loose bundles of insulation. Finally, you enter the eerie, pitch-black space.

Lit by headlamps, the former brewery’s old vat room is impressive to say the least, its 10 massive fermentation tanks still largely preserved. Although the last batch of beer was brewed at People’s half a century ago, the space that changed the face of brewing in Duluth still inspires the imagination to conjure the scent and sounds of fermentation. Or maybe it wasn’t my imagination at all.

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