Schmidt Brewery: St. Paul’s “castle” is now a fortress of a different color

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The Schmidt Brewery sits majestically at 882 West Seventh Street, towering over the other buildings in the area. Its regal mien is appropriate, because it has a long history of being one of the leading breweries in the state, even though it now has been converted to other uses.

Beer brewing has been a healthy industry in Saint Paul and throughout Minnesota over the years. Gary J. Brueggemann notes in “Beer Capital of the State” that in 1887 Minnesota ranked fifth in the country in beer production, while twentieth in population. There were 112 breweries in Minnesota, 12 of them in Saint Paul, making it the state’s leader.

The primary reason for beer’s primacy here is fairly obvious: the state’s large population with German roots, who brought their taste for lager with them to this country. In “Stahlmann’s Cellars,” Greg A. Brick says the era from around 1845 to 1870 has been called “the beer invasion.” Fortuitously, Minnesota had the necessary ingredients for beer making: plenty of fresh water, land and climate good for growing hops and barley, and caves. Not only did the area have natural caves, but the sandstone around Saint Paul was easily carved to create man-made caves for storing beer. This is important because the German-style lager needs to be stored in cool temperatures for several months before it’s ready for drinking. At least 14 breweries used Saint Paul’s sandstone caves, Brueggemann says.

The second important reason for beer’s success here is somewhat surprising: the temperance movement. Beer was seen as a lighter alternative to hard liquor.

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Beer brewing in Saint Paul: The early years

The very first brewery in Saint Paul was Yoerg’s, begun in 1848 and located near downtown for 21 years, then relocated to the West Side off Ohio Street. Yoerg’s was a success story and by 1891 was producing 35,000 barrels a year. Next came Bruggemann’s, then the North Mississippi Company in 1853, then three more breweries in 1855. One of those three was Christopher Stahlmann’s Cave Brewery, a forerunner of Schmidt and the first use of the West Seventh site.

Christopher Stahlmann decided to build his brewery away from the others in a place that seemed remote but had cool natural springs and caves, Brueggemann notes, “in what was then the western reaches of the city and a rural wilderness paved only by a wagon trail named Fort Road.” [The road is now West Seventh but street signs also name it as Fort Road; it was the route for transporting goods to and from Fort Snelling.] Stahlmann eventually excavated the caves, an undertaking which cost him $50,000 and created the most extensive brewery cave in the state. Brick quotes an 1877 newspaper article stating “over 6,000 cakes of the three foot Mississippi ice now [are] in store” in the caves.

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Though he arrived here poor, Stahlmann died a great success. His brewery soon was the largest in the state. When Stahlmann died in 1883, either of tuberculosis or “bowel inflammation,” the brewery was doing about a quarter of a million dollars worth of business every year and employing 47 men. In 1884 it produced 40,000 barrels of beer. Sadly, though, his three sons—all young adults and experienced brewers–died from tuberculosis shortly afterward and the company went bankrupt in 1897.

After the bankruptcy, the brewery was sold to the Saint Paul Brewing Company, then three years later to Jacob Schmidt. According to Brueggemann, “… in 1900 the entire facility, including the beautiful stone mansion of Christopher Stahlmann at 855 West Seventh Street, was sold to the Jacob Schmidt Company (formerly the North Star Brewery).” The stone mansion still stands across West Seventh from the brewery buildings.

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The Schmidt family brewers

Minnesota’s early breweries were all family affairs, and often sons followed in their father’s footsteps or other relatives stepped in to take up the reins when the head of the company died or retired. Brueggemann counts the end of this era as 1975, when the 113-year-old Hamm’s Brewing Company became part of Washington state’s Olympia Brewing Corporation. The reign of family breweries thus lasted 128 years.

In fact, a series of breweries led to Schmidt’s inception in 1900. In addition to the Stahlmann connection, there was an important link with the North Star Brewery, which began in 1855 with two small buildings and a tiny cave on Dayton’s Bluff, was sold in 1866 and again in 1872, then took on a new partner, Reinhold Koch, who had worked at Stahlmann’s, in 1879. By the 1880s North Star was the second largest brewery west of Chicago, producing 16,000 barrels a year. In the middle of that decade, 1884 to be exact, Jacob Schmidt bought out Koch.

Like so many brewers here, Brewmaster Schmidt was from Bavaria—“the cradle of the German brewing industry,” according to Brick– and got his training there. He also had extensive experience in this country, at Best, Blatz and Schlitz in Milwaukee and Shell, Banholzer and Hamm’s in Minnesota.

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In 1890, as Brueggemann relates, Schmidt hired as his bookkeeper Adolph Bremer, a man he’d met while trapshooting in the woods where Hamline University is today. In 1896 Bremer married Schmidt’s only child, his daughter Marie or Maria, and in 1899 became president of the company that soon became the Jacob Schmidt Brewing Company.

The year 1900 is the beginning of the Schmidt Brewery. A fire destroyed Schmidt’s facility, so the company moved to the Stahlmann site and carried out massive remodeling. It became a 200,000-barrel-a-year factory.

Jacob Schmidt died 1911 and Bremer took over running the business, bringing in his brother Otto to assist. Otto then ran the company with great success after Adolph died in 1939—in addition to his job as head of American National Bank. Otto’s death in 1951 and the company’s sale in 1954 to Pfeiffer Brewing of Detroit marked the end of the Jacob Schmidt Brewing Company, though the beer continued to carry its founder’s name.

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Cold storage and castle building

The brewery’s caves became almost legendary over the years. Greg Brick notes that through journalists’ eloquent “atmospheric” descriptions, like comparing the caves to the catacombs of Rome, “the cellars gained a national and almost mythical reputation as the very type of labyrinthine complexity.” They were described as having three levels of depth and being miles long, but in fact, Brick says, there is about ½ mile of passage about 16 feet by 10 feet long, 20 to 30 feet below street level.

The use of caves declined, however, when icehouses became popular in the 1870s, and even more significantly with the advent of mechanical refrigeration in the 1880s. Also, Pasteur had done research into the “diseases” of beer and that led to a push for cleaner facilities. After the Fort Street Sewer was run through the caves in 1884, they likely were not used much for storage after that.

When Schmidt’s location at the West Seventh Street site began in 1900, the extensive remodeling carried out by Chicago architect Bernard Barthel resulted in the iconic building that still “towers over the Fort Road neighborhood like a magnificent, red-brick Rhenish castle,” in Brick’s words. Barthel actually designed it in “feudal castle style.” Mechanical refrigeration was introduced there in 1901. The original Stahlmann brewhouse was demolished in 1919.

Under the Bremers, the brewery became one of the largest regional beer producers in the country. It survived the years of Prohibition and within three years after prohibition ended became the seventh largest brewery in the U.S.

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Landmark and later

Following Bremer’s 1954 death the brewery went through several owners before becoming Landmark Brewery in 1991.

Mike Goldman worked at the brewery from 1973 to 1990, in the bottle house and at just about every job that was available. Goldman said there was a lot of opportunity then to rotate among work assignments. He also described an atmosphere of great camaraderie: “It was very definitely like having a second family. There were second, third and fourth generation employees. Coworkers became close friends.”

When Heileman acquired the brewery in 1972, Goldman said, “It was good because it created more demand. They brought in some other labels, and we experienced quite a bit of growth.” But the sale in 1987 to Bond Corporation of Australia was a different matter; it was a leveraged buyout of the “go-go 1980s” that was good for the stockholders but not for the brewery workers or the community. The purchaser paid three to four times what the company was worth; the sale was over-leveraged; and it was bought with 100 percent borrowed money. There was no money to advertise or promote the product or make capital improvements. The timing was extremely unfortunate, Goldman said, and the company went bankrupt a few years later. After the bankruptcy it was sold to Landmark.

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Landmark closed in 2002, and Gopher State Ethanol ran its works there from 2000-2004. In 2005 the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office determined the Schmidt Brewery was eligible for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places, though some debate arose about the benefits of such designation, with supporters citing the benefits of historic tax credits available to holders of that designation, but opponents expressing concern that such designation would discourage developers. Larry Millett says in his AIA Guide to the Twin Cities that the brewery is “worthy of preservation at all costs.” The Jacob Schmidt Brewing Company became a national historic district in 2011.

In June 2010 the locally famous “spring water” at the brewery became available again after a hiatus of several years. The water is from a well 1050 feet deep that was drilled in 1980. For years after that people could get 35,000-year-old water for free at the site. A million gallons a year were pumped there. Now it’s available for a dollar per gallon.

Currently the majestic brewery buildings have been converted or are being converted. The former bottling department has become artist lofts, and a retail center called Keg & Case Market opened September 2018. That undertaking involved a $9 million remake of the former keg warehouse.

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When developer Dominium purchased the site of the former brewery in 2012, it removed the landmark Schmidt sign, which was an icon of St. Paul for many years. For the German Fest held on the brewery grounds in June 2014, a new Schmidt sign on top of the brewery was lit for the first time.

September 2010, revised November 2016 and September 2018

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