“Wanna go to the well and fill up?”
…he would say, the corners of his cheeks turned into a big, bearded grin. It was my job to hold the former milk jugs. As long as it meant that I didn’t need to drink that swampy city tap water, I was happy to be a part of this important mission.
A Personal—If Minor—Connection
I couldn’t quite see over the dashboard, but I knew when I saw the orange-yellow brick and the giant grey smokestack, we were there. Sometimes there was a line, but usually we could just go straight to the tap and, jug by jug, draw a week’s worth of clean cold well water to take back home.
“How was the brewery?” My mom would ask back at the house, before rearranging a dozen tiny containers in the fridge to make room for a fresh gallon in a repurposed milk jug. “I dunno, I just went with Grandpa to the well,” I would insist, confused by the question.
“The well that’s the brewery—well, the well’s at the brewery, anyway. Why don’t you ask Grandpa about it?” I didn’t, why would I?
A “brewery” for all I was concerned was the place where we got our water.
There was no connection between the building—their earthy-orange bricks and steaming vents—and the silver and blue can I was allowed a sip from at Christmas.
When I finally connected the place called “Hamm’s Brewery” to my childhood memories of milk jugs and Sunday trips to the well, its windows were barred, its doors locked, and I was a teenager. The well is still in the parking lot near where the stockhouses used to stand, though its spouts are dry. My memories of the hot afternoons waiting in line with my grandfather, though, are undiluted by the years and history.
In fact, now my childhood memories of Hamm’s—the water that raised me, and the beer that my family had at dinner—is joined by the memories of different adventures to the brewery… confronting scrappers, sharing my lunch with squatters, romping through caves and basements. I never outgrew the fantasy that it as a kind of castle, the caves its dungeons and the Brew House a half-ruined citadel.
Like my own, the Hamm’s story is a St. Paul story…
Construction to Corporations
Theodore Hamm himself came to St. Paul via Chicago via Buffalo via Baden, Germany, where he was born in 1825. Before he crossed the ocean he was trained as a butcher, but by the time he founded himself in St. Paul, Minnesota he was known as a saloon proprietor and boarding house manager.
That all changed in 1894, however, when Hamm hired a Chicago architect to build him a brewery in St. Paul on a site he had purchased prior. As a bit of trivia, the land he bought was once owned by Edward Phelan, namesake to Lake Phalen and Phalen Creek—never mind the spelling.
Thanks to the super-pure water from the brewery’s wells and its utilization of the native sandstone for aging caves, the operation grew quick—Theo’s wife, Louise, even did the books. By 1910 the brewery was shipping 700,000 barrels yearly, the volume that would probably spill from the Minnesotan bottling lines 50 years later.
The family did so well that they built themselves a very nice home behind the brewery, a Queen Anne style mansion. Behind the brewery today there are still stairs that lead from behind the Keg Wash House up the hill, though an arsonist destroyed the house itself in 1954.
Most expansion for the company was in the 1930s, a few years following the repeal of Prohibition. The complex’s giant footprint stopped growing for World War II, for which The Theo Hamm Brewing Co. was a military supplier. What they supplied I do not know, but one can guess that certain non-alcoholic malted beverages were distributed to the troops.
After the war our domestic beer industry contracted, becoming more of an advertising and distribution shootout between the big players than a local trade, a consequence of cheap, reliable refrigeration. Beer from Milwaukee, St. Louis, Boston–even St. Paul–could be shipped nationwide in special trucks and train cars, and, as long as enough moved, the shipping costs were offset.
By the numbers, the decade of 1948 to 1958 saw a 50% decrease in the number of breweries in the country, brining the total to around 250. In that highly competitive market, Hamm’s ranked fifth place.
But the beer war was not something Hamm’s was positioned to win—the brand was not recognizable enough compared to Anheuser-Busch, Miller, and Coors. While the company celebrated its centennial in 1964 it was looking for buyers. That year 3.8 million barrels of Hamm’s were brewed.
If you’re wondering what their all-time record was, it’s 4.3 million barrels.
…the Harder it Falls
First the company was bought by its own distributors, but they could not muster the capital to hold onto their winnings, so in 1975 they sold to Olympia Brewing. This is the name that’s still on the public well in the parking lot. Things got complicated in 1983 when Pabst bought Olympia, drawing the attention of anti-trust lawyers.To protect themselves, Pabst made a deal to trade Hamm’s to Stroh’s, the last operator of the brewery.
Strangely, because of the terms of this contract, Stroh’s brewed the Hamm’s recipe in their Milwaukee plant while Hamm’s brewed the Stroh’s recipe in the St. Paul plant.
This could have been a contributing factor in the fall of the brand, reinforcing the negative public sentiment of watching a hometown, family-owned brand be traded between corporations for decades. St. Paul always could taste the difference. Either way, in 1997 it was announced that the St. Paul factory was going to be shut down.
The parking lot well was turned off.
Since before its abandonment I’ve watched Hamm’s change. Sometimes the front doors are open, sometimes a building’s missing. In 2005 I turned on the local news to see it on fire. The losses of that alleged arson was part of the oldest building on the property, a stable for delivery wagon horse converted to a carpentry shop. I had only seen its inside once before a scrapper using a torch to melt insulation off copper wiring set the wooden frame ablaze.
To illustrate these differences, here is a little companion piece, an extended look at the small changes between 2004 and 2012 around the plant: Hamm’s Then and Now.
As I write, preparations are being made to demolish another Stock House, one of three buildings on the South Campus scheduled to fall before there is more talk of reuse. The second-oldest building in the complex, the 1883 Power House, is also expected to fall. Plans for the future of Hamm’s include, (a) a beautiful orange-brick redeveloped turn-of-the-century brewhouse, or (b) an empty abandoned lot.
Your call, St. Paul.