Where there are 16,000 Germans, there will be a brewery
Such was the state of things in Saint Paul around 1848 when Anthony Yoerg, a Bavarian with a penchant for cave-aged brew, was practicing his craft. Business was so good for him that in 1871 he moved his operation across the river and into a new brewhouse, one that adjoined a set of natural caves, perfect for aging his beer. Gradually the brewery founder expanded those cellars to make room for more, then even more kegs.
“Yeah,” I said, “but have you seen them?”
These networks of tunnels were regarded as inflated misinterpretations of old maps in the caving groups I consulted when I first learned about Yoerg’s Brewery; nobody had explored them or knew what was left of the rumored archways and Cold War ‘Civil Defense’ water barrels supposedly within, still waiting for the apocalypse. As far as I knew, the last people to survey the Yoerg Brewery Caves were those ‘CD men’ in 1962 who charted the most likely chambers in which one could survive the nuclear eradication of Saint Paul.
By that time the brewery was long closed and its 4-level cave was equally empty, no longer stacked with kegs of ‘Yoerg’s Cave-Aged Strong Beer’.
Cellars, a term preferred to ‘caves’ in the brewing world, like these were often utilized by brewers for their perfect year-round 47-degree climate, and Saint Paul sandstone was perfect for digging. It has so many such caves that I suppose only its St. Louis, Missouri competition rivals their scope and number; Hamm’s, Schmidt’s, and Yoerg’s versus Lemp’s and Falstaff’s and (of course) Anheuser-Busch.
Yoerg’s lasted longer than most of these, even surviving Prohibition, a universally bad time for brewers and beer-lovers alike. In the ‘dry days’, the brewery temporarily became the Yoerg Milk Company—in fact two of their old trucks may be those that still reside half-buried in a nearby cave (identification in their current condition is near-impossible).
After the 21st Amendment ended Prohibition in 1933, the brewery kept using their caves in favor of artificial refrigeration, one of the few breweries to do so. But this cost-cutting merely delayed their domination by national brands like the local Hamm’s that pushed smaller producers out.
Yoerg’s finally closed in 1952 after out-of-state competition choked out its market, thanks to advances in refrigeration.
Cave Hell: Toilet Storage
After closure, a company called Charles Harris Plumbing and Heating used the caves, stacking toilets and piping inside its passageways. Curious visitors might recall seeing bits of porcelain strewn over the caverns in the sand—the remnants of these modern thrones. The caves were again abandoned in 1958 after the plumbing company warehouse attached to the caves burned down.
The caves have been sealed and reopened countless times over the past half-century, but their layout has changed surprisingly little. The main level, fifty or so feet above the Mississippi, comprises almost all of the area of the cave, with another small level just below it in the form of snaking sewer and steam tunnels. Above the main chambers are another similar system of belly-crawl level tunnels that link the various chambers–their purpose is unknown to me. Finally, for the adventurous cavers, a fourth level is accessible by climbing a knotted rope thirty feet vertically to another small set of rooms.
Aside from the toilets, there are a few traces of the caves’ former lives, only a few light and pipe mounts fastened to the walls and ceiling and various steel barrels lay half-buried between the brick archways and stone staircases. That isn’t to say nothing interesting has happened, though, in the intervening years…
In 2004, the Saint Paul Police Bomb Squad was called into the mine to extract about 1,000 pounds of black powder found in the backrooms of the cave. Not long afterward, a few local teenagers made a campfire in a nearby cave and suffocated to death. After these two incidents, the city decided to permanently seal all caves in the area with concrete.
Sadly, it seems that the beauty and history of these caves will be locked in the darkness for another generation.