History of Hamm's Brewery
Construction to inCorporation
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 mansion 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.