The Cave and the Castle
the city was young
found the right spot
Expanding Cellars and the Death of the Stahlmanns
The land overlooked the Mississippi River on the Saint Paul’s western extremity and—most important at all—it contained a sizable natural cave….
…the sandstone walls ripe for fast expansion, cool and dry space to lager beer in.
It was 1855, and he had not been in the area for more than a year when ground broke on his brewery. Before December, barrels bearing his name rumbled on the backs of horse-drawn trailers toward downtown saloons: Stahlmann.
Digging continued as his profits, and family, grew. Soon, the brewery was making 20,000 barrels of Bavarian style brew every year. Christopher had three sons that he groomed for business as it flourished, keeping the German life blood of the city comfortable dilute as the community expanded around Stahlmann’s stone walls.
Unlike most of the brewers of that era, Christopher Stahlmann did not name his firm after himself, but rather chose to elevate his underground boon. ‘Cave Brewery’ read the sign on the corner of Fort and Oneida roads, as did his ads in newspapers which bragged of the brewery’s proportions. The company would not change its name to the more traditional Christopher Stahlmann Brewing Company until just before its namesake’s death, when the cellars were abandoned in favor of modern refrigeration.
Business multiplied when the company discovered how simply it could send beer down the Mississippi by riverboat. At terminals as distant as Memphis, the Minnesotan beer sold at a premium. Unfortunately for Stahlmann, such traffic necessarily ceased in June, 1862, at the outbreak of the Civil War.
Strong sales across the state and beyond drove expansion back home, and Stahlmann enjoyed the distinction of operating the state’s biggest brewery, a fact that served his personal and political aspirations well. In his life he would not only be known as a business pioneer and master brewer, but a State Representative and County Commissioner as well.
Later in his life, on special occasions, Christopher Stahlmann himself would personally conduct tours through the extensive cellars that he enlarged from the humble cave he found decades before. With a candle in hand, dignitaries, reporters, politicians, and the curious would follow him through the side of the brewery and into the caverns and exhibit the rows of barrels, stacked against the cave walls and covered in ice.
The spectacle of it all was not lost on the journalists and socialites that partook in the subterranean ventures: the brewery became nationally known as the visible marker for an unseen and mysterious labyrinth, whose true dimensions were ever expanding and ever unknowable, according to popular opinion at the time.
Christopher Stahlmann succumbed to tuberculosis in 1883, and his sons, rather than follow in his work, tragically followed in his demise; they, too, succumbed to TB soon after their father, the last of them dying in 1894.
Without Stahlmann to run the brewery, it was sold to St. Paul Brewing Company in 1897.
Their operation was far from profitable. They were one of many such companies trying to grab what market share the Cave Brewery once commanded, many of which are familiar to beer fans today: Hamm’s, Heinrich’s, Banholzer’s and Yoerg’s. Others are less well known, such as North Star Brewery at the foot of Dayton’s Bluff, which was at this time run by one of the most experienced brewers in the city, Jacob Schmidt.
The Rise of Jacob Schmidt, Master Brewer
Schmidt was a qualified beer maker before he joined the North Star brand.
He came to the United States in 1865 at the age of 20 and worked in brewhouses as he moved westward. He worked in Rochester, Chicago, and Milwaukee, before coming to Minnesota, where he found a position at Schell’s brewery in New Ulm, before moving to Minneapolis’ Heinrich’s and then to Banholzer’s and Hamm’s of St. Paul.
At Theodore Hamm’s brewery, the biggest of its kind in the state, Schmidt became not just the chief brewer, but also a personal friend of the firm’s powerful owner and namesake.
Ultimately, Jacob Schmidt wanted his own brewery.
On the other end of Swede Hollow, in 1860, Edward Drewry and George Scotten founded what would become the North Star Brewery, then just called ‘Drewry & Scotten’. Though it featured a brewhouse large enough to compete with Stahlmann’s operation on the other side of St. Paul, and had adequate—though far from extensive—underground cellars to match, this brewery produced ale, not lager beer, and therefore did not compete with Stahlmann’s brand.
After changing hands several times, it was clear by the early 1880s that North Star required a talented master brewer. The owners of that humble brewery, William Constans (grocer and brewery supply dealer) and Reinhold Koch (brewer and Civil War veteran), hired Jacob Schmidt, and the former Hamm’s brewer rapidly expanded production below the bluff.
Together, Schmidt, Constans and Koch grew North Star Brewery to the point it competed directly with Hamm’s.
In a few years, the Dayton’s Bluff brewhouse became the second greatest producer of beer west of Chicago by some estimates, sending out 16,000 barrels annually as far as Illinois. In 1884, Constans and Koch decided to leave the business, thereby leaving Schmidt as sole owner. In 1899, Schmidt took down the ‘North Star Brewery’ sign and replaced it with ‘Jacob Schmidt Brewing Company’.
The next year, it all burned.
Today, all that remains of the brewery are its aging cellars, which are a part of the new Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary in Lowertown off Commercial Street.
As he considered the cost of rebuilding, Schmidt received a proposal from St. Paul Brewing: they wanted to sell him their troubled brewery. The brewmaster accepted the offer and moved his operation into the former Cave Brewery, which had been only slightly modified since Stahlmann built it almost 50 years prior. Facilities were inadequate, but he would fix that.
Interestingly, Jacob Schmidt had all the bottles salvaged from the ruined brewery shipped to his new location. The glasses still bore the mark of the North Star brand, a large five-pointed star—a feature the brewer would ultimately opt to keep.
Stars cover the Schmidt brewery to this day, in signs and ironwork, hearkening to Jacob Schmidt’s time at, and the destruction of, North Star Brewery.
A Castle Rises over Fort Road
Observing the lowly state that Stahlmann’s brewery was in, Schmidt hired a rising Chicago architect, Bernard Barthel, to design a totally new complex to replace what was left of the Christopher Stahlmann Brewing Company, and St. Paul Brewing Company’s brash modifications to it.
It would be medieval on the outside, but totally modern and streamlined inside.
Soon, imposing red brick towers were rising on Fort Road, with obvious influences borrowed from feudal era castles, replacing the modest remains of Cave Brewery. Construction of Jacob Schmidt Brewing Co. was completed in 1904, followed in the next decade by its more significant outbuildings, notably ending in 1915 with the Bottling Department. Schmidt beer was some of the first to be bottled on-site in the state.
The new brewery complex was designed to compete with the biggest brewers in the country, and it did.
When Jacob died in 1911, his brewery was an icon of the West Side and the employer of more than 200 people. More importantly, the beer continued to flow, unlike the bust that followed the Stahlmanns. Though the man himself was gone, the name Schmidt was becoming ever more prominent across the country.
Then, just as the West Side brewhouse seemed to be reaching a plateau, Prohibition passed.
Prohibition, or, the Reign of Malta
When alcoholic beverages were federally banned in 1920, Schmidt Brewery had to diversify in order to survive. Though it could no longer stay afloat on the popularity of its beer, the company found other beverages could be made in its facility with little adaptation.
Though full-alcohol beer was banned, Schmidt produced several kinds of ‘near-beer’ with drastically reduced alcohol content. Malta and City Club Select were its flagship brews, though around the holidays specially flavored near-bear was also marketed to families, in addition to a line of soft drinks also made there.
It was in brewing such specialty near-beers that the company came under legal scrutiny. It was accused of providing beverages to a local restaurant with no liquor license, but thankfully, when the judge hearing the case found that the drinks were less than 4 proof (>2% alcohol), all charges against Schmidt Brewery were dropped.
A fire in 1925 proved only a minor setback, as the flames destroyed only a few outbuildings and left the bulk of the valuable structures intact. The company used this as an opportunity to expand and modernize some of its distribution facilities; changes that would help prepare the near-beer brewer for better days.
In 1933, the 21st Amendment was passed, repealing Prohibition. Almost immediately, the ‘Select’ was dropped from the City Club name and the cans were filled with the full-alcohol beer again, as God intended. “Tops in Any Town!” was the brand pitch until the line was replaced in the 1950s by Schmidt Beer.
Grain Belt and Corn Alcohol
By the 1970s, Jacob Schmidt Brewing could compete no longer with mass brewers. The national brands had wider advertising campaigns and thicker distribution networks. Schmidt would have to sell out. This time, the G. Heilman company of La Crosse, Wisconsin picked up the plant.
Instead of Schmidt Beer coming from the Schmidt Brewery, cans read “Grain Belt,” “Old Style” and “Blatz.”
Heilman sold the brewery to the Minnesota Brewing Company in 1991 after its main investor was ruined in an Australian economic crash, but the brewery proved to be an awkward size.
The old Schmidt brewery was too small to compete with national brands and at the same time too large to efficiently do small batches of artisan and craft beer. That, and it was aging—the equipment needed replacing, which the owners could not afford.
Nevertheless, the company continued to brew Landmark and Pig’s Eye Pilsner beer there until 2002. It was at this time a corn alcohol company, Gopher State Ethanol, took total control of the property. They had been operated in a more limited way there since 2000, a bane to the former Schmidt Brewery’s neighbors.
Ethanol production is not a family-friendly process.
Immediately after its arrival, Gopher State was bombarded by complaints and lawsuits regarding noises and smells drifting into the surrounding neighborhoods. It was ultimately the company’s poor financial choices, not the various complaints, which killed ethanol on Fort Road.
In 2004 Gopher filed for bankruptcy, fixing one problem while causing another.
Between 2004 and 2013 the property sat unused as it passed between owners, each with a vision without funding, partly due to the economic recession. By 2012, however, the formula of government bonds and low interest rates finally attracted a developer with means to the historic brewery.
On January 29, 2013 ground broke on a 100 million dollar, 247 unit artist loft and condo project, and work began that spring. It’s open now, so you can visit and see the difference between the pictures here and the new interior. When I get around to it, I’ll swing by the refreshed building and take some now-and-then pictures.