On a recent visit at a Twin Cities brewery, one question came up that perplexed our whole group – what’s the oldest brewery in Minnesota?
The question sounds simple enough, but it turns out, none of us had paid much attention during Minnesota history. Either that, or the public school system decided to gloss right over the chapter about judgment impairing drugs…
In any case, the confusion led to a hotly contested debate, with compelling arguments from all sides. (Except for our friend who swore it was Surly… he’d clearly had a few too many Axe Mans…)
After much debate and research, we finally found our answer. And we learned a pretty fascinating story along the way, too.
Read on if you want to crush your friends at the next Trivia Mafia…
What is the oldest brewery in Minnesota?
The oldest brewery in Minnesota is the August Schell Brewing Company. It was founded in 1860 by German immigrant August Schell and has operated continuously in the Schell Family for over 150 years.
The full story is a pretty interesting one, because Schell’s wasn’t actually the first brewery. (Read on to find out…)
August Schell was born in 1828 in Durbach, Germany. In 1848, he moved to the United States. He first worked in Cincinnati as a machinist before moving to New Ulm, Minnesota. As the name might imply, New Ulm was primarily a town comprised of German immigrants, and that’s when August Schell had his light bulb moment.
In 1860, he put that machinist experience to good use, when he partnered with Jacob Bernhardt to found a brewery to serve the thirsty population of German immigrants.
One small hiccup: In 1865, nearly the entire town of New Ulm was burned during The Dakota War of 1865. , yet miraculously, the brewery escaped unharmed. (Beer is proof that god loves us and wants us to be happy, hmm?)
A year later in 1866, August Schell bought out Jacob Bernhardt, becoming the sole owner of the brewery. This began an unbroken streak of family ownership that continues to this day.
August Schell died in 1891; however, the August Schell Brewing company has operated continuously under the Schell family ever since.
During Prohibition, the brewery adjusted to producing soft drinks, candy, and “near-beer” – a low ABV beer that remained legal during Prohibition.
The brewery again struggled during the 1960s. At one point, reports indicated that the brewery only managed to avoid bankruptcy by cutting down and selling the lumber of a large walnut tree located on the premises.
In the 1980s, the brewery made a resurgence powered by the introduction of new flavors, namely Schell’s Pilsener, which earned a gold medal at the 1988 Great American Beer Festival.
Schell’s became the largest brewery in Minnesota in 2002, when they purchased the recipe and branding for Grain Belt Beer.
So, debate solved. Today, Schell’s remains both the oldest and largest brewery in the state of Minnesota.
Or is it?
What was the first brewery in Minnesota?
Here’s where things get interesting. Even though Schell’s is the oldest brewery in Minnesota, it wasn’t the first. And to make things even more confusing, the first brewery still operates today!
How is that possible?
Well, according to MPR, the first commercial brewery in Minnesota was started in 1849 by Anthony Yoerg. Yoerg was a Bavarian immigrant who opened his brewery in St. Paul, near what is today the Science Museum of Minnesota’s parking garage.
Yoerg’s brewery was a success. The brewer soon built a fancy show home, and demand was large enough that he eventually had to move his location across the river. There, he aged his beer in what’s now the Wabasha Street caves.
During Prohibition, Yoerg had to move into the dairy business. He eventually resumed brewing beer in 1933, but by 1952, Yoerg Brewing closed when the last surviving Yoerg son passed away. With the operation struggling to compete with the era’s juggernauts like Schmidt, Hamm’s, and others, Yoerg’s widows sold the brewery.
Shortly after being sold, the Yoerg building was lost to a flood in 1952. And then for good measure, destroyed by a fire in 1958! (Talk about getting kicked while you’re down!)
However, in 2016, The Yoerg brand was resurrected by local St. Paul resident Thomas Keim. Keim says he’d fallen in love with the brand as a young boy while working in the basement of a liquor store, where he discovered bottles from the long lost brewery and became fascinated.
Around 2015, Keim discovered the Yoerg brand was available, and he secured the rights to use the name.
Today, Yoerg Brewing operates a neighborhood taproom in East Saint Paul, with beer recipes inspired by the original Yoerg formulas.
(PS – We’ve been to the new Yoerg taproom, and it’s so awesome that we consider it one of the best breweries in St. Paul!)
So while Yoerg was technically the first brewery in Minnesota, and its legacy has found a way to live on to this day, it’s 60+ year hiccup from operations creates an interesting quirk in Minnesota history.