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Grain Belt Brewery

[Photo: Grain Belt Brewery]
The legendary Grain Belt Brewery - A northeast Minneapolis landmark.
Photo by Ben Lee

Site submitted by: Steve Lee

Location

River Mile 855.50 — Left Descending Bank

Significance

History
Industry

Description

From 14th Avenue to Broadway is the Grain Belt Brewery complex. The abundance of barley and the numbers of settlers of German descent made brewing beer one of Minnesota's early industries. By 1890 there were more than 100 breweries operating in the State. Jeff Lonto's history of this business provides great information on brewing in Minnesota.

French immigrant John Orth started the state's second brewery near this site in 1850. He used caves by Nicollet Island for beer aging and storage. In 1890 Orth consolidated with the Heinrich brewery, the Norenberg brewery, and the Germania brewery to form the Minneapolis Brewing and Malting Company. The company built their new massive brew house, bottle houses, and stables for delivery horses here in 1891-92. In 1893 the "Golden Grain Belt Old Lager" was introduced. The devastating Northeast Minneapolis fire of 1893 destroyed some of the building but spared the stone brew house.

With the new century the company grew to a regional brewer. Prohibition from 1920 to 1934 dealt all brewers a body-blow. The company produced "near beer" with an alcohol content of less than 0.5% and sold the extracted alcohol for industrial and medical purposes (much of the medical rubbing alcohol of that era found its way to bootleggers and speak-easy saloons anyway). Despite wartime shortages and periodic labor strife Grain Belt grew to the ninth-largest brewer in the nation in the early 1960's. The company built Grain Belt Park in 1963 with its fountain, flower gardens, tame deer and hostelry. The 1970's saw huge national brewers pushing into the market with saturation advertising and deep discounting. As the regional beers began to lose money many were bought up by national firms. In April 1975, 34 year-old Irwin Jacobs, a vice-president of a bag manufacturer, bought Grain Belt. In November he sold the Grain Belt labels and inventories and wholesale organization to G. Heileman Brewing Company, operators of the Schmidt Brewery in St.Paul. While the Grain Belt label continued to be applied to beer brewed elsewhere, the last beer was bottled here on December 25, 1975. Jacobs denied that he had bought the brewery to close it down and use the riverfront land for other purposes, but he was denied permission to demolish the buildings by neighborhood activists led by Jeanette May. The city took the property over in the 1980's, but a succession of reuse and development proposals did not take off (Lonto, Jeff).

Finally, starting in the late 1990's the former brewery brewhouse building was refurbished by RSP Architects as offices for their 200 employees. The $22 million project included $13 million in public funding for pollution abatement and historic element preservation to maintain this gem along the river (MST. 30 Mar 2001. p. B1). The office building continues to be rented out as offices, and much of the warehouse area has been refurbished and is in use for offices, small businesses, artists' studios, and apartments.

The former millwright and wagon shops have been converted into the Pierre Bottineau branch of the Minneapolis Public Library. Bottineau was a fur company scout and messenger, settler, land speculator, and a translator between English, French, Dakota, Cree, Ojibwa, Mandan, and Winnebago languages. It was said that "the vast Northwest lay like a map in his brain." (MST. 30 Mar 2001. p. B1; Hennepin County History Magazine, Summer 1958, p. 7.)

 

Content © 2005 Friends of the Mississippi River and each item's authors.
The Mississippi River Field Guide is provided by Friends of the Mississippi River.
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