In the past few years, Minnesota’s craft beer scene has exploded with taprooms and breweries: According to a recent report by Minnesota Public Radio, a whopping 172 commercial beer makers are now active in the state.
But few citizens know that Minnesota’s first commercial brewery got its start back in our state’s territorial days with the Yoerg Brewing Company in St. Paul, founded in 1849 by Bavarian immigrant Anthony Yoerg.
Yoerg, who came to the U.S. at age 19, first lived in Pittsburgh and Galena, Illinois, but eventually settled in Minnesota.
After a stint running a butcher shop, Yoerg began brewing German beer out of his home at Eagle and Washington streets in St. Paul. He and his wife, Elovina, would grind malt in a coffee mill, bottle beer at their kitchen stove, and then he would haul beer to neighborhood customers by wheelbarrow or cart.
A growing German community
In 1849, only a handful of German immigrants lived in St. Paul, but by 1860, 16,000 Germans called Ramsey County home. Demand for Yoerg beer grew, and soon the family ran out of room to store beer in their home’s cellar and attic, and began storing it in cool caves along the Mississippi River.
In 1871, Yoerg built a stone brewery complex at 229 Ohio St., near what’s now Harriet Island, including a steam-powered assembly line and nearly a mile of underground cooling caves. Within a decade, the company was producing 20,000 barrels of beer a year, and by 1891, it had grown to 35,000 barrels annually.
Yoerg’s sons and sons-in-law also became involved in the business, and when he died at age 80 in 1896, the brewery’s management stayed in the family. While the company remained profitable, the temperance movement was also growing in Minnesota.
The rise of prohibition
In 1917, the U.S. Congress took up an amendment banning “the manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors,” and within a few years, two-thirds of states ratified the amendment.
Prohibition went into effect in 1920 and forced breweries to shut down operations across the country. Yoerg Brewing shifted its business to producing soft drinks, milk and very low-alcohol near-beer.
When Prohibition was finally repealed in 1933, sons Frank and Louis reopened the brewery. However, the company was in a weak financial position, and the brothers were forced to sell part of their stock ownership in the company to raise financing.
The company also found that customers’ beer-buying habits had changed. Customers were more inclined to buy beer from grocers, which offered cheaper prices. Other breweries were also modernizing their production, which allowed them to cut costs and resulted in Yoerg beer being more expensive than its competitors.
In 1941, Yoerg Brewing Company filed for bankruptcy. Despite ridding itself of debts, the company continued to lag behind its pre-Prohibition sales.
Then, in the spring of 1952, the Mississippi River rose to recording-breaking stages, resulting in terrible flooding around St. Paul, including at the Yoerg Brewing Company. The brewery was almost totally surrounded by floodwaters, causing production to shut down and sales to fall even more.
The board began discussing selling the company. But without a successful sale by November 1952, officers voted to dissolve the more than 100-year-old company.
A new brewery in St. Paul
While today the physical brewery is long gone, in 2016, two Minnesotans revived the historic Yoerg brand and began recreating its German-style beer through a contract with Octopi Brewing in Waunakee, Wisconsin.
And now, you can now enjoy the beer — brewed right in St. Paul — at one of the city’s newest breweries: The Yoerg Brewing Co. Saloon in the former Strip Club Meat & Fish restaurant space.
Decorated with historic photographs and pub décor, the brewpub sells traditional Yoerg beer, plus Yoerg hefeweizen and roggenbier, alongside 100 different wines and many other old-world beers on tap, plus charcuterie and cheese plates, pub pizzas and pretzels.
Lauren Peck is a public relations specialist for the Minnesota Historical Society.