Credit: Photo courtesy the Minneapolis Collection at the Hennepin County Library Special Collections.

Credit: Photo courtesy the Minneapolis Collection at the Hennepin County Library Special Collections.

Tracing the roots of the city’s brewing industry

Updated: October 16, 2014 - 7:30 am

When Prohibition became the law of the land in 1920, most Americans assumed that beer brewing would become a dead art. Politicians like Hennepin County Sheriff Earle Brown loved smashing stills like the one pictured here for the media, demonstrating for the public their commitment to the campaign against demon rum.

With hindsight, we now know that Prohibition did little to stop the production of alcohol, though its manufacture moved underground. But the national ban on alcohol did help to destroy the historic beer brewing industry in Minneapolis. Brewing did not enjoy a revival in Minneapolis until the last years of the 20th century, a rebirth that many residents celebrated this month during Oktoberfest.

Brewing first became a commercial enterprise in Minneapolis in 1850, when immigrant John Orth went into business at 13th Avenue and Marshall Street Northeast, establishing what would be the second brewery in Minnesota. Other entrepreneurs quickly followed Orth’s lead. In 1857, the Mississippi Brewery (later Gluek Brewing Co.) appeared at 20th Avenue and Marshall Street Northeast; the Nicholas Bofferding Brewery opened in North Minneapolis. Competition grew when nine breweries opened in the aftermath of the Civil War. They were joined by 12 additional operations between 1894–1905.

Minneapolis brewers vied with one another. They also fought off competition from larger cities like St. Louis and Chicago, where brewers invested in new technologies like pasteurization that allowed them to distribute their product over a wide geographic area. To survive in the face of intensifying competition, brewers in Minneapolis began to pool their resources. The biggest merger occurred in July 1890 when four breweries — John Orth Brewing Company, Heinrich Brewing Association, F.D. Noerenberg and Germania Brewing Association — became one. The new company was known as the Minneapolis Brewing Company and eventually consolidated all its operations at Marshall Street Northeast. In the years after the merger, Grain Belt Beer would become the flagship brand for the company. In 1967, the company would change its name to Grain Belt Breweries Inc.

Prohibition forced small brewers out of business. And the largest operations — namely the Minneapolis Brewing Company and Gluek — shifted to the production of near beer and soft drinks. But these new products did not generate enough profits and by 1929 both Gluek and the Minneapolis Brewing Company had shuttered their doors. When Prohibition was lifted in 1933, Gluek and the Minneapolis Brewing Company immediately resumed production of beer and as Alvin Gluek proclaimed they would provide “liquid balm for the sorrowing.”

In the years to follow, no other breweries would emerge to assist in providing this liquid balm. By the 1960s and 1970s, the two surviving Minneapolis breweries would succumb to changing industry conditions. Both Gluek and Grain Belt Brewing were sold to G. Heileman Brewing in Wisconsin. The Gluek Brewery was demolished in 1966, but the Grain Belt building still remains a landmark in Northeast and has been converted to office space, a library and other uses.

Brewing did not return to Minneapolis until 1986 when the James Page Brewing Company began local production and opened a new chapter in the production of beer.

The Historyapolis Project seeks to bring fresh attention to the history of Minneapolis and is working to unearth stories that can explain how the city took shape. For more details visit www.historyapolis.com. This project has been made possible by the Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, which is administered by the Minnesota Historical Society. Find it on FB at www.facebook.com/TheHistoryapolisProject