The History of Grain Belt Beer
A legendary brew passed down through generations
On July 15, 1890, The heads of four brewing powerhouses, Orth Brewing Company, The Heinrich Brewing Association, F.D. Norenberg Brewery and Malt House and Germania Brewing Association, consolidated to form the Minneapolis Brewing and Malting Company. With the formation of the new company, primary headquarters was at the Orth Brewery, although beer continued to be produced at the Heinrich and Germania plants as well. For the company to be competitive, however, it was realized that production needed to be consolidated in one high-volume facility to produce at least 150,000 barrels a year.
Considered at the time to be one of the largest and most modern brewing facilities in the country, its initial cost was $500,000 with a production capacity of 300,000 barrels annually. Additions over the next decade brought production up to a half-million barrels per year. Wooden barrels and glass bottles of beer were transported from the brewery in horse-drawn wagons. Early brands had names such as Gilt Edge, Weiner, Kaiser, London Porter and Extra Pale.
In 1893, the company was reorganized with the name shortened to Minneapolis Brewing Company. It was that year that the company introduced Golden Grain Belt Old Lager to the market. The name “Grain Belt” referred to the geographical area of the country where the beer was brewed. The brand fell in to the good graces of the consumer and soon became the flagship of the Minneapolis Brewing Company. It was a tough first year for the brewery, on August 13, 1893, a fire broke out at a stable located at Nicollet Island, on the Mississippi River. Soon the fire spread to North Minneapolis, taking homes, mills, lumber yards and factories with it. The inferno made its way to the Minneapolis Brewing Company, destroying a malt house, three bottling houses, a pitch yard and a barn. The company’s losses were reported to be $117,000.
After the fire, Minneapolis Brewing continued to expand and grow as Minnesota entered the 20th century. Soon it became one of the largest beer producers in the state, second only to the Theodore Hamm Brewing Company in St. Paul. By this time, Minneapolis Brewing was selling beer in Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois and Michigan. Unfortunately for the brewery, the Temperance Movement was starting to gain some steam, making life especially difficult for brewers.
Minneapolis Brewing Company started a subsidiary, the Golden Grain Belt Juice Company, in the business of “the manufacture of, and the buying and dealing in non-intoxicating beverages.” Breweries across America tried staying in business by diversifying into other product lines. Soft drinks, candy, cheese and non-alcoholic malt beverages were among the goods being manufactured by former brewers. Golden Grain Juice Company’s primary product was near beer, a malt beverage with no more than 0.5 percent of alcohol. A 90-foot still was built in the brewhouse, which included the de-alcoholizing unit. Made like regular beer, the brew was boiled down in the still, with the alcohol extracted and stored in tanks under government seal. The near beer was marketed primarily under the name Minnehaha Pale.
Sales were promising at first but they quickly began to slide. In spite of federal law, real beer and spirits were readily available through bootlegging or to anyone who took the time to make it themselves. With near beer production, there was the question of what to do with the extracted alcohol that was being stored in the locked tanks that were taking up space in the brewhouse. The Kunz Perparations Company was formed, named after Minneapolis Brewing general manager Jacob Kunz. The extracted alcohol was manufactured into rubbing alcohols, toilet preparations and barber’s supplies. This was highly discouraged by the government, charging a $5,000 fee just to apply for a permit.
Minneapolis Brewing Compnay officials hoped that prohobition wouldn’t last but by the end of the 20s, with repeal nowhere in sight, company officers conceeded that the company couldn’t continue. In October 1929, a liquidation dividend of $5 per share was paid to stockholders. Officer’s salaries were reduced and company president Fredrich D. Noerenberg’s salary was eliminated.
In October 1933, Minneapolis Brewing Company began rolling out barrels of draught beer and on December 14, bottled beer. In previous years it had marketed many brands, the primary focus would now be on the Grain Belt label. This is when it started being promoted as “The Friendly Beer With the Friendly Flavor.” Post-prohibition demand was so high that delivery trucks stayed out twelve to fifteen hours a day just to keep up. Minneapolis Brewing sold 30,000 barrels in June 1934 alone, generating profits in excess of $19,000 for the month. At the time, over 600 workers were employed in the Minneapolis plant.
The 50s were not particularly kind to Minneapolis Brewing Co. or to the industry in general. Even Anheuser-Bush operated on a three-day work week through most of 1954. The brewery decided to make a change and introduce new labels as well as start dabbling in billboard and television advertising. One of the most popular featured Stanley and Albert, a pair of cartoon sign painters who sang the praises of Grain Belt beer. But it would take more than slick advertising to revitalize the brand. in the early 1950s, Grain Belt Premium, a smoother, full bodied beer was introduced to attract the younger, more fickle consumer. Sales were positive and Premium became a permanent fixture on the Grain Belt line in 1956.
In the early 1970s, Grain Belt attempted to expand its business through the introduction of new products and acquisitions. National brands such as Anheuser-Bush would bully their way into a market with saturation advertising and the deep-discounting of products, tactics which were especially used in areas such as the Upper Midwest. In April 1975, local businessman Irwin Jacobs purchased the Grain Belt brand and eight months later, sold it to the G. Heileman Brewing Company in Lacrosse, Wisconsin. Grain Belt was leaving Minnesota.
Any revenue the brand could generate was for the most part diverted to promote Schmidt. Heileman gave Grain Belt minimal promotion and the brand’s sales steadily declined through the seventies and eighties. A group of investors bought the old Schmidt Brewery in St. Paul just as Heileman was about to dismantle and scrap the equipment, rehired the employees and began operating as the Minnesota Brewing company in late 1991. In addition to the plant, the company purchased the Grain Belt labels from Heileman. The packaging was changed back to something similar to that of the old Grain Belt, as was the recipe. In 1993, Grain Belt celebrated its 100th Anniversary.
Grain Belt saw some resurgence after returning to Minnesota. 1994 marked another exciting time in Grain Belt’s history as it was awarded the gold medal in the American Lager category at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Colorado. In 2001, brewers at Minnesota Brewing attempted to branch out with the brand, adding lines called “The Brewer’s Cave” and “The Grain Belt Archive Series” These were all-malt beers brewed without adjuncts. But, history has a way of repeating itself and Grain Belt once again fell in to a state of financial despair. By 2001, sales were off by 50% and on June 24, 2001, Minnesota Brewing would close its doors forever. As fate would have it, Ted Marti of the August Schell Brewing Company saw the pride that Minnesotans had in the brand and purchased the labels, keeping the proud heritage in Minnesota where it belongs.
Grain Belt has had a resurgence once again and stands as mainstay in the Midwest market. In 2010, Schell’s released its first brand extension of the Grain Belt label, introducing Grain Belt Nordeast. This beer pays homage to the neighborhoods in northeast Minneapolis that still stand in the shadows of the original brewery. Just this year, the brand’s packaging got a new facelift, bringing back the retro style 50s labels and advertising. The brand continues to prosper, with consumers of all ages asking for “The Friendly Beer.”
ONE BOTTLE AT A TIME