Something's brewing at old Hamm's brewery

MICHAEL RIETMULDER | Updated 7/2/2014

Flat Earth Brewing and 11 Wells stake claims to old brewery.

The old Hamm's brewery building
Bruce Bisping

After sitting vacant since 1997, the old Hamm’s brewery site is back in the beer (and booze) biz. The historic St. Paul brewery-turned-urban blight is mounting a comeback, thanks in part to a veteran brewery and a start-up distillery.

Last Saturday, vagrants and urban explorers were replaced by 30 or so invited beer fans touring Flat Earth Brewing Co.’s new space in the 150-year-old Hamm’s complex. “All we did was button it up at first,” said Franco Claseman, Flat Earth’s director of operations. “We had continuous break-ins and stuff. The goal was to get all the windows boarded up and get things secure, and start getting the message out that we were going to move in.”

In 2012, Flat Earth decided to relocate its Highland Park brewery to the shuttered Hamm’s grounds. They opened to the public this April for tours and tastings. Flat Earth controls about 48,000 square feet, a significant increase from its smaller, taproom-less origins, where it maxed out production at 1,500 barrels per year. The brewery could double that output within one year in its new space, Claseman said.

But the move also was a chance to do something positive for the city, said Claseman. “With so much history here and in such bad shape, we felt it was a shame that it was rotting,” he said. “We decided we would try and preserve it. Now we’ve got other people joining in.”

Across the alley, 11 Wells distillery launched its Minnesota 13 white whiskey last month, forming a trio of businesses along with Flat Earth and Urban Organics — an aquaponic farm and fishery — to open in the same section of the Hamm’s campus. Two weeks ago, 11 Wells owners Lee Egbert and Bob McManus drew hundreds of spirit lovers and curious neighborhood dwellers to their still-raw space for their first open house. The distilling duo will open its doors again on July 19 for another round of tours and tastings.

“It’s not hard to close your eyes and know what went on, all the activity that was here,” said Mc­Manus. “It’s really exciting to be here and helping put the buildings back into productive use again.”

Last year the city approved $250,000 in grant money and $400,000 in loans to Flat Earth and 11 Wells to help renovate their long-ignored spaces. The 11 Wells braintrust envisions a cocktail room in the old blacksmith shop and a second-story malting facility. Flat Earth is trying to convert the fire-damaged carpenter’s shop into a beer garden and add event spaces on the second and third floors.

“There’s challenges galore ahead of us,” Claseman said. “Slowly but surely, we’ll do ’em right.”

The East Side, which long had a roughneck reputation, was buffeted by the Hamm’s brewery closing in the 1990s (at which time it was owned by Stroh Brewing). But the area, already home to the Strip Club Meat and Fish, is enjoying something of a food-and-drink renaissance. In 2012, Ward 6 joined the melting pot of ethnic restaurants along Payne Avenue, with newbie brunch and lunch joint Cook St. Paul and Tongue in Cheek recently opening on the same drag.

“There’s kind of an underdog-fight feel going that all these businesses feel right now,” said Egbert, who also owns Dashfire Bitters Co. “We tell our friends the East Side’s going to be the new northeast [Minneapolis].”

It’s hard to picture PedalPubs traversing the hilly Payne-Phalen and Dayton’s Bluff neighborhoods. But as the Hamm’s brewery gets a second life, Minnesotans can relive the past. A steamfitter hired by McManus began his career as a 19-year-old at Hamm’s.