The Yeorg Brewery: Fact and Fiction
A Slice of History Buried in the Bluff
It’s a frigid January afternoon and I’m standing in a parking lot on St. Paul’s West Side staring at the bluff. My view is hampered by the checkered pattern of an 8-foot-high chain-link fence so I put my face near the frosty steel, close one eye and peer through one of the diamond-shaped links. My eye travels across several hundred yards of grey asphalt to the foot of the 75-foot-steep vertical bluff and begins a methodical zig-zag scanning of the sandy hillside. Soon I see what I had hoped to discover: a large circular white spot concealing a significant slice of regional history. The spot is a concrete wall that hides the remnants of one of the most industrious uses of the area’s storied limestone caves. It’s the site of the city’s first brewery, the Yoerg Brewery.
The numerous caves that pock the bluffs along the Mississippi River in St. Paul have been used for centuries for many different purposes. Native Americans held peace meetings and worship services in them, early settlers used them as landmarks and tourist destinations, and in recent decades businesses used them for storage.
The largest and most notable caves were destroyed in the name of progress. Carver’s Cave near Dayton’s Bluff was ruined during railroad construction in the mid- and late-1800s and Fountain Cave was buried in 1960 to make way for Shepard Road. Most recently, others were sealed off for public safety after a few incidents in which youth died from carbon monoxide poisoning after starting fires in the non-ventilated caves.
Photos taken before the Yoerg Brewery cave system was sealed show its downward regression. The ground is littered with broken toilets from a plumbing company that owned the site in the 1950s, and the walls are etched with graffiti, a much different “art form” than the images of bears, birds and fish that Native Americans carved into other area caves. One of the most interesting artifacts is a Yoerg delivery truck, now firmly buried to its windshield in sand and debris.
Yoerg’s is credited as St. Paul’s first commercial brewery. It was founded by German immigrant Anthony Yoerg in 1848, a year before St. Paul became the capital of the newly formed Minnesota Territory. Yoerg, whose father was a brewer in the Bavarian village of Gundefingen, immigrated to the United States at age 19, settling in Pittsburgh, Penn., before relocating to Galena, Ill. He moved to St. Paul at age 32 and joined forces with another man to open a butcher shop on the West Side. After a serendipitous incident – his business partner skipped town with all of the company’s money – he returned to his family’s roots in brewing. The river valley offered everything he needed to build his brewing empire. The soil and climate were perfect for growing barley, he was able to easily get fresh water from underground springs, and the caves provided natural refrigeration (hovering around 47 degrees) to store and age the beer.
According to St. Paul historian Gary Brueggemann, Yoerg first opened shop near Eagle and Washington streets in St. Paul (near today’s Xcel Center) and remained there for 21 years. By 1870 he was bursting at the seams and relocated to the West Side. There he built a 3-building stone brewery with a steam-powered assembly line and its own copper shop for making kegs. By 1891 it was one of the largest breweries in the state, cranking out 35,000 barrels a year. This put him ahead of other brewers whose names are widely recognized today: Theodore Hamms and Jacob Schmidt. An ad for the brewery suggests why his beers were so popular. It proudly boasts:
“St. Paul’s famous caves have been the store houses of treasures and marvelous products since the earliest days for many years not the least of these has been Yoerg Brewing Co.’s beers. Down there, away from the glaring sunlight, many feet beneath the earth’s surface in a wonderful plant where cleanliness and sanitary conditions are the result of painstaking efforts and rigid rules, Yoerg’s Beer is brewed. Visitors are impressed with the lavish attention to details and the precautions taken to insure absolute purity. And again in these great natural caverns, cool and clean and pure; buried away from everything except that which tends to sanitary wholesomeness, the beer is properly aged until the time that it is brought forth for distribution and consumption.”
The ad promoted Yoerg’s Special, a dark brew that had “meteoric success” and was “recommended highly by many physicians.”
Yoerg died on Mar. 30, 1898 during the height of the brewery’s success, thus he did not have to see it struggle through the challenging times of Prohibition. That task fell on two of his sons, who turned to producing soft drinks and distributing milk to keep the company afloat. Yoerg and his wife Elovina had seven children, five boys and two girls. All of the sons helped manage the business in one way or another over the years, and ultimately three generations were involved before the brewery closed in 1952 after 103 years of operation.
Perhaps the most interesting mark Yoerg left on the neighborhood is the extensive tunnel system he created in the caves. From the main cavern his workers carved out tunnels in several directions, creating a mile-long network. One of the tunnels leads to a staircase that ascends 50 feet to the basement of a Second Empire Italianate style mansion atop the bluff at 215 W. Isabel. Yoerg built that home in 1875 and used the tunnel to get to work. I drove up winding Ohio Street to view the mansion, which was added to the National Register of Historic places in 1989, and to ponder the life of the large family that once lived there. It was in this home that Yoerg passed away. He stayed active with the brewery until just weeks before his death.
As I ruminated on the bond the family shared, I envisioned the scene of Yoerg returning home from work. I could hear the faint clanging of his feet as he climbed the metal staircase, the turn of the door, and then its closing. It was a door that was never closed for long while Yoerg lived there, but sadly is now gone forever. The entrance was removed and sealed in 1962 by a later homeowner, who was unrelated to Yoerg. Yet the bluff remains. And if you listen closely enough you can hear the echoes of another time and place seeping through the fissures of the porous limestone.
A Man with Beer on his Mind
Anthony Yoerg turned the sign on his butcher shop door to announce that he was closed for the day. He gently put on his hat, pulling the brim near his brow, locked the door and started down a dusty street on St. Paul’s West Side. He kept his head low and his eyes down, hoping that those he passed weren’t creditors coming to collect on his mounting debts.
Rather than going straight home he chose to walk along the bank of the Mississippi River to clear his mind. He scuffled slowly along under the bright summer sun but it did little to cheer his gloomy disposition. Even away from his shop his mind was held prisoner inside its walls.
“How stupid of me,” he mumbled to himself. “Why did I trust him?” The words tumbled around in his ears until they translated themselves into his native German tongue and settled deeply in his heart. His mind replayed the day earlier in the year that he had last seen his former partner. He tried desperately to recall any signs leading to his departure that would give a hint of the man’s devious plan not to return from his trip to Illinois. He scolded himself for not going to the bank with him that day to make sure he took only the cash needed to buy supplies. Instead he withdrew nearly all the money they had.
Feeling tired, he eyed a large cottonwood tree and walked beneath the shade of its canopy and sat down, leaning against its course bark. The coolness of the shade felt good. He closed his eyes and dropped his chin to his chest. He could smell the pungent aroma of the butcher shop in his shirt. It was a smell that permeated his hands and all of his clothing. No matter how many times he washed either, the faint smell of meat was always with him.
He heard the cry of an eagle so he looked up, spotted it and watched it soar gracefully overhead. It flapped its powerful wings, angled itself, then glided in a large circle above the bluff in front of him. It repeated the maneuver and flew off. It made Yoerg notice the landscape around him. He looked at the verdant bluffs and remembered that it was the river valley that first attracted him to St. Paul. It reminded him of the rolling countryside around his childhood home in Bavaria. He thought of his family there and of the security he left. He wondered if he should stop chasing his dreams and return home to join his father in his brewery, a profession he knew well. He closed his eyes and could see the high spires of hops in his father’s fields, and the wind blowing rippling waves across the barley.
He opened his eyes and let them fall on the bluff and wander along the ridgeline. The sun illuminated an outcropping of sandstone near the base of the bluff and it caught his attention. He examined it closely and noticed a large black cavity in the center. Intrigued, he arose and walked a quarter-mile to explore it.
Once there, he rambled up 20 feet of scree to the entrance of a large cave. He walked inside and his eyes quickly dilated, leaving him blind to everything around him. Slowly, his surroundings came into focus and he was shocked by the size of the cavern. It was very cool inside and he walked over and touched one of the clammy limestone walls. He roamed around and discovered several openings that led to other smaller caves. He clawed at the sandstone around one and saw how easy it was to scrape away.
The wheels in his head began spinning faster and faster. His thoughts raced out of the cave, up the bluff and to the surrounding countryside, an area well-suited for growing barley. He saw some clear streams flowing to the river, and he knew that it wouldn’t take much effort to dig into the floodplain to find fresh underground springs. His mind quickly jumped back into the cave and he could see rows and rows of sweating kegs filled with enough beer to quench the thirst of the entire city.
For the first time in months, he felt energized and hopeful. He left the cave with a steely determination. He wasn’t quite sure how he would do it, but he knew his days as a butcher were over.
The Yoerg Brewery
Sketch courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society