Friday, November 16, 2007

Pabst Americana - Grain Belt

In this series we explore the vanishing regional beers of America. Our first will be Grain Belt, of Minneapolis.

1890, four breweries, John Orth, Heinrich, F.D. Norenberg and Germania, merged and began operating out of Orth's facilities, the largest of the four. 2 years later the brewers commissioned a new building to house their facilities. Four different architectural styles were incorporated in the building to signify the four former breweries, and the result was a castle like structure that to this day sits on the bank of the Mississippi in North-East Minneapolis. The city of Minneapolis bought the structure in 1987 to prevent demolition and today the site is home to the RSP Architecture firm as well as a branch of the Minneapolis public library system.

In 1893 the breweries reincorporated under the name Minneapolis Brewing Company, the same year that a new line of beer was rolled out: Grain Belt.

Grain Belt became a huge success in the Upper Mississippi River Valley, and became Minneapolis Brewing's flagship beer. Unfortunately for the fortunes of the Minneapolis Brewing company, the puritanical forces of America had seized the country and found it's whipping boy in alcohol. Prohibition stopped the production of Grain Belt, while the brewery switched to producing Near Beer (ugh, the very thought!), malt syrup, and soft drinks.In 1933, America came to its collective senses and Grain Belt was brewed once again.

After prohibition, beer drinkers preferences began to shift away from the corner bar an into the home, aided, in part, by the spread of electric refrigerators. Grain Belt introduced take home bottles (they already had returnable long-necks), as well as cone top cans that opened just like bottles. Around this time Grain Belt erected a large 40'x40' sign on Nicollet Island with a bottle cap behind its trademark red diamond logo. The sign still greets motorists driving across the Hennepin Avenue bridge just outside of downtown Minneapolis, although it is no longer lit up.

After World War II, beer consumption at home continued to increase, as well as a preference for a smooth lager. In response Grain Belt launched the "Premium" beer, a golden lager that came in clear bottles. This is the Grain Belt that most of us are familiar with today. "Premo" was slightly more expensive, but it was a huge commercial success and became a staple for the brewery, igniting years of growth, despite its proximity to the brewing titans in St. Louis and Milwaukee. By the end of the 1960's, Grain Belt was the 18th largest brewer in the country and the company had changed its name to the Grain Belt Breweries.

In the 1970's Bud and Miller were stepping up their advertising and marketing campaigns and regional brewers like Grain Belt were feeling the pressure. Amidst financial troubles in 1975, the shareholders agreed to sell the company, and by the end of the year the company was out of business and the once mighty brewery was closed. By 1976, both the original Grain Belt and the new Premium brand were acquired by Heileman Brewing of La Crosse, Wisconsin, and were being brewed at the cross town rival brewery, Schmidt, in St. Paul.

Under Heileman, Grain Belt took a back seat to Schmidt, and of course, Heileman's flagship, Old Style. Marketing was stepped down, packaging was downgraded, and the recipe was changed. During the 1980's, Heileman began to have it's own financial problems, and closed the Schmidt plant at the end of the decade. Fortunately, the Grain Belt brands were purchased away from Heileman and reincorporated under the Minnesota Brewing company name. By 1991, Grain Belt was once again being produced in St. Paul.

Once reinvented as Minnesota Brewing, the old Grain Belt recipes were brought back. Although the brand's reputation had taken a nose dive under the Heileman leadership, Premium's resurgence was helped along by winning Best American Lager at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. "Premo" was jumped on by old fans and Twin Cities hipsters, but it wasn't enough to be profitable in a sea of giant macros and ever-expanding micros. The company was soon bankrupt. Again, Grain Belt received a stroke of fortune. Another local Minnesota brewer, August Schell of New Ulm, decided to purchase the Grain Belt brands.

Although the original Grain Belt Golden has been phased out, Grain Belt Premium has flourished under Schell, and is to this day still available throughout the Upper Mississippi River Valley. Among the regional breweries of yore, Grain Belt is a bit of a success story: it's still around; it's still brewed in it's home state; it's still independent; and, it doesn't taste like shit. Next time you are in the Twin Cities, ask for a "beer of exceptional quality," toss back a "Premo," and taste some history.

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kyle said...

Every year I go to a fishing resort in WI about 50 miles from the MN border. Their bar serves Grain Belt. The yokels who are regulars poke fun of me when I order it as they all down their Butt Light. Just thought I'd share this little piece of rural WI culture. Cheers!

KreativeMix said...

i'm suddenly very thirsty :-)

T$ said...

A friend of mine moved here from Montana. His dad comes out once or twice a year, and has actually talked his local hangout into supplying GBP on tap. In eastern MONTANA.

THAT is dedication.

GA Hill said...

Great post and background on "America's Party Beer." We are huge fans of Premies here in Omaha, and our blog has posted about it a few times. It is, indeed, great beer. Perhaps America's finest day-drinking beer, to be sure.

Brad said...

gotta love the premium, especially for some grilling out.