Shortly after the Stroh Brewery Co. (Stroh's) finalized its purchase of the G. Heileman Brewing in July 1996, rumors swirled that their east St. Paul plant — the former Hamm's Brewery complex — would be shuttered. Heileman's flagship production facility in LaCrosse, WI, could support the combined volume of both sites, and the prevailing opinion was the smaller, antiquated facility would be closed.
The whispers were quieted when Stroh's designated the east side plant as a meaningful producer of the company's specialty beers. While other locations closed nationwide, the St. Paul facility remained in operation.
Unfortunately, sales of Stroh's specialty brands soon faltered. The company had borrowed heavily to grow its business. While acquisitions helped Stroh's increase its market share, they left them with little financial wiggle room to overcome any prolonged sales slumps.
In the days after Labor Day 1997, Stroh's announced a series of layoffs designed to counteract the drop-off in business the company typically saw during the fall and winter months. This step wasn't out of the ordinary. However, while it had furloughed employees before, these layoffs — targeting up to sixty percent of its St. Paul workforce — seemed more significant than in the past.
Once again, Stroh's employees in St. Paul wondered about their long-term prospects with the company.
On Thursday, September 25th, at 4 pm, less than a month after the layoffs were announced, Stroh's officials held a meeting at their St. Paul facility to tell employee representatives the plant was being closed. The final day of production for the former Hamm's Brewery would be November 21st, 1997 — just days before Thanksgiving. The company cited weakened national sales, the production capabilities of its other facilities, and inefficiencies of the site's buildings and equipment among reasons for its closing.
Three-hundred-and-sixty-five workers would soon be out of a job.
For many years — going back as far as Olympia purchasing the Hamm's label and St. Paul brewery in 1975 (years before Stroh's acquired the site in 1983) — the specter of closing had hung over employees at the east St. Paul brewery. However, few believed the one-hundred-and-thirty-two-year-old brewing facility, an integral part of the neighborhood that provided jobs to generations of east side residents, would actually close.
Until it did.
Both city leaders and the brewery's soon-to-be former workforce were caught on their heels. Employees were worried about their next step. The Stroh's company had paid well, and many of its workers had created lives for themselves and their families based on a standard of living that their higher-than-average wages had allowed. Many weren't sure their skills would translate to similar compensation in other fields.
The uncertainty plant workers felt about their future was mixed with animosity toward their former employer. They felt abandoned, anxiously awaiting details of a severance package while the company removed the copper doors and eagles on the brew kettles to keep them from being stolen. Minnesota officials allocated nearly one million dollars to help displaced employees re-enter the workforce. While some began new careers, others were left with little more than questions about the future.
After conversations with Stroh's officials, St. Paul politicians — including the mayor — soon realized that convincing the brewery to stay was out of the question. It wasn't financially viable for them to stay. Officials soon turned their attention to the site itself. Stroh's wanted to sell the twenty-seven acres on which the former brewery sat. The city hoped to raze the buildings and turn the area into a light-industrial park.
Residents' opinions were mixed. They were still reeling from the loss of Whirlpool years earlier, and losing the brewery would put more of their friends, family, and neighbors out of work. Stroh's was a mainstay at local events and, much like its predecessors, had interwoven itself into the fabric of the neighborhood. Despite the brewery closing, it was vitally important to the community that the buildings remained. Its history was too important to demolish.
The brewery had helped define the hard-working, blue-collar community of the east side.
On Saturday, November 22nd, former Stroh's employees met at Schweitz's Saloon on Payne Avenue to celebrate their time together with four kegs of Grain Belt Premium. The beer was donated by their former rival, the Minnesota Brewing Co, the event's co-sponsor.
In March 1998, the company sold the one-hundred-and-thirty-three-year-old brewery site and its thirty-four buildings to St. Paul attorney and real estate developer Howard Gelb.
- Grow, Doug. "One last round doesn't mask their sadness." Minneapolis Star Tribune, November 24, 1997, B2.
- Kennedy, Tony. "Stroh plans layoffs in expanded seasonal shutdown." Minneapolis Star Tribune, September 4, 1997, D1.
- Kennedy, Tony, and Jon Tevlin. "Stroh closing St. Paul brewery." Minneapolis Star Tribune, September 26, 1997, 1.
- Mayhew, Richard. "Brewery has been vital part of the neighborhood's fabric." Minneapolis Star Tribune, September 26, 1997, A16.
- Smith, Mary Lynn. "Residents ready to fight to preserve Stroh landmark." Minneapolis Star Tribune, October 29, 1997, B7.
- "Stroh Brewery sold to local developer." Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal. Last modified March 20, 1998. https://www.bizjournals.com/twincities/stories/1998/03/16/daily11.html.
- Tevlin, Jon. "It's closing time at Stroh Brewing Co." Minneapolis Star Tribune, November 21, 1997, D1.