John Frederick Orth was born in Rott, Alsace, France on May 20, 1821. He learned the skill of brewing beer while in Rott and honed his skills as a brewer after leaving in 1840. Before immigrating to America, Orth traveled to Germany, Italy, and Spain. In 1847 he arrived in America, landing in Erie, Pennsylvania. On August 6, 1849, Orth married Mary Weinell. Not long after the wedding, the couple moved to Galena, Illinois before settling in St. Anthony, MN in July of the following year. Orth and his “very pregnant wife” were the area's first German settlers.
Orth began construction of a brewery near the Mississippi River shortly after his and his wife’s arrival. The first beer produced at the John Orth Brewing Company was made on November 1, 1850. Located at 1228 Marshall Ave NE, the small 18’ x 30’ wooden structure was the first brewery in Hennepin County and the second in Minnesota, behind Saint Paul’s Yoerg Brewery. Lager beers were available, but because the brewery was in a Yankee settlement with very few Germans, it initially featured ale and porter beers. On December 17, 1850, an ad Orth ran in the Minnesota Democrat formally announced the opening of the brewery and lauded the superior taste of its product.
Mr. and Mrs. Orth had put down roots in the lumber city and soon began expanding their family. The couple’s eldest son, John W. was born in St. Anthony on Sept 9, 1850. He was the first of six children, four boys, and two girls, to be born into the family over the next eleven years. Their second son Charles passed away at the age of seven. The remaining five all reached adulthood. John and Mary Orth and their five children lived near the brewery at 1207 (1211) Marshall Street N.E. Each of the adult sons would eventually work at the brewery in some capacity during their lifetime.
Success came immediately. The brewery's initial output of two-and-a-half barrels of beer lasted the townspeople of St. Anthony less than a month. The following year, its first full year in business, the output at the brewery grew to three hundred barrels. Cellars were dug in the nearby sandstone on the north end of Nicollet Island to cool and store the product during the fermentation and conditioning phases. Due to population growth and increased demand in the area, the output of the brewery grew throughout the decade. By 1860 the Orth Brewing Company was producing more than 1,000 barrels a year.
By 1861 a new brewery sat on the site once occupied by the original structure. The small wood-frame building was removed, and a three-story brewhouse with a stone first story and wooden upper levels sat in its place. The popularity of Orth’s beer grew and by the early 1870s was “in good demand in the Minnesota Valley.” The company struggled to fill all of the incoming orders. Orth seemingly refused to rest on his laurels and looked for ways to improve his product. He added a nearby ice vault for refrigeration, believing this new process led to better beer. Anywhere from 2000 to 3500 barrels at a time were stored underneath 2500 tons of ice for up to two months.
Orth was a committed abolitionist and early member of the Minnesota Republican Party. As the party grew increasingly in favor of temperance, the frustrated brewer became a Democrat. He was a public figure, and politically active during his tenure as brewery owner. In 1855 Orth was elected from St. Anthony’s first ward to serve on its first city council. Years later, in 1872, after Minneapolis annexed a portion of St. Anthony, Orth served two terms on its new city council. He was a member of St. Anthony’s Turnverein Society, a German social organization that promoted physical fitness and the Harmonia Singing Society.
In 1872 Orth reported in the local paper that he anticipated producing 4000 barrels during the year. By the end of the decade, technological advances and population growth helped to push production to nearly 7000 barrels. On June 1, 1883, the brewery, now located at 1228 Marshall, was incorporated as the John Orth Brewing Company The brewery's reported capital worth was $200,000. Orth was listed as the company's president and his sons each took roles on its Board of Directors. In 1880 the Orth Brewing Company produced over 11,000 barrels of beer.
By the mid-point of the 1880s, Orth had begun to step away from the day-to-day operation of the brewery. In November 1886, Orth and his wife took an extended vacation through Europe, Algiers, and North Africa. He contracted hay fever while in North Africa and became violently ill on the return trip home. In early June 1887, Orth suffered paralysis when his party reached New York City. The group pressed on toward home. On June 15, 1887, John Orth, president of the Orth Brewing Company, died near Chicago while a passenger on a railroad toward Minneapolis. He was sixty-six years old. After his death, his sons carried on the responsibilities of running the brewery.
During this same period, the brewery business was consolidating. In the U.S., production had grown 81% since 1880, but the number of breweries decreased by 43% during the same period. Contributing factors included recently enacted federal liquor taxes, increased competition, and investment from foreign entities. In July 1890, in response to these influences, the John Orth Brewing Company, Heinrich Brewing Association. Germania Brewing Association and the F.D. Nuremberg Brewing Association merged to form the Minneapolis Brewing Company. Orth’s son, John W., was installed as president of the new organization.
A new brewery with a 150,000 barrel peak capacity was built in 1892 at 1215 Marshall Avenue NE, near the site of the old Orth brewery.
Bibliography available here.
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