Not to be confused with Schlitz or Philadelphia’s Schmidt’s, Schmidt is a Minnesota-born macro lager that’s just about as macro as it gets — in story, spirit, and flavor.
Pouring a pale yellow and clocking in at 4.5 percent ABV, Schmidt shares similarities with its fellow budget beer brethren. Its marketing takes the tried-and-true path of conjuring images of the American wilderness, most famously with its scenic can series art featuring fully colorized photos of wild turkeys, flocks of geese, and schools of rainbow trout. One of the slogans of the self-proclaimed “Official Beer of the American Sportsman” is “brewed for big spaces,” as the brewery’s not-so-subtle suggestion that it makes a good utility beer for outdoor activities. It’s also known as the “brew that grew with the great northwest” and “the same great beer every time,” advertising consistency in a market where it’s virtually a given. But despite its solid messaging, Schmidt has had a pretty tumultuous history, one that’s powered through the decades in spite of numerous ownership changes and near-death experiences.
Schmidt Before Schmidt
In 1855, three years before Minnesota became a state, German-born brewer Christopher Stahlmann founded the Christopher Stahlmann Cave Brewery, which was named for its on-premise natural limestone caves that were used for storing and brewing beer. It quickly became the largest brewery in Minnesota as well as one of the first American breweries to bottle its own beer, and began shipping its beer as far south as Memphis (though the Civil War put an end to that in 1861).
Stahlmann died in 1883, and his three sons — all beneficiaries of the brewery — died in somewhat rapid succession over the next decade. The brewery then wound up in the hands of Frank Nocolin, the second husband of Henry Stahlmann’s wife, Anna. After renaming the brewery St. Paul Brewing Company to honor its native city, Nocolin did little to innovate the company. Jacob Schmidt, also of German descent, had recently bought a large stake in Minnesota’s North Star Brewery after a stint as the brewmaster of Hamm’s Brewery. He then transferred his partial ownership of North Star to a new company, founded by him, his son-in-law Adolph Bremer, and Adolph’s brother Otto. Thus, the Jacob Schmidt Brewing Company was established. But the North Star facility was severely damaged in a fire, and Schmidt was looking for an opportunity to relocate, so he purchased the St. Paul Brewing Company from Nocolin in 1900.
Schmidt Through Prohibition
Schmidt kept most of the original Stahlmann’s brewery framework, but did further excavation in the brewery’s lagering caves, which would be used to make Schmidt original lager beer. He and the Bremers also commissioned Chicago architect Bernard Barthel to remodel the brewery’s exterior, building it up to resemble a medieval castle. In 1910, Schmidt died, and the Bremer brothers took full control of the company.
When Prohibition rolled around, Schmidt’s brewery was one of the only breweries to survive by pumping out NA options and near beer, namely Malta and City Club. Consequently, when Prohibition laws were lifted, Schmidt was ready to hit the ground running, immediately rolling out a stronger version of City Club. The brand continued to grow and bring wealth to the Bremer family, so much so that Edward Bremer, son of Adolph, was kidnapped by the infamous Barker-Karpis gang in January 1934, less than a year after the gang held William Hamm Jr., heir to Theodore Hamm’s Brewery, for a $100,000 ransom. Edward Bremer was released in February after a $200,000 ransom was paid. Much of the gang was apprehended in the months that followed, and the Schmidt Brewery continued to flourish, becoming the seventh-largest brewery in the nation by 1936. In the late ‘30s, the U.S. government even contracted Schmidt beer to be supplied to troops during World War II, partly due to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s friendship with the Bremers.
Shakedown to Corporate Obscurity
Otto died in 1951, and the remaining Bremers subsequently left the brewing industry. Over the next decade, the American beer industry underwent a major shake-up with large breweries entering local markets and steamrolling smaller brands with cheaper prices and better advertising. That’s when Schmidt was acquired by Detroit-based company Pfeiffer. It pulled back on City Club and brought Schmidt beer to the forefront, capitalizing on the iconic “scenic can series” introduced by the Jacob Schmidt Brewing Co. shortly before the 1954 acquisition. But due to Pfeiffer owning a number of breweries across the country and struggling to manage these beers in different regional markets, the company went bankrupt in 1972. All of its assets went to G. Heileman Brewing Company in Wisconsin, which also owned Old Style, Blatz, and a few macro-lager brands. Unfortunately, the brewery got wrapped up in a corporate takeover by a shady Australian businessman, Alan Bond. The company fell in the largest financial collapse in Australian history and ceased operations in 1990, marking the first time the Schmidt brewery was out of commission since its inception.
As many macros do, Schmidt beer was starting to lose its roots, becoming more of a brand name than a beer as its production hopped between larger beverage conglomerates. It’s a little unclear as to how it was doing so following its collapse, but G. Heileman Brewing Company continued to brew Schmidt for a few more years. Oddly enough, the company was also responsible for brewing Philadelphia’s own Schmidt’s beer at the same time. And in 1992, Heileman began rolling out both Schmidt brands with identical packaging, presumably to save some money. Eventually, all of Heileman’s brands were acquired by Stroh Brewery Co. Stroh’s shuttered in 1999, and the Schmidt brand was sold to Pabst, which has been producing it — along with Old Style, Blatz, and Old Milwaukee — ever since.
Even though the brand had long left its native St. Paul, the original brewery itself was resurrected a year after its initial 1990 closure thanks to contributions from local investors. The renamed Minnesota Brewing Company put out a handful of Schmidt-unaffiliated beers for a few years before closing down in 2002. An ethanol company set up shop on the grounds in 2000, but due to repeated noise complaints, a petition was filed and the site got shut down in 2004. It lay dormant for a few years before Dominium, a development company, purchased the location in 2012 and turned it into affordable housing for artists, dubbed the Schmidt Artist Lofts. A full-fledged replica of the old Schmidt sign was subsequently installed, and in October 2018, the National Register of Historic Places inducted the site as the Jacob Schmidt Brewing Company Historic District.
For 20-plus years now, Schmidt’s legacy has been in the hands of Pabst. But unlike the brand’s Blue Ribbon flagship, Schmidt has yet to experience a 21st-century renaissance. It does, however, bear all the necessary ingredients to do so — in story, spirit, and flavor. A little clever marketing goes a long way, and while Schmidt isn’t exactly unique in being a gung-ho Americana macro lager from the Northwest, the scenic can art series would make for a good Instagrammable comeback — just sayin’.