Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Learn a little history, drink a little beer on the August Schell Brewing Company tour August 28, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:45 PM
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Visitors line up for free tap beer or 1919 root beer following a Schell's brewery tour.

“OK, LET’S DRINK some beer,” our tour guide Matt says, pulling six-packs from a walk-in cooler and distributing bottles among tables in the hospitality/tap room of August Schell Brewing Company.

But before we pour and swig, our bartender instructs us to fill our plastic cups only to the black line, meaning we’ll get about 1 ½ ounces of beer per sample.

On this steamy summer day, the beer goes down fast among the adults who’ve just toured this second oldest family brewery in the United States.

The Schell's brewery is celebrating 150 years in business.

Schell’s has been a New Ulm mainstay since 1860, this year celebrating 150 years in the beer business. That fact surfaces repeatedly during the tour and during the beer tasting session when we are served Hopfenmalz, an amber lager style beer selected by popular vote as the company’s 150th anniversary beer. Matt also passes out other Schell’s beers like Hefeweizen, Pils and Dark, which “isn’t heavy in any way,” but earns the name because of its dark color, he says.

Given the “dark” label, I wouldn’t have tried this beer. Our guide is right, though. Schell’s Dark doesn’t taste dark and this is a beer even I’ll drink.

A sip of Hefeweizen, however, causes me to screw up my face and wish I could toss the sample. Instead, I grab another cup, abandoning the beer “with a beautiful balance of cloves and banana flavors.” I prefer bananas in banana bread, not beer, thank you.

That aside, I’ve enjoyed this historic tour of the brewery tucked in the woods along the banks of the Cottonwood River. The site was carefully selected by August Schell, the flour mill machinist turned brew master, for its natural beauty, artesian springs and riverside location.

Schell was recreating his home in Durbach, Germany, our guide says. I don’t ask, but from what I know of this area in the 1860s, few trees grew here, not exactly like the Schwarzwald back in Deutschland. Perhaps that explains why Matt later tells us that Schell brought pines here from the Black Forest.

German words can be found in numerous locations at the brewery, including this welcome sign above the doorway to the house once occupied by the Alfred Marti family. Just don't ask your guide to interpret the German.

He also informs us that caves were hand-dug under the brewery, into the hill and under our feet. We are standing on a paved area between two old brick homes and the original family home, now the current-day corporate office. Beer and ice, harvested from the Cottonwood River, were stored in the caves.

Disappointingly (but understandably), we don’t see any of today’s modern beer-making operation, only Schell’s traditional 1860s brew house, used until 1999. Here we view a hand-hammered copper vessel, Sud Kessel, purchased for $25,000 in 1895. It holds 3,500 gallons of beer, which translates to 38,000 12-ounce bottles or cans. Now that’s a lot of beer.

This is the only peek you'll get of the beer-making process: Schell's vintage Sud Kessel, used from 1895 - 1999.

But you can’t buy any beer at the brewery, our guide says, because it’s against the law to sell it on-grounds. The samples and a 12-ounce glass of beer or Schell’s 1919 root beer come with the $3 tour fee.

Plenty of history also comes with the guided tour and a visit to the company museum.

The Schell's museum is jam-packed with plenty of information, memorabilia and, yes, even beer bottles.

Among the more interesting facts I learned are these:

  • After the death of her husband, Emma Marti ran the brewery for six years until 1940. As our guide emphasizes, for a woman to run a brewery in that time period certainly ranked as unique. Perhaps Schell’s ought to name a beer in Emma’s honor. Or have they?
  • Company bylaws allow only the Schell’s president to live in August Schell’s on-site retirement mansion. Because he wants his privacy, current president Ted Marti lives elsewhere, Matt says. The home was last occupied in the 1990s. (Umm, I wouldn’t mind living in a mansion.)

August Schell's retirement mansion, currently unoccupied.

A close-up shot of the mansion, re-emphasizing the point that I could be happy living here.

  • Schell’s changes its “Snowstorm” beer recipe annually. The reason: “There are no two Minnesota snowstorms alike and therefore we are going to change our ‘Snowstorms’ every year,” Matt tells us, quoting president Marti. Ah, Mr. Marti, you clearly know your Minnesota winters as well as you know your beers.

Another view of the brewery. And, no, I don't know anything about the decorative post and failed to ask our tour guide. I had already asked more questions than anyone on the tour, so...

SCHELL’S WILL HOST a two-day 150th birthday celebration, Schellabration, on September 17 and 18. During that event, you can see areas of the brewery not typically seen on the regular tours.

WHAT’S WITH ALL the white-tailed deer at the brewery? Revisit Minnesota Prairie Roots for the answer and for photos and an idea I have related to those deer.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling