10/8/2021

Beer Land

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The Theodore Hamm Brewing Company, one of Minnesota’s most iconic breweries, began brewing beer in about 1865 as Excelsior Brewery in St. Paul. Hamm’s was brewed in Minnesota for well over a century, and its brief national profile was bolstered by both its iconic animated bear and its Minnesota-centric slogan: “From the land of sky-blue waters.”

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Theodore Hamm acquired the Pittsburgh Brewery in St. Paul from Andrew Keller around 1865. The complex of buildings, which he renamed Excelsior Brewery, stood on the bluffs above the Phelan Creek Valley, near Swede Hollow. Excelsior grew over the next twenty years to become the second largest brewery in the state in 1886. As the brewery’s output expanded beyond its existing facilities, Theodore Hamm hired architect August Maritzen to build a large complex of brewery buildings. Maritzen’s design was ornate and decorative, and the facilities opened to the public in September of 1894. The Theodore Hamm Brewing Company was officially incorporated a few years later, in 1896. Jacob Schmidt, who had known Theodore Hamm in Baden, Germany, was an early brewmaster at Hamm’s before starting his own competing brewery in St. Paul.

Theodore Hamm died in 1903, leaving his son William and grandson William Jr. to run the brewery. Hamm’s relatives managed the brewery for a sizeable portion of its lifetime — including the Prohibition era, which decimated the Minnesota brewing industry. In 1919, before Prohibition, there were sixty breweries in Minnesota. In 1933, there were only six, Hamm’s included. By then its business leaders had become public figures, and William Jr. was kidnapped by members of the Barker–Karpis gang in 1933. He was returned safely after a $100,000 ransom was paid, but no one from the Barker–Karpis gang was ever charged with a crime.

After Prohibition and World War II, Hamm’s was well positioned to expand. In 1945 it hired Campbell-Mithun, a Minneapolis-based advertising agency, to create a marketing campaign that would build a national profile. Meanwhile, the company acquired breweries throughout the United States that could distribute their beer in different markets. In 1953, Hamm’s purchased the Rainier Brewery in San Francisco, followed by Acme in Los Angeles, Gunther in Baltimore, and Gulf Brewing Company in Houston.

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The Hamm’s bear made his first appearance in a 1953 television commercial. These commercials often featured the klutzy animated bear in the woods or playing a sport with other woodland creatures. A jingle, beginning “From the land of sky-blue waters/From the land of pines, lofty balsams/Comes the beer refreshing/Hamm’s, the beer refreshing,” was played to the beat of the Hamm’s bear stomping on the ground or rolling a log down the river. While it may seem inappropriate for an animated character to advertise an alcoholic beverage, the commercials were popular among viewers. In 1959, a Hamm’s commercial was selected as one of the top ten advertisements by a marketing organization, and the bear appeared on various products and advertisements for the brewery.

Even though Hamm’s expanded its market with new national breweries and had a successful marketing campaign with a recognizable character, the brewery struggled to operate nationwide. In 1968, Hamm’s was acquired by Heublein, a food and beverage corporation in Connecticut. In 1975, Heublein sold Hamm’s to Olympia Brewing, which was soon acquired by Pabst. Pabst, in exchange for a brewery in Tampa, then sold the St. Paul facility to Stroh’s in 1984. Hamm’s production was moved to Milwaukee, and the St. Paul facility produced Stroh’s until 1997, when it was closed for good.

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In 1999, Pabst transferred the Hamm’s trademark to Miller, who has continued to market the beer through the 2010s. Hamm’s has grown as a Miller brand because of its low price and unique marketing towards loyal fans—sometimes referred to as “Hammpions.” Even though the Hamm’s bear has long been absent from advertisements, the character is still strongly associated with the label and his depiction on brewing memorabilia is sought after by collectors. The brewery facilities in Saint Paul—abandoned and dilapidated for many years—are partially owned in 2019 by a real estate developing company. They house a microbrewery, a distillery, and a trapeze facility, among other businesses.

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