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Culinary Curiosities: Why Water Is Beer’s Most Important Ingredient

With redevelopment in the works, the Schmidt Brewery site is getting new life as Keg and Case Market.

Although those of us in the upper Midwest live on “no coast,” East and West Coasters might be surprised at how central water is to our lives. In the land of 10,000 lakes we swim, boat and fish on lakes, creeks, rivers and ponds. There’s awe-inspiring Lake Superior (or “Mother Superior” as my nature-minded friend calls it) and the mighty Mississippi. But have you thought about the hidden springs and wells that nourish us, providing clean, fresh water? The next time you enjoy a pint at your local taproom, consider the water that went into your beer.

Minnesota has always had a strong history of brewing and those who settled in the Midwest to make beer have made it a point to celebrate the purity of the local water.  Grain Belt boasted its beer was made “from perfect brewing water.” Hamm’s, “the refreshingest” beer was from “the land of sky blue waters.” Cold Spring Brewing, founded in 1874 in the town of the same name, advertised beer from “pure spring water.” And one brewery, started by Christopher Stahlman in 1855, made excellent use of dark, cool underground caves, perfect for storage, and also of a nearby well that provided pure water. 

By 1879, Stahlman’s Cave Brewery, located on West Seventh Street in St. Paul, was selling 10,000 barrels of beer in Minnesota. Stahlman passed away and the brewery changed hands many times—it was the owner Jacob Schmidt’s name that somehow stuck to the site over the years—but that deep well continues to provide fresh water to the community to this day.

Given that beer is about 95 percent water, the importance of this ingredient in brewing can’t be underestimated. Soft water is better than hard water, which is more alkaline and likely contains a high degree of minerals. Water chemistry can be adjusted to improve its quality for brewing and make it more suitable for certain styles of beer. But many savvy brewers, both commercial and home based, make use of Minnesota’s natural springs and wells.

The well at the Schmidt Brewery runs 1,100 feet down and taps into the Mount Simon-Hinckley aquifer, a source of ancient water sealed deep in the earth by sediment deposited from retreating glaciers. It’s good to drink and makes great beer, but the last brewery there closed in 2002. Now the site has been converted to artists’ lofts. Water from the well has been available to the public on and off over the years. These days, if you bring your own jug, you can buy it from a vending machine for 50 cents a gallon.

While our fresh water is abundant, it isn’t limitless. In 1989 the Minnesota Legislature passed a Groundwater Protection Act that made provisions to limit drilling into the Mount Simon-Hinckley aquifer, but grandfathered in the old Schmidt Brewery well.

But the availability of clean drinking water is an issue in other parts of the state. For the last four years the city of Cold Spring has struggled to balance the water needs of Cold Spring Brewing (which bottles the popular Third Street Brewhouse beer among other products), with city residents as well as a nearby trout stream, all of which draw heavily on a shallow local aquifer. Cold Spring continues to search for long-term solutions to its potable water demands while closely monitoring usage. Moving forward, it’s clear that conserving and protecting water for brewing and other industries will be paramount.  

As for the Schmidt Brewery site, more change is on the horizon. Plans are in the works for the Keg and Case Market, a new food destination venture featuring local restaurants, vendors, an outdoor farmers market and—you guessed it—a craft brewery.  No word yet on whether they will be using the well. 

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