This post is related to the recent controversy surrounding the “Definition of Craft Brewing” as defined by the Brewer’s Association as it relates to August Schell Brewing. People are pretty steamed about the publishing of a [for lack of a better term] “Black List” of non-craft breweries in the US. I am saddened by the whole mess.
It’s 1860 and you want to start a brewery in the United States. How easy do you think that was? Probably not very… I can’t even fathom what life must have been like in those days much less how hard it must have been to build a brewery. Yet August Schell did just that. Even more amazing is that Schell’s Brewing is still alive and brewing 152 years later and this timeline includes some pretty trying times.
Thanks to friend and fellow beer lover, Brett Glenna, I finally got an opportunity to visit New Ulm, Minnesota in October for a brewery tour and a slice of Schell history. To say it changed my perspective on brewing traditions would be an understatement.
Dave Berg [@schellbrewer] has been brewing at Schell since 2006. He is walking encyclopedia of the history of the brewery and to say the least, he is intensely passionate about the beer he brews and about the brewery. We were there during Oktoberfest and there were hundreds of adoring fans lined up waiting for the brewery tours but Brett & I got VIP treatment from Dave. August Schell started the brewery in 1860 and times were pretty sketchy in that area. The brewery was one of the only buildings in town that was not burned to the ground during the famous “Sioux Uprising” aka the “Dakota Conflict” and all because of the kindness of the Schell family toward the Sioux people. There were 1900 breweries before Prohibition began in 1919 and Schell’s Brewing Co. was one of only 600 that remained when it was repealed 14 years later. They survived by brewing soda and non-alcoholic beer but rumor has it their was a little moonshine action as well. They almost lost their license for allowing a batch of beer to go out at .75 % ABV when .50 was all that was allowed by law. Hard to fathom in this day and age. Go to the Schell website and follow the timeline to learn in detail about these things. It’s fascinating to read.
In 1885 August Schell built the mansion that exists on the property today for $5k which was no doubt a huge sum of money at the time. Not long after that he spent $25k importing the copper kettle you see below. Talk about having your priorities straight! Clearly August was passionate about brewing beer from the very beginning and I would say this brewery has managed to keep that passion alive in the business over all 152 years of its existence.
The Marti family was involved early on in the Schell brewing tradition when George Marti married one of the Schell daughters. The Marti family carries on the Schell tradition to this very day. You can find the well-written response to the BA list from Jace Marti in the link at the bottom of this post. One of my very favorite stories told by Dave Berg during my visit to New Ulm was about the tiny, wee tap room in the brewery where the locals could go to drink beer and play cards. The room was very small and located at the back of the cave in the brewery. Warren Marti had his office directly above the “tasting” room. When the boys got too rowdy, which was often the case, Warren would simply turn off the tap from a shut-off valve in his office, signaling the night was over! There was an “open ticket” program that started in the brewery after prohibition and lasted into the 80’s. When locals came to the brewery to pickup beer, it was added to a tab which I think was settled up at the end of the month. Sounds pretty dangerous to this beer girl. I would probably have to turn over my entire paycheck every month! Another great story that really touched my heart relates to business survival. In the 70’s, Schell was struggling to make it’s payroll and times were very tough. There was a 100 year old, extremely rare black walnut tree on the property that had been imported from Europe and it was worth a considerable amount of money. The tree was sold to make payroll for the employees of the brewery. That speaks volumes to the integrity of the Marti family. There were no government bail outs in those days — imagine that!
I am not ashamed to say that I appreciate a finely crafted lager and Schell’s Pils tops my list. Anyone that says this beer is not well made is woefully lacking in both taste and beer knowledge in my humble opinion. There is much controversy surrounding the use of adjuncts in beer right now, but as is the case with Schell and many other reputable independent breweries, the use of adjuncts have their place in the brewing process. Schell has been brewing beer styles that have weathered 150 years of history. How dare anyone call them out for using local corn when it is clear the ingredient has been a part of their recipe since the very beginning. This is not a macro-brewed beer using adjuncts to cheapen and lighten the product. We know full well that adjuncts are used discreetly to enhance flavor in a myriad of “craft” beers and it is hypocritical to point out adjunct use for this very purpose at some breweries and not others. Schell’s Pils has won many awards, including medals from the prestigious Great American Beer Festival and you can read a quote below from a craft beer legend that has likely turned in his grave over the publishing of this list.
” One of the best American examples of the Pilsner style.”
—The late Michael Jackson, world-renowned beer aficionado and writer.
August Schell Brewing Company has contract brewed for many well known “craft” brands including Schafly and 3 Floyds over the years. Schell brews with pride and they stand by their product. We should not marginalize their place in the world of craft beer based on loosely worded and frequently edited definitions of “craft” that seem to serve some type of agenda. There are many breweries not on this list that use adjuncts with much less transparency in their beers. Naming them serves no purpose but I will say that many of these beers are great tasting, well made and well respected.
At the end of the day, we decide which beers we spend our hard earned dollars on. If I lived in a state that sold Schell beers, suffice it to say I would buy them. If you have an opportunity to visit New Ulm, Minnesota in the future, by all means plan a brewery tour at Schell’s Brewing Co. Of all the places I have visited in my beer travels, the day I spent in New Ulm stands out as a favorite for many reasons. I consider this brewery to be “craft” and I wouldn’t let any list tell me otherwise. Smart people don’t need lists – I’m just saying! It is my sincerest hope that you will do the same.
Thanks for listening…
PS – People in Minnesota rock! Especially the Glenna family who graciously took me into their home for the weekend and treated me like family. I also had the pleasure of sharing beers with Mr & Mrs @13Mikey [Their real names I swear!] The state has many things to be proud of. #thatisall