John Orth, Grainbelt Beer and architecture that defines Northeast Minneapolis


As Northeasters express their opinions about the future of the Grain Belt building, it’s time to reflect on just one of the founding fathers of the mighty brewing empire that once filled the several buildings that comprised the Grain Belt complex.

John Orth, the second brewer in the Minneapolis/St Anthony area, was born in Rott, Alsace, in France on May 20, 1821.  Alsace was a region in France when Orth left in 1840; it later became a part of Germany after the 1870 war between France and what became Germany.  Though he originally identified himself as French Orth followed his native land and listed himself as a German immigrant – the German roots helped sales of his very German product.

In fact, Orth learned beer making in Rott and honed his skills in Germany, Italy and Spain before immigrating to Erie, Pennsylvania in 1849.  In 1849 Orth married Mary C. Weinell, a woman of Prussian heritage. The Orths moved to Galena, Illinois and then to St. Anthony in July 1850.  The Orth family were said to be the first German immigrants to settle in Minneapolis, then St. Anthony

Orth wasted no time applying the skills he had learned in Germany to open Minnesota’s second brewery located at 1228 Marshall Street NE:  Orth was confident that his was a worthy product: “I am now ready to supply the citizens of this Territory with Ale and Beer which will be found equal –  yes, superior – to what is brought from below.  I am now demonstrating that malt liquors of the very best quality can be manufactured in Minnesota.  Try my Ale and Beer and you will be convinced of the fact.”  Apparently, locals took heed. (quoted from the John Orth and Family Collection at Hennepin County Library/Central Library/Special Collections)

By 1860 the John Orth Brewing Company had reached capacity of 1000 barrels, increasing to 7000 by the late 1870’s.  Cold storage was first a beer cave on Nicollet Island and later an ice cellar which Orth was one of the first to use for lagering beer.  In 1880 Orth Brewing moved to 1215 Marshall NE.

Meanwhile, Orth was engaged in politics.  He was elected to the St. Anthony City Council in 1855, a matter of some concern to local temperance activists.  The Minnesota Republican was concerned that the Council would not support temperance and urged Council members to make “the sale of poisonous beverages a crime” and to condemn the “vile saloons and drunken street displays which disgrace the town.”  Interesting to note, Orth was himself an abolitionist.  Once a Republican he switched to the Democratic party as the Minnesota Republicans take on the prohibitionist cause.

John and Mary Orth had six children, all but one of whom lived to adulthood.  The sons (John W, Edward and Alfred) worked in the brewery and, in time, took on management of the enterprise.

In 1887 John and Mary Orth traveled to Europe and Africa where fell ill and died in transit. The John Orth Brewery, operated by the three sons,  continued as an independent brewer for three years after John Sr’s death.

A major expansion occurred in 1890 when Orth’s brewery merged with the Germania Brewing Association, F.D. Noerenberg Brewery and Heinreich Brewing Association to become the Minneapolis Brewing and Malting Company.  For a time the new company operated out of John Orth’s facility, the largest of the four companies.

In 1891 construction began on the current Grain Belt Brewery on the original Orth site.  The unique architecture features four distinctly different architectural styles to represent the four founding companies.  In 2007, Larry Millett. writing in the AIA Guide to the Twin Cities.  describes the building as “Northeast’s great architectural monument – a Victorian storybook of a building that erupts at the roofline into a dance of towers, domes, and cupolas.”

The new brewery opened in 1892 when Golden Grain Belt Old Lager, later shortened to Grainbelt,  became the conglomerate’s trademark beer.

Soon after the merger the Orth brothers left the business to focus on real estate, an enterprise that still bears their mark. The brewing business was left to Mathias J. Bofferding, husband of Virginia Ann Orth, who became president.  Change was swift.  Minneapolis Brewing was restructured and stock was offered to the public.  A new 150,000 barrel brewery was built at 1215 Marshall Avenue.  Unfortunately Bofferding, who was a cashier at the Bank of Minneapolis, committed suicide just three years into his tenure; the suicide was attributed problems at the Bank, not the brewery.

In the 20th Century Minneapolis Brewing became Grain Belt Brewery which grew by leaps and bounds.  By 1910 the brewery was the state’s second largest brewery, second only to Hamm’s in St. Paul.   Then came National Prohibition in 1920.  While many US breweries were forced out of the business,  Minneapolis Brewing Company continued in business by selling near beer, malted drinks and pop under the name Golden Grain Juice Company.  Minneapolis Brewing Company reentered the alcoholic beverage business in the mid-1930’s after the 1933 repeal of Prohibition.

Through thick and thin Minneapolis Brewing Company remained  independent until the company and the label were sold;  the brewery closed on Christmas Day 1975.  Decades later the buildings echo with the memories of the John Orth family, their legacy as German immigrants, brewers, and the political and economic life of Northeast Minneapolis.

The Grain Belt Brewery Complex was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1990:  National Register #900000988 6/21/1990.  Northeast neighbors know well the past years of development at Grain Belt – Art-A-Whirl or a visit to the Bottineau Library provide opportunities to visit, explore, learn more of the stories that resonate.