Every time Tom Schroeder gets started, he’s interrupted.
Standing on the sidewalk of Smith Avenue in Uppertown St. Paul in his Waldmann hat and T-shirt, the tall, willowy Schroeder is easy to spot. He’s an institution in the neighborhood just as much as the 1857 limestone building he now owns. As soon as he gets going uncorking the history of the onetime lager saloon, the oldest commercial building in St. Paul, he’s halted by a beeping neighbor driving by to say hello.
He takes the interruptions with grace. He’s got infinite patience for people who are curious about his plans for “the Stone House.”
Schroeder bought the Stone House back in 2008 and began the careful process of restoring it to its pre-Civil War function. After a trip to the Minnesota Historical Society, he discovered the original owner, Anthony Waldmann, had used it as a saloon. That’s where the idea for Waldmann Brewery & Wurstery began to come into focus.
“I owned a derelict building with a pretty interesting history, but what to do with it?” Schroeder writes on Waldmann’s Kickstarter page. “Then it hit me: Maybe beer — specifically, the income from a brewery — could help fund the preservation of the building.”
In 1857, Uppertown was the highest navigable port of the Mississippi River, and steamboat workers would come ashore in St. Paul to unwind. Waldmann saw an opportunity in catering to these blue-collar shipmen, so he built his saloon between the Mississippi and Fort Road.
As an immigrant from Munich, Waldmann was part of a rich community of Germans living in the Minnesota Territory. Waldmann and his fellow expats had brought with them German brewing traditions, finding the water in Minnesota and the cold caves of the Mississippi to be perfect conditions for brewing lagers.
In his own goofy dad parlance, Schroeder refers to lagers as “the hula hoop of the day.” He’s spent years researching the history of the building, painstakingly planning its restoration. Though Schroeder consulted with some carpenters in the neighborhood for advice early on, he eventually enlisted craftsmen like Fred Livesay and Tom Dengler to help him with the fine details. In them, he found people whose execution was as compulsively detailed as his own. They pulled the original square nails from the walls and re-set them in the new construction; the new floorboards have unfinished mill edges, and there are intentional gaps left between rows — just like in the original structure.
“People will feel the details more than they notice it,” Schroeder says. “These are human spaces.”
The decade-long restoration is part of what’s made the congenial Schroeder a fixture in Uppertown, but the delay in progress has also been a frustration. The road to Waldmann has been fraught with semantic battles and code compliance issues, and the space is still far from finished. Wood needs to be stained, staircases need to be rebuilt, and, aside from the bathrooms, no room is completely furnished. The patio area is still just a mound of dirt.
And yet, the progress they’ve made thus far is staggering. The very existence of Waldmann, a brewery in a residential zone, hinges on a unique new ordinance Schroeder introduced. In essence, the ordinance allows for a historically designated structure to be used for its original intent. It took 10 sessions, but the ordinance passed, and now Waldmann will be the first commercial brewery in Minnesota to operate on a residential license.
“How do we preserve the building down to its original function?” Schroeder says. “That was my question when I found out this place used to be a lager saloon.”
Waldmann didn’t brew on premise, as this wasn’t common at the time, so Schroeder’s rebirth of 445 Smith Ave. is a bit of a historical reimagining. The Stone House and that adjoining structure will serve as the main bar area, with two rooms and a bar on each floor for sitting, eating, and drinking, but a brew barn is also joined to the original structure by a vestibule. In the barn is a 15-barrel system where head brewer Drew Ruggles will design Bavarian brews that would please the bier meisters of old.
The legacy of proper German brewing didn’t intimidate Ruggles when he signed on to design the brewery and head up the program. “I was pretty excited someone wanted to do something other than another ale house,” he says. “We want to let the quality of the beer speak to the quality of the experience.”
The beer will emphasize malt characteristics using imported floor-roasted malt and noble hops. To accomplish the full body and dry finish of traditional German brewing, he’s incorporated a mash boil into his setup. This allows him to decoct the beer, a very old technique European brewers used to heat their beer that involved removing a portion of the mash from the mash tun, heating it, and adding it back into the brew. The process has fallen out of fashion in commercial brewing in favor of more economical techniques, but Ruggles insists it’s critical to sculpting the body of beer he wants to serve.
“That might just be the control freak in me,” Ruggles notes with a laugh.
Alongside the meticulous beer selection will be a menu of house-made sausages and other German fare that would fit right into the tradition Schroeder and Ruggles are trying to reclaim. Despite the fact that the kitchen is currently a blank room of drywall and plaster dust, early Kickstarter donors have already sampled the finely crafted meat and sides at a recent preview party.
Schroeder isn’t sure when things will be finished. The brewing equipment should be loaded in next month, but there’s no telling what archaic building code might present itself to delay the progress. He is hoping to open doors in September.
But before he can finish telling me about the opening, a man in a straw boater hat walks up and asks for an update. It’s not clear if the two know each other, but Schroeder happily takes the man into the sunny front room and starts his whole spiel over again.
Waldmann Brewery and Wurstery
445 Smith Ave., St. Paul