Nine years in the making, the Waldmann is finally open. Again.
And this time, the cozy saloon is brewing up its own beer.
“The concept of a saloon owner manufacturing the beer on premises?” owner Tom Schroeder muses. “That’s ahistorical, and I acknowledge that. But that’s maybe, in a funny way, part of joining the history of the present.”
Buoyed by Schroeder’s love of history and interest in preserving what turned out to be the oldest surviving commercial building in all of St. Paul, the saloon on Smith Avenue -- after 160 years of dormancy -- is at last back in business as Waldmann, a brewery and wurstery.
Originally opened just before the Panic of 1857 (the 2008 recession of its time), the saloon was run by Anton Waldmann, a German immigrant whose former occupations included shoemaker and fuel-wood seller to Yankee steamships. Waldmann and his wife lived in Saint Paul until 1885, when they both returned to Germany. Waldmann died only a year later, and the building was eventually turned into a house, the façade filled in with stonework, its history as a saloon forgotten.
Schroeder, the driving force behind its rebirth, bought the building and the adjacent lots when real estate prices took a nosedive shortly after our recession in 2008.
“This building had lay fallow for 154 years, basically, in terms of its original use,” Schroeder explains. “So I saw this and thought, ‘What a great opportunity to really bring that to life again.’”
Though by now he’s accustomed to sharing the saloon’s story, Schroeder’s enthusiasm isn’t diminished in the retelling. His eyes light up as he draws connections between German politics of the period, hand-planed chair rails, the Erie Canal, journeyman carpenters from upstate New York, the Chicago Lager Beer Riots of 1856, and the next year’s Panic of 1857. He pokes at square-head nails and runs his fingers across tabletops made from salvaged wood: “This is a floor joist, this is a wall stud.” His reverence for the history of the place is obvious. But, he’s quick to add, “You don’t have to love history to really feel moved by these spaces.”
This isn’t Schroeder’s first St. Paul fixer-upper -- he’s lived in the West Seventh neighborhood since the late 1980s, when he and his wife bought an 1877 Italianate Revival house and restored it. “From a neighborhood standpoint, it’s really been gratifying to leverage our neighborhood’s greatest assets in terms of our historical buildings and bring those back to life in a way that benefits the neighbors and neighborhood,” he says.
When he and his crew began the interior demolition on the building, neighbors would stop by to lend a hand. Nearby professionals organized several archaeological digs, involving kids from the community. Schroeder was supported by these neighbors in his creation and pursuit of a new historic-use variance that enables him to operate a commercial venture -- a brewery, even -- on a residential lot.
Now, Schroeder and his team are on a mission to offer guests an experience tinged with St. Paul’s past. While the mounted buffalo head and traveling chest from 1885 go a long way toward that goal, the food and beer, too, give Waldmann patrons a window back in time.
Waldmann head brewer Drew Ruggles is creating classic German beers (pilsners, hefeweizens) using a German-style decoction method, which involves a process called step mashing. Grains are steeped in hop fluid at a variety of temperatures to extract as many flavor profiles as possible. This, Schroeder says, “really produces a more malt-forward beer, which is what we’re all about here.”
Each of Waldmann’s beers uses at least one heritage element, “whether it’s a six-year-old barley that we believe is of a similar hybrid to the period, or it’s the cluster hops that [Drew is] using in all of our beers.” Schroeder explains that cluster hops are ancestors of today’s hybrids and are also consistent with the kind that would’ve been grown in upstate New York during this period.
That attention to detail extends to the food as well. Chef Karl Gerstenberger, drawing on his immense sausage-making experience and some trips to Germany in the mid-‘00s, has narrowed down the menu to focus on wurst.
“Essentially, we’re starting out simply with classic German forms,” Gerstenberger explains. “The focus initially has just been two house-made [wursts] and a hot dog from Red Table." This week, they'll start making their own hot dog, tossing in new and traditional varieties along the way. "The whole food menu is designed to be conducive for beer-drinking.”
The assortment of wursts is supported by nine different sides, ranging from pickles to duck-fat potatoes to spaetzle. Guests can also snack on a plush bretzel with two kinds of grainy mustard and house-made ketchup spiked with curry powder. Gerstenberger is himself a fan of such simple, straightforward food. “Fancy, fussy food, I’ll go for those experiences, but day in and day out I want things that are kind of basic and simple,” he says. “That German ethic is: Food is not elevated in Germany. It’s done with lots of seriousness and lots of pride, but there’s not the culture of all the self-adoration that comes with Italian and French food -- which I love, don’t get me wrong. But meat and potatoes is actually kind of a thing.”
Schroeder describes the saloon as utilitarian and unpretentious (architecture’s own meat and potatoes), a place for gathering with friends and family to sip a beer and enjoy food and conversation. By recalling the early days of German saloons -- which have more in common with British pubs than the rowdy watering holes depicted in old Westerns -- Schroeder hopes “to really make this history relevant to today."
Waldmann has been open just a few weeks now, but Schroeder is already eyeing next steps. After a few months, he and his team will begin the approval process for adding a small, on-site beer garden. To make this a reality, Schroeder will have to undergo six public hearings and get the sign-off from over 75 percent of the neighbors living within 300 feet. Never one to stay idle, Schroeder has already begun consulting old insurance maps of the period, noting that every German saloon had its outdoor beer garden. (Minnesotans have always loved patios, it seems.)
Standing on the second floor of the saloon near the woodstove, his head almost brushing the ceiling, Schroeder contemplates the last nine years. “This humble building has really guided the mission, the business plan, the work plan for the carpenters, the masons, the blacksmiths, even the HVAC and electrical and plumbers,” he says. “The building has such a powerful imprint on everyone involved in it.”
Then he’s off, describing a nearby painting from Germany and prepping glassware for lunch service.
Parking is tight, especially with construction happening now on the High Bridge. Come early, ride your bike, or take public transit. However you get here, it’s worth it to soak in and consider a slice of Saint Paul history.
A festbier and wurst plate will be waiting for you.
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