The Caves of Mushroom Valley

“In 1933,” Combs wrote, “in so far as was known no blue cheese was being manufactured commercially in this country.” He set up the University Cave for experimentation and Popular Science magazine featured his work in its April, 1935 issue, under the heading, “Caves for Cheese Making Discovered in America.” Combs claimed there were enough caves near St. Paul to supply the entire world demand for Roquefort. “There’s not a European cheese that can’t be made right here in Minnesota,” he boasted.

Inspection-of-the-University-of-Minnesota's-Roquefort-cheese-caves-located-in-the-banks-of-the-Mississippi-River,-St.-Paul--Photo-courtesy-of-Minnesota-Historical-Society

The fall of France to invading German armies cut off imports of Roquefort cheese during World War II, allowing the domestic brand to flourish. “City’s Million-Dollar Cheese Industry Gets Off With Bang,” trumpeted the Pioneer Press on December 15, 1940. Kraft Cheese and Land O’Lakes both rented caves. One reporter declared,“St. Paul is well on its way to become the blue cheese capital of the world.” Cheese caves were listed in city directories until 1959.

This was not the first time that a German invasion brought new industries to Mushroom Valley. From the 1840s onwards, German immigrants to the United States brought their traditional fondness for beer, which had not previously been of much importance in this country where hard liquor was usually preferred. Ironically, this switch was facilitated by temperance agitation, which originally focused largely on “ardent spirits,” leading many Americans to choose the less potent substitute.

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Lager beer differed from the American and English ales. The beer required lagering, or storage, for several months at lower temperatures. Lager beer could only be brewed during the winter months when cellar temperatures were sufficiently low. But in northern states, such as Minnesota, where natural ice was readily available, ice cakes could be harvested from nearby lakes and rivers in winter and stacked in caves, allowing brewing year round to meet the growing demand.

Anthony Yoerg established the first Minnesota brewery that produced lager beer in downtown St. Paul in 1848. Yoerg, like many St. Paul brewers after him, was a native of Bavaria, the cradle of the German brewing industry. But it wasn’t until 1871 that he relocated to Mushroom Valley on the opposite side of the river. Yoerg’s Brewery was built in a snug little cove along Ohio Street, just off Plato Boulevard. This idyllic spot was once referred to as “The City of the Birds,” from all the holes that cliff swallows had dug in the sandstone bluffs. Yoerg proudly advertised its “Cave Aged Beer” on its cone-top cans, which didn’t appear until 1950, long after other breweries had adopted canned beer. The company closed down a few years later.

But Yoerg was bucking the trend. Most local lagering caves, like those of Hamm’s and Schmidt, were abandoned by about 1900, despite the free natural refrigeration they offered. With the advent of the Linde refrigeration machine and cheap electricity, lagering moved out of caves into carefully controlled aboveground cellars that could be kept immaculately clean. (No more annoying side fermentations.)

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