Will fish swim in an aquarium of sky blue waters?

David Haider
St. Paul landscaper Dave Haider says he wants to turn part of the old Hamms brewery where his great grandfather worked into an inner-city fish farm. He says water from the battered pump house, at left, is perfect for raising fish and organic produce.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

The historic Hamm's brewery in St. Paul made beer for more than a century before it shut down 14 years ago. But it may soon find new life — as a fish farm. A St. Paul landscaper said his idea for an organic fish and produce operation is so crazy it might just work.

Driving down Minnehaha Avenue on St. Paul's East Side, most people might pass the shuttered Hamm's brewery and see blight. Rusty padlocks swing between the plant's gates. Holes gape in the brew house walls where workers ripped out beer making equipment.

But David Haider?

He sees fish.

"We're going to start with tilapia and once things are up and running, probably branch out to trout and we'll branch out maybe into a couple other species," Haider said.

Those fish will be farmed in 4-foot wide, 60-foot long tanks in a brewery outbuilding, just behind the hulking five-story brewhouse. The fish will swim in water from the brewery well. Racks of aquaponic produce will grow above them.

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"The fish water would get pumped to the top tier, and all the vegetable roots will hang down, suspended in the nutrient rich water," Haider said. "As the water passes through, it will feed the plants, and then the roots of the plants will also filter out the water. It'll drop down to the next tier and so on, and by the time it gets filtered back down to the fish tanks, it will be fresh, filtered water.

Hamm's Brewery, circa 1900
A view of the Hamm's Brewery building in St. Paul, circa 1900.
Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

Haider hopes to sell the fish and vegetables, offer some hands-on science education to neighborhood school kids and take advantage of the local food movement.

Odd as that may sound for a brewery, it's already working in an abandoned crane factory in Milwaukee. Sweet Water Organics raises about 35,000 perch and 20,000 tilapia, along with lettuce, watercress, basil and wheatgrass.

Back in St. Paul, Haider's efforts are a little more down to earth for now. Literally. He and his wife run Urban Nature, a small landscaping company. They and business partner Chris Ames are starting the fish farm.

They have an initial approval for $300,000 from a city-run development fund and Haider said they're rounding up another quarter million in private funding.

St. Paul City Council President Kathy Lantry said the fish farm will be a perfect fit.

"I mean, they're going to raise fish, so what do you need? A water source — voila, the well's on site," Lantry said. "They need buildings that are overbuilt, because they're going to have giant tubs of water in a building. What sort of building is overbuilt to have liquids in them? A brewery.

It has taken a long time to see that potential. Stroh's brewing stopped making beer there in 1997. The site has been mostly notable since for catching fire.

In it's heyday, Hamm's was the fifth-biggest brewer in the U.S. Its St. Paul roots date back to the Civil War.

Along with 3M and the neighboring Whirlpool factory, Hamm's was the beating blue collar heart of the East Side. At one time, Hamm's employed as many as 2,000 people in St. Paul.

"Back in the day, (that) was an awful lot of folks," said Kirk Schnitker, president of the Hamm's Club, which he founded to keep alive the memory of the historic beer and its maker.

At the mid-century height of its business, he says there were shifts running around the clock at the brewery. The Hamm family sold it in 1965.

Abandoned brewery
This empty warehouse behind the old Hamms brew house may be the site of a new organic fish farm.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

"You know it had a long run of making Hamm's there and Old Style and Pheiffer's and Buckhorn and a number of other brands. And finally, Stroh's," Schnitker said. "The run was long, and eventually it was ended by the larger beer interests."

Since the brewery closed, planners have pitched homes, offices and warehouse space on the site. Plans for an Asian Pacific cultural center were vetoed by then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

"We've been looking at reuse of these buildings. It's difficult, because it was built as a brewery, and these are massive buildings," said David Gontarek a planner for the city of St. Paul, which owns the southern half of the Hamm's site.

If all goes as planned, there will be fish swimming around in some of them by March.