Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.

Entries about Minnesota history from MNopedia are made available through a partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society and with funding from the Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

From the land of sky-blue waters, a history of Hamm’s beer

historic photo of hamms brewery
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
A view of Hamm’s Brewery in St. Paul, designed by August Maritzen, ca. 1905. The ornamental elements of the building were later removed as the facilities were updated for operations. The large house on the bluff near the brewery was built for Theodore Hamm and his wife, Louise.

The Theodore Hamm Brewing Company, one of Minnesota’s most iconic breweries, began brewing beer in about 1865 as Excelsior Brewery in St. Paul. Hamm’s was brewed in Minnesota for well over a century, and its brief national profile was bolstered by both its iconic animated bear and its Minnesota-centric slogan: “From the land of sky-blue waters.”

Theodore Hamm acquired the Pittsburgh Brewery in St. Paul from Andrew Keller around 1865. The complex of buildings, which he renamed Excelsior Brewery, stood on the bluffs above the Phelan Creek Valley, near Swede Hollow. Excelsior grew over the next twenty years to become the second largest brewery in the state in 1886. As the brewery’s output expanded beyond its existing facilities, Theodore Hamm hired architect August Maritzen to build a large complex of brewery buildings. Maritzen’s design was ornate and decorative, and the facilities opened to the public in September of 1894. The Theodore Hamm Brewing Company was officially incorporated a few years later, in 1896. Jacob Schmidt, who had known Theodore Hamm in Baden, Germany, was an early brewmaster at Hamm’s before starting his own competing brewery in St. Paul.

Theodore Hamm died in 1903, leaving his son William and grandson William Jr. to run the brewery. Hamm’s relatives managed the brewery for a sizeable portion of its lifetime — including the Prohibition era, which decimated the Minnesota brewing industry. In 1919, before Prohibition, there were sixty breweries in Minnesota. In 1933, there were only six, Hamm’s included. By then its business leaders had become public figures, and William Jr. was kidnapped by members of the Barker–Karpis gang in 1933. He was returned safely after a $100,000 ransom was paid, but no one from the Barker–Karpis gang was ever charged with a crime.

After Prohibition and World War II, Hamm’s was well positioned to expand. In 1945 it hired Campbell-Mithun, a Minneapolis-based advertising agency, to create a marketing campaign that would build a national profile. Meanwhile, the company acquired breweries throughout the United States that could distribute their beer in different markets. In 1953, Hamm’s purchased the Rainier Brewery in San Francisco, followed by Acme in Los Angeles, Gunther in Baltimore, and Gulf Brewing Company in Houston.

The Hamm’s bear made his first appearance in a 1953 television commercial. These commercials often featured the klutzy animated bear in the woods or playing a sport with other woodland creatures. A jingle, beginning “From the land of sky-blue waters/From the land of pines, lofty balsams/Comes the beer refreshing/Hamm’s, the beer refreshing,” was played to the beat of the Hamm’s bear stomping on the ground or rolling a log down the river. While it may seem inappropriate for an animated character to advertise an alcoholic beverage, the commercials were popular among viewers. In 1959, a Hamm’s commercial was selected as one of the top ten advertisements by a marketing organization, and the bear appeared on various products and advertisements for the brewery.

Even though Hamm’s expanded its market with new national breweries and had a successful marketing campaign with a recognizable character, the brewery struggled to operate nationwide. In 1968, Hamm’s was acquired by Heublein, a food and beverage corporation in Connecticut. In 1975, Heublein sold Hamm’s to Olympia Brewing, which was soon acquired by Pabst. Pabst, in exchange for a brewery in Tampa, then sold the St. Paul facility to Stroh’s in 1984. Hamm’s production was moved to Milwaukee, and the St. Paul facility produced Stroh’s until 1997, when it was closed for good.

In 1999, Pabst transferred the Hamm’s trademark to Miller, who has continued to market the beer through the 2010s. Hamm’s has grown as a Miller brand because of its low price and unique marketing towards loyal fans—sometimes referred to as “Hammpions.” Even though the Hamm’s bear has long been absent from advertisements, the character is still strongly associated with the label and his depiction on brewing memorabilia is sought after by collectors. The brewery facilities in Saint Paul—abandoned and dilapidated for many years—are partially owned in 2019 by a real estate developing company. They house a microbrewery, a distillery, and a trapeze facility, among other businesses.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Doug Hoverson on 11/25/2019 - 10:51 am.

    It’s a minor correction, but there were nine breweries open on the first day of legal beer in 1933, and several more opened later that year.

  2. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 11/25/2019 - 11:47 am.

    Great article…..memories… two uncles worked/retired at Hamms many years ago…..would always bring me cases of Hamms dents from the fill line.

  3. Submitted by John Hoffman on 11/25/2019 - 03:00 pm.

    Anyone know precisely where the old Hamm’s family mansion was located? I know I lived near the general vicinity at the far west end of E. Minnehaha Ave. & N. Rivoli St., but never could quite figure that out. It’s an old part of the Railroad Island neighborhood just up the hill from the formerly Hamm’s / Stroh’s brewery buildings. It’s also a high vantage point with great views overlooking the downtown of Saint Paul from the north.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 11/25/2019 - 06:42 pm.

      It was on the west side of Greenbrier, where Margaret intersects, with Maury Street to the south, the brewery to the north, & Swede Hollow to the west.

      I think I spent fully one half of my youth roaming the immediate vicinity.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 11/25/2019 - 06:51 pm.

      Pabst did not buy the brewery (along with all Olympia assets) until 1983. I don’t think Pabst was around for even 24 months.

      Unlike hard liquor, beer has a relatively short shelf life, something Heublein did not seem to understand & which was likely a contributing factor in their unsuccessful ownership.

      In contemplating my alcoholism, it would seem the nefarious effects of a cartoon bear influenced the beginning of my affinity for beer. Fortunately I did not succumb to the seductive influence of a cartoon camel who made cigs look appealing as well.

  4. Submitted by John Hoffman on 11/25/2019 - 03:13 pm.

    Regarding the kidnap ransom…According to the inflation calculator: $100,000 in 1933 equals almost $2 million in 2018 USD. (I actually thought it would be more)

  5. Submitted by Tom Smith on 11/25/2019 - 06:36 pm.

    Does anyone know if the Hamms that I might purchase and drink today uses the same formula and tastes the same as one that was consumes back in the 50’s /60’s?

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 11/26/2019 - 09:05 pm.

      That would be highly doubtful. Today’s Hamm’s is not a premium beer, but a budget beer. It likely has more corn (as a percentage of the grain bill) than the Hamm’s of the 50’s of even the 60’s. There is a good chance that the “Hamm’s” in your can is the same beer that Miller-Coors puts in several other cans & bottles that carry the names of other Miller-Coors budget beers.

  6. Submitted by Steve Elkins on 11/27/2019 - 01:36 pm.

    As a college student in California in the early to mid 70’s, Hamm’s Draft, in the cans shaped like little kegs, was one of my favorite beers. I still remember the commercials vividly and was surprised that it wasn’t still available here when I moved to Minnesota in 1985. Olympia (“Its the water!”) was one of my other favorites that has disappeared from the market.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/02/2019 - 09:18 am.

      I had two uncles who lived on the West Coast. Whenever my parents would go to visit them, they brought along a case of St. Paul Hamm’s, because the uncles didn’t think the San Francisco brew was as good.

  7. Submitted by Roy Everson on 11/28/2019 - 11:14 am.

    A cartoon bear used to promote alcoholism is certainly a sobering thought. On the other hand these ads helped sponsor endless summers (1960s) of 80-odd free TV broadcasts of Minnesota Twins away games. That was some bear.

  8. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/01/2019 - 08:46 am.

    It just goes to show that the “grow or die” mantra kills diversity. Capitalists eat their own.

  9. Submitted by Laura Stone on 12/02/2019 - 09:00 am.

    Growing up in Iowa, I’d see the Hamm’s commercials during baseball broadcasts and the idea of all the sky blue lakes fascinated me. The cartoon made me dream of someday living among those water falls, lakes and streams. I can see a lake outside the window now!

Leave a Reply