In the basement of this massive old brewery complex, Phil Gagne pauses, looks up and listens. Other than an air conditioner’s hum, the room is silent.
But Gagne isn’t listening to the space as it is now. He is hearing history.
“It was hot, noisy and wet down here,” Gagne says. “I can still hear the clanging of the bottles.”
The buildings that once made up the Schmidt Brewery in St. Paul are in the midst of a massive makeover. The brewhouse and bottlehouse have been transformed into artist lofts. The former keg house was just unveiled as Keg and Case, a market packed with food-focused tenants. Up next: the neighboring rathskeller building, built in 1935 and known for its German-style basement beer hall.
As director of operations for those last two projects, Gagne is a big part of what the Schmidt Brewery Complex will become. But he might be better known by his unofficial role: resident historian.
“He’s probably the person who knows the most about that whole complex,” says Michael Bjornberg, owner of MBjornberg Design, the projects’ historic consultant. “From top to bottom — literally.
“He’s probably as much a fixture around there as the buildings themselves.”
As much a fixture as the underground tunnels that crisscross the property and the caves that brought brewers to the site back in 1855 to start Cave Brewery. (The dark, cool caves provided natural refrigeration for the kegs to come.)
Gagne, 59, started as a brewer in 1979, later becoming a brewery and bottling supervisor. He rose to assistant brewmaster, then head brewmaster. When the brewing halted in 2002, Gagne went home and filed for unemployment. But within the week he was back on site, heading up a skeleton crew to run out the 33,000 barrels of beer still in the tanks.
That six-month gig led to another, then another.
Throughout, Gagne kept one eye on the history of the place. “The top shelf is where you always find the cool stuff,” he says, running his hand along the shelf in an old room, stirring up a cloud of construction dust. He saved original blueprints. He repurposed old tank cradles into benches. He dragged a door out of the dumpster.
Behind each piece is a story, which Gagne will gladly tell. A few years back, he and his history-loving granddaughter told those tales during Minnesota Historical Society tours of the complex. “People loved the fact they were actually touring the venue with someone with those memories,” says Aleah Vinick, who was then the society’s young adult audience specialist. “It helps people connect, to realize that this is a living story.”
She laughs, then adds: “The hardest part was getting him to keep it to 45 minutes or less.”
Gagne’s office looks a bit like the exhibit he put on with the Minnesota Historical Society, with artifacts everywhere. On one wall hangs a black-and-white photo of the brewery’s bowling team, with men in bow ties and women in petticoats. In his file cabinet, navy blueprints show the tunnel from the bottling house to the office building. Gagne fashioned his desk out of an old cellar door.
His garage is packed, too. “I’ve built sheds for some of the stuff,” Gagne says. “I have issues.”
Then there are the glass bottles. “They’re not from junkyards or antique stores,” Gagne says. “They’re from the holy land.”
Each time he fishes one out of the earth, he closes his eyes and thinks: Who might have held this last?
On a recent afternoon, Gagne walks into the rathskeller building, greeting the crew in hard hats without slowing his pace. He jogs down the stairs and pauses inside the old basement brewhall. The place feels old, ancestral. Light streams in on an old mural. A hunting scene: Beside a cabin in the woods, three men hold beers.
“That’s Jacob Schmidt in the middle,” Gagne says.
After the brewery closed in 2002, Gagne and his wife came to the hall every summer, opening up the doors. They waxed floors and ran dehumidifiers. In the winter, they turned on space heaters so pipes wouldn’t freeze. He pulls up a photo on his phone. “This is what it looked like in 2011,” he says. The next owners didn’t take the same care, Gagne says, shaking his head. The floors flooded.
When Gagne got put in charge, again, he restarted that old routine. “The first thing I did,” he says, “I opened up the doors.”