A sign from the past

I’ve just read the label of my Grain Belt Premium bottle. Though I’ve done this hundreds of times throughout my lifetime, I always find myself nostalgic – taken back to Minnesota, to my college days and the year directly following.

Kerrie and I lived in Sauk Rapids, a suburb of St. Cloud, and would often drive two blocks east of our apartment building to buy Grain Belt at the municipal liquor store. That concept still seems so foreign to me; a city-owned liquor store. But it was real. And it’s where I purchased my last six pack of old-school, Minnesota Brewing Company brewed Grain Belt Premium.

We had always known that things hadn’t been going well for the company. During those post college years, Grain Belt was on a downturn. It had always enjoyed a modest level of success throughout Minnesota as a classic Minnesotan beer – unique taste, bargain price: it was a workin’ man’s beer, the Pabst of Minnesota. It was a beer best cold; a beer that suggested a hint of blueberries, especially when consumed after a stronger brew. It was our beer of choice. But that wasn’t enough to save it.

Minnesota Brewing Company went out of business and we feared the worst. A few cases were still to be had if you knew where to look – Sauk Rapids Liquor was one of them – so we made sure we kept a supply. But eventually, even they went dry. And the history was nearly written in full.

The history includes one of the quintessential icons in Minneapolis – the Grain Belt Brewery sign on Nicollet Island next to the Hennepin Avenue Bridge. And what an icon it was – a welcome reminder of where I was, a beacon from the middle of the Minnesota night, bathing the road in advertised golden glory. It seemed as though a trip to Minneapolis – without fail – included a drive by the beautiful sign.

And I looked forward to it. To me, it is the embodiment of Minneapolis. It is a beautiful piece of 1940s-era advertising, a reminder to everyone the power of a quality billboard in a great area of town. It’s also the essence of Grain Belt beer – rusted, ancient, built from the ground up and still standing tall after a history of fighting for its name, taking on all comers and surviving several sales and moves throughout the midwest.

Yes, still standing. Though Minnesota Brewing Company went out of business, the Grain Belt recipe was picked up by rival Schell Brewing Company in New Ulm, Minnesota. The original cask of Grain Belt was transferred to its new home, and the recipe began to brew again. Nothing could bring the beer down, just like nothing will bring the sign down. Today, Grain Belt Premium is Schell’s biggest seller.

So I read the side of the bottle again. “The unique Grain Belt bottle cap neon sign, in Downtown Minneapolis, is 40′ x 40′, and was constructed in the 1940’s.” It might seem like a little. But it says a lot – not only about the sign, but about the history. About the city. About the memories that each person who has opened up a bottle has stored since 1940.

It’s a monument to simplicity. It’s a monument to tradition. It’s not the best tasting beer, and it’s not even the most high quality beer. But it’s hard working, always there, and always memorable.

Every bottle of Grain Belt Premium is a testament to longevity. It’s a kick back to my college days, a nostalgic elixir that bathes my mind in a wave of memories. And the sign that still stands today stands for each of us that drinks it. It might sound cheesy, but it’s true – no single item in Minneapolis defines the city – the culture and the history – better than that sign.

And I’m proud to drink it every time.

Grain Belt Sign at Nicolett Park

This was lovingly handwritten on November 10th, 2007