Larkin Brothers – Moorhead’s First Brewery

clay county histories

 Markus Krueger | Program Director  HCSCC

John Erickson took over the Larkin Brothers Brewery after one year.

In the spring of 1875, when Moorhead wasn’t quite four years old, we got our first brewery. Brothers Joseph and George Larkin came down from Winnipeg and built a brewery on 4th Street North and the River, just north of Center Mall near the bike trails.

The Red River Star newspaper announced that the Larkin Brothers would buy all the barley local farmers could grow. “All that is required of the brewery man is sufficient capital and a good knowledge of the business to make the venture a success; and that our newly acquired friends have these requirements is a fact demonstrated beyond doubt.” They were wrong. It turns out you also had to make decent beer.

Newspapers in frontier towns like Moorhead were city booster publications. The more people they could get to move to Moorhead, the more subscriptions and ads they could sell. So it’s funny to read this article telling people that they should actually like Moorhead beer even though they don’t. “The beer, which is commonly known as “young beer,” is fully as good as “lager,” and by some is preferred to the impure article frequently shipped from St. Paul to country dealers. The pureness or genuineness of beer is not always to be found in its strength…Good, pure ale or beer, however young, is less hurtful and will give good satisfaction where generally offered.”

 “Young Beer” is beer that hasn’t been fermented all the way through, therefore it’s low in alcohol – maybe 2-4% instead of the 6-10% that you’ll find in Moorhead’s two breweries today. Young beer would be a bit sweeter because the yeast hasn’t had time to convert all the natural sugars into alcohol. At least, I assume it would be sweeter. I’ve never had young beer. I’ve never seen it for sale before because nobody makes it. Did the Larkin Brothers really expect to sell low-alcohol sweet beer for health purposes to railroad workers and sodbusters on the Minnesota frontier?

Or did they, perhaps, make ale? There are two overarching beer types: ales and lagers. Ales are made in the British tradition with yeast that works fast and in warmer temperatures. The Pilgrims and the Founding Fathers drank ales. But in the 1800s, the USA experienced a flood of German immigrants. These Germans brought with them refreshing, mild lager beers whose yeast works slowly and in cold temperatures. Americans loved the beer of German immigrants like Frederick Pabst, Adolphus Busch, Frederick Miller, and Theodore Hamm. Ales almost went extinct in the USA. The Larkin Brothers, however, were Canadians. Sure, there are Germans in Canada, but Canada’s big wave of immigrants came from England and Scotland – the land of pale ales, porters and stouts. These beers were not to Americans’ taste in 1875.

Or did the Larkin Brothers just make a bad batch and tell the local reporter that it tastes like this on purpose?

The Larkin Brothers’ brewery went bust in just one year. In 1876, the brewery was purchased by John Erickson – a Swede who made sure to employ German brewers.

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