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May 2: Bismarck Brewery Fire

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The four main ingredients in beer are barley, water, hops, and yeast. North Dakota is not known for its hop production, but the United States is the leading producer in the world, with a large percentage grown in the Pacific Northwest.

Barley, however, is an important crop in North Dakota. In 2000, North Dakota led nation in Barley production. However, since the 1980s barley production in North Dakota began a downward decline. This was partly due to feed barley trends as cattle growers began favoring corn. Despite the decline in feed barley demand, the malting and brewing industry’s demand has remained steady and continues to be a key crop for many North Dakota farmers.

As early as the 1870s, beer brewing was present in the region’s frontier towns. The Bismarck Brewery was among these early breweries, opening in 1874. In 1883, the Bismarck Brewery was owned by Jacob Kalberer, a Swiss immigrant.

On this date in 1883, at 4:30 in the morning, Kalberer woke to find his brewery, which stood down the hill from his home, had burst into flames. According to the Bismarck Tribune:

“With all possible speed he rushed to the scene and gave the alarm, and the most strenuous efforts were made to check the flames but the efforts were unavailing. The entire building was consumed, together with the machinery, tanks…and a large quantity of barley.”

The fire likely originated in the wooden malt house due to spontaneous combustion.

Unfortunately, the business was not insured, and with the loss of the equipment and supplies, Kalberer did not reopen. However, a year later the Milwaukee Brewing Company built an all-new Bismarck Brewery, an imposing 7-story compound made of brick. The nationally renowned brewing company likely chose Bismarck for its impressive as it was ideally located for shipping up and down the Missouri River. Furthermore, the newly completed Bismarck rail bridge opened shipping to the west.

Abraham Lincoln, reflecting on our country once said, “I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts, and beer.”

Written by Maria Witham


  • “Brewery Burned,” Bismarck Tribune, May 4, 1883, p. 1.
  • “Jacob Kalberer,” 1910 U.S. Census, Bismarck, Burleigh County, N.D., Ancestry.com.
  • “Bismarck’s Breweries of the 1870s and 1880s,” Dakota Datebook, July 18, 2016.
  • “Crop Profile for Barley in North Dakota,” North Dakota Barley Council, December 2002.
  • “Barley: Evolution or Revolution,” Barley Bulletin, North Dakota Barley Council, Summer 2011.
  • “2022 Hop Growers of America Annual Report,” USA Hops, Hop Growers of America, March 16, 2023.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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