Live Long and Prosper

In my travels around Michigan, quite a few members of the brewing community asked me, "Have you read Brewed in Detroit, by Peter Blum?" Yes I have, and I recommend it to anyone who's a fan of Michigan beer.

Blum, who passed away in 2002, was a bridge between last century's old-guard breweries and today's craft brewers. He worked for Stroh Brewery Company, a Michigan icon, and served as the Stroh family archivist. Much of his book focuses on Stroh, of course, but it also tells a story that reaches back to the days before Michigan entered the Union.

The author divides the story of Detroit brewing into six eras. The first was that of the English-style ale brewers, whose breweries were about the size of a modern homebrewing operation, and even less technologically advanced. Next up were the Germans. They arrived by the thousands after the upheavals of the 1840s. Their new-fangled lager quickly became the dominant style, although some breweries continued producing ales until century's end.

According to Blum, Detroit's golden age of brewing took place between 1890 and 1910. By then, most breweries had grown to the size of today's brewpubs. But the better-capitalized breweries were raising the bar, so to speak. They invested in new equipment that enabled them to expand, and bought saloons that served their brand exclusively. Breweries that couldn't follow the leaders soon went broke.

Then came Prohibition. Dry sentiment had long run high in Republican Michigan, and a statewide ban on alcohol took effect almost three years before the 18th Amendment became law. Predictably, not everyone complied. Detroiters smuggled vast quantities of alcohol from Canada and flocked to speakeasies around town. The liquor trade fell into the hands of criminals like the Purple Gang, while legitimate brewers either closed outright or found themselves unable to compete when Prohibition ended.

After Repeal, investors in search of a quick killing piled into the newly-legal beer trade. But as Blum points out, they overestimated the demand for beer. They also faced another obstacle: the new "three-tier" system that barred them from selling directly to consumers. When the bubble burst, many breweries, newcomers and Prohibition survivors alike, disappeared.

The shakeout accelerated after World War II. Brewers from outside the area began to invade Detroit. Television gave rise to national-brand breweries. And economies of scale put added pressure on brewers to, in Blum's words, "grow or go." One by one, Detroit's breweries--the roll call includes Tivoli, Goebel, and Pfeiffer--discovered that they could no longer make a go of it.

The last big brewing plant, in Frankenmuth, closed in 1991. But as far as Detroiters are concerned, brewing came to an six years earlier when Stroh closed its brewery on Detroit's East Side. In the end, Stroh couldn't compete with the Big Three. But it gave them one hell of a fight.

The brewery's story began with the arrival of Bernhard Stroh in Detroit in 1850. His family's brewery rose to the number-one spot in Detroit; by 1900, it was turning out half a million barrels a year. It even had a "branch," the forerunner of today's distributor, in Cleveland. Stroh's famous slogan, "Fire-Brewed Beer," dates back to before World War I, when its brewmaster saw copper kettles heated by direct fire in Plzen's town brewery and brought the idea back to Detroit.

In much the same way as Coors, Stroh was run by stubborn Germans. For years, it used the same recipe that it served at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. During World War II, Stroh cut back production rather than water down its product. And it avoided using cans long after they had been proven reliable. During the Fifties, Stroh's stodginess briefly cost it the number-one spot in Detroit, but it managed to regain its footing.

As the 20th century wound down, Stroh's management made one last push to survive. It made the beer lighter, spent more on advertising, and gobbled up fallen competitors. Those moves lifted the brewery as high as third place. Then came the final blow: national breweries swooped down on the remaining regionals. In the late Nineties, the Stroh family threw in the towel and sold off the brewery's assets.

Brewed in Detroit mentions six eras of brewing, but hints at a seventh. After a seven-year absence, brewing returned to Detroit in 1992. On a modest basis, though; the Detroit & Mackinac Brewery probably made less in its first year than Stroh wasted on an average day. Today, there are four breweries in Detroit, which operate on a scale comparable to those of, say, 1890. Blum predicted that they'd trigger a revival of large breweries in Detroit. That hasn't happened yet, but Michigan brewers are betting that he's right.