200 Years of Michigan Beer

By | July 26, 2012

The boys of Detroit's Stroh's brewery, circa 1895A beer fest in every town and a microbrew pub on every corner—that’s quickly becoming the lay of the land across the Great Lakes State. Michigan now boasts more than 80 microbreweries; by the time you finish reading this, it’ll probably break 100. But this new renaissance in Michigan brewing is really just the latest chapter in a story that’s almost two centuries in the making. From the early English ale makers who first brought beer to the Great Lakes State, to the resourceful, tunnel-digging John Zynda who survived Prohibition, Michigan beermakers have been finding a way to get you what you need for nearly 200 years. Here’s how it all went down.

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Birth of Michigan Beer: From Ales to Lagers

Michigan brewing has deep roots—so deep, in fact, that famed French intellectual Alexis de Tocqueville probably could’ve found any number of Michigan brews to quench his thirst when he first visited Detroit around 1830. The farthest we can trace back Michigan beer is actually 1829—when an issue of the Cleveland Herald trumpeted a shipment of Detroit beer making its way down the Great Lakes. Alexis almost surely would have been enjoying a dark, robust ale—the specialty of Michigan’s earliest English immigrant brewers and the drink of choice among Michigan beer drinkers through the 1840s. A new wave of immigrants to Michigan, however—this time from Germany—would radically alter the way Michiganders enjoyed their beer by mid-century. Around 1850, the classic German lager—a crisper, cleaner draft—made its first appearance in Michigan, and Great Lakes beer drinkers never looked back. The ale brewers held on for a few more decades, but by the 1880s, finding an ale at a neighborhood Detroit pub would have been like finding a needle in a haystack. Of the 28 ale brewers listed in a Detroit business directory in 1862, only four remained just 20 years later.

The “Golden Age” of Michigan Beer

A poster for Detroit brewer John Zynda's prized bock brew. Bock is the German word for billy goat.

A poster for Detroit brewer John Zynda's bock brew. Bock is the German word for billy goat.

From the 1840s to the 1880s, Michigan beer was a highly diverse and localized industry, and mom-and-pop operations serving a clientele of just a few blocks were the norm. In 1862, Detroit alone had around 40 brewers, and there were dozens more scattered across every corner of the state. Beer was also exclusively a draft business during this time: Many brewers of the era were saloon keepers who brewed beer in the back of their bars; Bernhard Stroh, Detroit’s most famous brewing icon, even began by brewing beer in the basement of his Catherine Street home and selling it door to door in a wheelbarrow. By the late 1880s, however, a beer scene resembling the one we have today was starting to take shape. The larger companies began building elaborate multi-story breweries that took advantage of the latest technology and the advances in brewing science pioneered by French fermentation and germ theory guru Louis Pasteur. (Pasteur was the one who figured out that brewing beer in closed vats reduced its exposure to microorganisms, which could spoil the brewing process.) Beer in a bottle also made its debut around this time, and the larger Michigan breweries began marketing bottled beer to both home buyers and saloons in and outside the state. The little guys kept up for a while by selling their homebrews in kegs to local saloons, but it was the beginning of the end for the most diverse era in Michigan’s brewing history.

Prohibition

Trouble was brewing for Michigan beer companies—big and small—in the spring of 1917, when Michigan jump-started the Prohibition era with its own statewide ban on alcohol nearly three years before the 18th Amendment made drinking a national taboo. Just a handful of Michigan brewers would survive through to the end of Prohibition in 1933, and those that did had to get creative. Several of the bigger companies began making and promoting the still-legal canned hopped malt syrup (the key ingredient needed for homebrewing); Stroh’s turned to making ice cream; and Detroit beer tycoon John Zynda even took his operation underground—literally. In order to avoid the cops, he dug a tunnel from his bottling shop to a garage across the street, rolling the beer to safety a half barrel at a time. When a shipment was ready, he’d then send an empty delivery van away as a decoy, while the real thing made its way off to customers in a car waiting the next block over. Detroit brewers like Zynda, however, had an even harder time making a go of it as of 1927. That year, Canada ended its partial Prohibition, and many Detroit beer makers found it hard to compete once a legal draft at a Windsor saloon was just a boat ride away.

Post-Prohibition and the Demise of Michigan Beer

Julius Stroh celebrates the end of Prohibition in 1933.

Julius Stroh (right) celebrates the end of Prohibition with—what else—a beer, May 10, 1933.

Not to imply that we Michiganders are lushes or anything, but we were the first state to ratify the 21st Amendment repealing Prohibition in 1933. And it didn’t take long for a new crop of Michigan beer makers to start quenching our pent-up thirst. Within a year, a dozen Detroit brewmasters —both the old titans and some new startups—were up to their old tricks. The competition was so fierce, in fact, that many businesses lasted only a few years: Of the 20 Detroit breweries that were making beer in 1934, only 12 were still in business four years later. After World War II, things got even tougher: Television advertising quickly turned the beer market national, and even some of the regional breweries that had been in the top 10 in total production nationally were soon calling it quits. Michigan was not immune to this trend: Tunnel-digging diehard John Zynda finally threw in the towel in 1947; Goebel—one of Detroit’s “Big Three” of beer—sold out to Stroh in 1964; and Pfeiffer—the other giant of Detroit brewing—finally folded two years later. At first it looked like Stroh might buck the trend, expanding its market in the 1970s to more than 20 states. But the hammer finally fell on Michigan’s last major brewer in 1999: The company was broken up and sold piecemeal to Pabst and Miller (its still-functioning Prohibition-era ice cream operation went to Dean Foods). Stroh’s beer, with the classic lion insignia first dreamed up by Bernhard Stroh, is still sold by the Pabst Brewing Company. Stroh’s ice cream is now made in Belvidere, Illinois.

Renaissance: The Rise of Michigan Microbrewing

Consolidation was the name of the game in the beer economy throughout the 1970s and 80s, with only the big three—Miller, Anheuser-Busch, and Coors—surviving as viable national companies. But in the late 1970s, a small change to the nation’s beer laws set the stage for the “small beer” revolution we’re seeing today. In 1978, homebrewing became legal again across the U.S., sending brewheads running to their basements to teach themselves—and each other—the art of creating beer. Many of them started out with a throwback approach: After being all but shunned at the turn of the 20th century, ale—with its quick and dirty brewing process that required no special equipment—became the homebrewer’s dream. The movement first got its footing on the West Coast (California’s Sierra Nevada, maker of the second best-selling craft beer in the U.S., was founded in 1980 by two homebrewers), and the fervor took off here a decade later, when Michigan reworked its liquor laws to allow breweries to sell and serve beer on the premises. Thus, the modern microbrew pub was born, allowing small neighborhood breweries to compete for the first time since the “Golden Age” of Michigan brewing more than a hundred years earlier.

State of the Brew’nion

Tokens for the annual Michigan Brewers Guild Summer Beer Fest in Ypsilanti.

Tokens for the annual Michigan Brewers Guild Summer Beer Fest in Ypsilanti.

Though it’s hard to imagine anything could beat the post-Prohibition gusto for beer guzzling, in recent years, a perfect storm of conditions has led to what may well become the second Golden Age of Michigan brewing. Fueled by the buy-local movement, better visibility in stores, and customers looking for something other than a Miller Light, microbrewing has become one of the state’s fastest growing industries: Between 2007 and 2010, grocery store sales of Michigan craft beer doubled, and Michigan brewing is now a $133 million industry—ranking 5th in the nation for its number of breweries (now more than 80). Consider this: In 1985, the same year that century-old Stroh’s closed its prized Gratiot Avenue brewery, Larry Bell sold his very first beer, brewed in a 15-gallon soup kettle, at his pint-sized brewery in Kalamazoo. For years, Bell’s was the (liquid) gold standard for Michigan beer lovers, but nowadays, beerheads can pledge their allegiance to dozens upon dozens of labels: from Short’s in Bellaire to Founders in Grand Rapids, all the way across the Bridge to Keweenaw Brewing Co. and into “the D” for Motor City Brewing Works. This weekend is one of the year’s highlights for Michigan beer: the annual Michigan Brewers Guild Summer Beer Festival in Ypsilanti, where attendees can sample a whopping 545 different beers from more than 60 of the state’s brewers. One tap to note? The Anniversary Ale—a collaborative brew made with Michigan-grown wheat and hops—commemorating the guild’s 15th anniversary. Bottoms up!

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2 Comments

avatar

rings on July 30, 2012 at 7:06 pm.

Very nice overview. It’s great to see some historical appreciation for our brewing pioneers as we re-live the expansion of local brewing once again.
Prost!

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ed on April 29, 2013 at 1:32 am.

What about Real Ale Brewing Co. of Chelsea Michigan, which started in 1982, before Bells of Kalamazoo Michigan?

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