Detroiters and their beers

Detroiters celebrate the arrival of the first legal beer truck to arrive in the city at the end of Prohibition in 1933.

Americans have always loved their brewskies. And we’re not the only ones. Beer has cheered mankind since the dawn of recorded history.  The ancient Sumerians made and consumed the brew more than 5,000 years ago and Egyptians were also fond of a tankard of beer after a hard day’s work.

Later, ferocious Vikings bolstered their courage before battle by gulping down ale. If they drank enough they were known to plunge into battle sans armor or even clothing. (The word berserk supposedly meant “bare shirt” in ancient Norse.)

And some historians say one reason the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock rather than sailing on to Virginia was because the ship’s beer supply was running low. According to the Mayflower’s log, the crew worried about running out of beer and put the passengers ashore so they could drink water and stop depleting the precious cargo.

Once ashore, the Pilgrims quickly adapted to their new home and built brewhouses capable of making familiar English style ales.

Theodroe Gentile of Detroit celebrates the end of Prohibition with a cold beer in the cooler of the Tivoli Brewery in Detroit.

George Washington, an avid amateur brewer, left beer recipes for us, which are now kept at the New York Public Library. After the American Revolution, the U.S. goverment limited the import of English beer, which allowed regional breweries to flourish., and by the beginning of the Civil War in 1860, 1,269 breweries were producing beer and ale in this country.

As the nation expanded westward, so did beer production. Milwaukee became home to the Miller, Pabst and Schlitz breweries because of its Lake Michigan harbor, easy access to fresh water and grain and its large German immigrant population.

European immigrants also landed in Detroit bringing with them a taste for beer and ale. In 1836 a single brewery on River Road–now Woodbridge Street–supplied the demand. Records indicate that this brewery required 20,000 bushels of barley per year, not an insignificant amount.

A German brewer, Frederick Ams, arrived in Detroit in 1848 and introduced lager to the thirsty citizens. Another German immigrant, Bernhard Stroh, established himself in Detroit and by the mid 1800s Detroit had four brewers.

But there was growing opposition to beer drinking, which was viewed culturally as a man’s vice. The beer drinker was seen by many as an instigator of barroom brawls who then went home to beat his wife. The backlash grew, fueled by the growing movement among women for equality and the vote.

In 1916 Billy Sunday spent two months in Detroit preaching against Demon Rum and beer drinking just prior to the vote on the 18th Amendment. As a result, Michigan became the first state to ratify Prohibition.

Hailed as a great experiment, Prohibition was in fact a disaster. The National Prohibition Act, known as the Volstead Act, became law in January, 1920, banning the manufacture, transportation, sale and consumption of alcohol. Millions of Americans became instant criminals simply because they chose to continue to drink beer or whisky.

The act helped create a vast network of liquor smugglers and illegal drinking places that catered to the nation’s thirsts. At the height of Prohibition there were as many as 25,000 blind pigs (illegal drinking places) operating in the Detroit area. People drank everywhere, from speakeasies to private clubs to established restaurants to storefronts, and, of course, they drank at home. A federal commision reported in 1931 that prohibition had become unenforceable.

Just some of the Detroit breweries listed in a 1935 city directory.

During the Depression, a time when many Americans might have wanted to drown their sorrows in a pint or two, alcohol remained illegal. Many began calling for repeal.

On May 14, 1932, Detroit Mayor Frank Murphy joined a huge parade against Prohibition. More than 40,000 spectators cheered the thousands of beer lovers and a police escort led them on a winding journey through downtown Detroit.

A 200-piece band accompanied the festivities with veterans of the Great War leading the parade. Detroit’s ethnic communities turned out and organized labor marched for the right of workers to take a sip or two after a long work day. Banners declared that income derived from a beer tax would save the country from the long weary Depression.

Marchers sweating in the hot sun would yell, “Who wants a bottle of beer?” Spectators on the sidewalks would holler in response: “I do!” The back and forth chant became the parade’s rally cry.

Opponents of repeal tried to play down the significance of the event. The Rev. R.N. Holsaple, Superintendant of the Michigan Anti-saloon League, estimated the crowd at only about 1,000, not the approximately 50,000 that the police estimated.

In 1933 Prohibition was repealed. President Franklin Roosevelt remarked: “I think this would be a good time for a beer.”

After repeal Detroit resumed its role as a brewing center. Favorable climate, exceptionally good water, convenient shipping, conventioneers, tourists, bowlers, amateur baseballers and hard-working Detroit drinkers kept local breweries busy.

Nationally the number of legal brewries in 1934 hit 725. By 1940, 15 Detroit brewers supplied beer not only locally but some, nationally. In the state of Michigan a total of 40 breweries produced 3.25 million barrels annually.

Labels included Tivoli Beer (“77 Laboratory Tests Gurantee Purity, Wholesomeness and Controlled Goodness”), Von Beer, (“Youve Tried the Rest Now Try The Best”), Cadillac Beer (“Always Good! Always The Same”), Banner Beer by Fritz Goebel (“For REAL Enjoyment”) and Pfeiffers Beer.

By the late ’50s the number of Michigan breweries had shrunk to 15 as big brewers went national, capturing markets once dominated by local brewers. In 1962, two Detroit brewers merged, E&B and Pfeiffer. E&B’s Detroit roots went back to 1873, when it was established at 2437 Orleans as the Eckhardt & Becker Brewing Co.

The original Stroh brewery at right, with the Stroh family home in foreground. The photo was taken in 1864.

      National mergers continued and the total number of U.S. breweries fell to 176 in 1967, to 76 by 1971 and to 64 by 1973.

The last brewery left standing in Detroit was Stroh’s.

But it all ended May 1, 1985 when the city’s last brewery closed its doors. The Cuyahoga Wrecking Co. imploded the historic steamy Stroh’s landmark on Gratiot a year later as thousands watched, crying in their beers.

During Prohibition, Julius Stroh had clung to his business by switching production to near beer (beer with its alcohol extracted), soft drinks, and ice-cream. Though production of most of these items ceased when Prohibition ended in 1933, a special unit of the brewery continued to make Stroh’s Ice Cream.

After Julius Stroh’s death in 1939, his son Gari assumed the presidency. Gari’s brother John succceeded him in 1950 and became Stroh’s chairman in 1967. Gari’s son, Peter, who had joined the company following his graduation from Princeton in 1951, became president in 1968.

In what seems like a deadly combination, a militia of some sort drills in a Detroit beer house in the 1890s.

      In 1964 the company made its first move toward expansion when it bought the Goebel Brewing Company, a rival across the street. The company had decided it could no longer compete as a local brewer and was about to move into the national scene. One reason was a costly statewide strike in 1958 that shut down Michigan beer production and allowed national brands to gain a foothold here. When Peter Stroh took over the company in 1968 it still had not regained the market share lost in the strike 12 years previous.

Stroh ended a 40-year relationship with a local advertising agency for a large national agency and began targeting the larger national market. By 1971, Stroh Brewery had moved from 15th to 13th place nationally and in 1972, it entered the top 10 for the first time. A year later it hit eighth place.

Peter Stroh’s willingness to depart from years of tradition enabled Stroh’s to survive, but the changes were hard to swallow for many Stroh’s employees. Stroh broke the company’s tradition of family management and recruited managers from companies such as Proctor & Gamble and Pepisco. He also introduced a light beer, Stroh’s Light.

By 1978 Stroh’s served 17 states and its production capacity was severely strained. The F&M Schaefer Brewing Company had fallen victim to the Miller beer wars and Stroh’s took over all of Schaefer’s stock. In 1981, the combined breweries ranked seventh in beer sales.

In 1982 Stroh bid for 67 percent of the Schlitz Brewing Company. By spring of that year, Stroh had purchased the entire company, making Stroh’s the third largest brewery in America.

Moestra Tavern at the corner of Jefferson and Grand Blvd. was once one of the city’s most famous saloons.

During the takeover Schlitz fought a fierce battle in the courts trying to remain independent. Finally the Justice Department approved the acquisition. By 1988 annual sales reached $1.5 billion.

But changing tastes and lifestyles began to eat into the company’s success. Heavy debt drained Stroh’s ability to compete. Declining sales and severe financial problems conspired to put an end to a long brewing tradition. Cutbacks and layoffs failed to halt the bleeding.

Peter Stroh, chairman of the company his family founded a century-and-half ago, negotiated a deal to sell most of his beer operations to Coors. According to industry analysts, acquisitions made by Stroh’s in the fiercely competitive beer industry ultimately made it weak.

But the deal with Coors fell through. Stroh’s sold its ice cream operation to an Ohio company and in 1987 redeveloped its former headquarters into Brewery Park, a modern office complex.

But the end finally came on Feb. 8, 1999, when word came down from Stroh headquarters that the 149 year-old brewer was selling its labels to Pabst Brewing Co. and Miller Brewing Co.

John Stroh III, now company president and chief executive, said of the decision to sell: “Emotionally, it was an extremely difficult one to make, knowing that it would impact our loyal employees, and recognizing that it would mean the end of our family’s centuries old brewing tradition that had become, in essence, an important part of our identity.

Jeff Bradley, a former Detroit police office in charge of security for tenants at Stroh’s River Place, summed up most Detroiters’ feelings for the company: “Stroh’s symbolized Detroit, the same as the Tigers and the Lions — when they were good. Stroh’s has been in Detroit forever.”

By Patricia Zacharias and Vivian B. Baulch / The Detroit News