Drunken Historical Society brewing up the past

 By Neal Rubin / The Detroit News

In the good old days, you could make a compelling case that beer was better for you than water.

We’re talking about the mid-1800s, a time when only the richest individuals or finest hotels had indoor toilets. So there was a trade-off, but still:

“Water could be tainted and polluted,” says James Tottis. “People could drop dead from drinking it, and did.”

Beer was both more purified and more palatable. Plus, it was beer. And as Tottis will point out to a particularly appreciative audience Thursday night, beer is good.

He’ll be one of the speakers at an event with a fairly flat title, Detroit Beer & Brewing History. The name of the presenting organization is more bubbly: the Detroit Drunken Historical Society.

Despite the name, excessive drinking is not mandatory when the society convenes. It’s more a reflection of the group’s less-than-sober approach and the fact that it typically meets in taverns.

The venue this time is the storied Dakota Inn Rathskeller in Detroit — a fitting location, since it was Germans who saved the city from the sorts of heavy British-style ales that make beer drinking seem like work.

Tottis’ co-presenter will be the proud holder of the leading name in Detroit beermaking, John W. Stroh III. Though he’s mostly in real estate, his qualifications are apparent.

Tottis, 55, is a former curator of American art at the DIA and the current director of collections at the Museum of the City of New York. While you won’t find a beer called Tottis, he is also a good guy to tap for beer information.

Beer ever-popular during prohibition

Tottis can tell you, for instance, that while the bootleggers get all the notoriety, Prohibition-era Detroiters were drinking illicit beer, too.

They did it with the help of fine firms like the Stroh Brewing Co., which sold massive quantities of malt extract — ostensibly for baking, but actually for home beer-making.

The pall of Prohibition descended upon the land from 1920-33, though as Tottis notes, “Detroit and New York were the two places where you never knew Prohibition had happened.”

In New York, where rumrunners simply needed to anchor more than three miles offshore, a legendary story involves mayor Jimmy Walker enjoying drinks and dinner at the 21 Club when federal agents raided the place. Walker called his police chief, Tottis says, and had all of their vehicles ticketed.

In Detroit, Prohibition arrived about 70 years after German immigrants showed up with recipes for light, clean, crisp brews that drove the murky British varieties from the market.

Cars came later, and with them tailgate parties, but by the late 1800s the city’s proximity to water made brewing a significant economic driver.

Stroh's beer wagon

Stroh’s beer, in the early days. was delivered to customers door-to-door in horse-drawn wagons. The company bought electric powered wagons at the turn of the century. (Detroit News file photo)

Legendary breweries are long gone

The breweries were palaces and the names have become legend: Stroh, Goebel, Pfeiffer, Altes, Koppitz, E&B.

When Stroh closed in 1985, Detroit’s history of large-scale brewing tapped out. As far as Tottis knows, the only one of the major beer plants still standing is E&B, converted to lofts a few decades ago in Eastern Market.

Craft beers have become plentiful locally of late, and in an irony some consider delicious, they harken more to the ales of the mid-19th century than the mass market beers for which Detroit was famous.

While they won’t be discussed Thursday, they might well be consumed. The program begins at 7 p.m., but Gabe Gloden of the Drunken Historical Society says it’s a good idea to arrive before 6.

Founded by a pair of Detroit history buffs on nearly two years ago, the society meets at least once a month. In theory, the beer seminar is over-subscribed, but Gloden says at least 25 percent of the people who reserve slots typically don’t show up.

“It’s the nature of the medium,” he explains. “Everybody on Meetup is a big joiner,” but not necessarily a big follow-througher.

So come raise a toast, and in case you over-imbibe, don’t forget that other fine organization, the Detroit Sober Cabdrivers Society.