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Michigan has had beer since at least the 1830s. In his book Brewed in Detroit, Peter H. Blum asserts that an 1829 issue of the Cleveland Herald references a then-recent “shipment of Detroit beer.” Blum also points to a brewery advertisement in an 1831 Detroit newspaper.
Ales and Lagers
Early American breweries largely produced ales. These tended to be darkly colored, with a strong flavor. Then, in the 1840s, German immigrants began arriving in large numbers. German brewers produced lagers, rather than ales. Blum describes lager as “pale beer with a pronounced hop flavor.” Paul Ruschmann and Maryanne Nasiatka, in their book Michigan Breweries, note that lager was “a cleaner, crisper beverage” than ale. According to Blum, Germans operated half of Detroit’s breweries by 1860. He further notes that ale breweries had become “a small minority” by 1880.
A Golden Age for Brewers
As immigration increased, the number of German brewers increased, as did the number of European immigrants who liked to drink German beer. Daniel Okrent, in his book Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, states that German brewers in America were good at marketing their product. Westward expansion and a transcontinental railroad system played a role. Okrent notes that “a clever and worldly young brewer named Adolphus Busch figured out that pasteurization kept beer fresh enough to ship across the country.”
Blum describes the period “from 1890 to about 1910” as the “golden age” for brewers in America. In this age – predating income tax – so-called “beer barons” could live large. In Detroit, the Stroh, Kling, Martz and Darmstaetter families were among the most prominent beer dynasties.
Blum notes that owners of larger breweries would often finance saloons, which represented yet another outlet for their product. Blum further states that saloons not affiliated with a brewery “were left with poorer backing and often poorer beer.”
In Michigan, a statewide Prohibition law went into effect in 1918 – two years before the onset of national Prohibition. Religious groups, women’s groups and social reformers had spent years campaigning for this measure. As the twentieth century dawned, many businessmen – hoping to keep their employees sober – also joined the fight. Finally, when the United States entered World War I in 1917, it turned public opinion against Germans, and, by extension, German beer.
Prohibition lasted until 1933. In the interim, many breweries closed. Those that remained open often produced canned hopped malt syrup – a product (illegally) used in home brewing. They produced other items, as well. The Stroh’s brewery, for example, manufactured the aforementioned syrup and also “near beer” (i.e., beer of only 0.5 percent alcohol), soft drinks and even ice cream.
When Prohibition ended, relatively few pre-Prohibition breweries reopened. Many smaller breweries that did reopen did not stay in business. Eventually, larger breweries would come to dominate. This became even truer after World War II, when television enabled large breweries to advertise their product nationally. Regional and local breweries phased out.
Prohibition had also changed American tastes. People became used to lighter versions of lager, which were more available during the Prohibition years. When breweries resumed operations, they generally followed this trend.
Craft Breweries and Brew Pubs
In 1978, home brewing became legal in the United States. As Rushmann and Nasiatka note, “a new generation of brewers arose from the ranks of home brewers.” Thus, the “craft brewery” was born and has continued to thrive. Beginning in the 1980s, many state legislators amended liquor laws, allowing breweries to own retail outlets (Michigan passed such legislation in the 1990s.). The result was the modern brew pub. Once again, brewers could become successful at a local or regional level.
Today, Michigan could definitely be deemed a beer state. Rushmann and Nasiatka’s Michigan Breweries was published in 2006. In the forward, the authors assert that “Michigan is ranked sixth in the nation in terms of breweries per state.” Modern day beer drinkers will find much to enjoy in the Great Lakes State!
Michigan Beers of Old
From the 1930s to the 1950s, the State of Michigan required makers of beer and wine to register their labels with the Michigan Liquor Control Commission. The Archives of Michigan maintains this historic collection of Michigan beer labels. To read more about the collection, click Historic Michigan Beer Labels