While there is undoubtedly a thriving and dynamic craft beer industry in Michigan, it is important to talk about Michigan's place in America's brewing history as well.
Bernhard Stroh, the son of a European brewer, founded the Lion's Head Brewery in Detroit in 1850. By all accounts he brewed a superior, deep golden lager, based on a style of beer developed at the Municipal brewery in Pilsen, Bohemia in 1840 and called it Pilsener.
Although it would go through deep changes, this style would go on to become the most popular style of beer in the world. During its rise to prominence, Pilsener (or Pilsner) would also come to be associated with a fizzy, yellow kind of liquid commodity which became the staple for most American beer drinkers from the time following our Prohibition on alcohol to the present day. That is a shame, truly, as any dedicated beer drinker who has spent any time in today's Czech Republic will tell you that the Pilsener brewed there is a revelation and remains a kind of holy grail for many brewers, including myself. But I digress.
The Lion's Head Brewery became Stroh's when Bernhard Stroh Jr. took charge of the brewery following his father's death. The Stroh Brewing Co. adopted the modern technique of pasteurization and capitalized on new refrigeration technology in the late 1890s, which allowed them to broaden their geographical reach and therefore their market share.
With the exception of the time of Prohibition, Stroh's developed into a model for efficiently run regional breweries over the next 70 years. Stroh's purchased local rivals Goebel Brewing Company in 1964 and began their ascension to national prominence through further mergers and acquisitions, and competed well with rivals Anheuser-Busch and Miller, among others.
And that, friends, is where I will close this chapter of Michigan's brewing history – not because there are no interesting stories of corporate espionage and hostile takeovers (in fact, the next 30 years were rife with big business intrigue for Stroh's, Pfeiffer's, Goebel and many other large breweries in Michigan), but rather because not much was happening with the beer that Stroh's, or anyone else, was producing after the mid-1950s.
During that time, beer became (as I mentioned) a commodity like any other, almost indistinguishable from company to company. And the less distinguishable the beer was, the better. It was the zeitgeist; bread became all white and soft, cheese became all yellow, family dinners came boxed or canned. Convenience and homogeneity became king.
Enter, thank goodness, H.R. 1337 in 1978, which legalized homebrewing in the U.S., and Larry Bell's Kalamazoo Brewing Company in 1985.
H.R. 1337 allowed U.S. citizens to brew 100 gallons of beer per year per person, or 200 gallons per household, as long as they didn't sell it. Larry Bell capitalized on this in a very small way when he opened a homebrew shop in Kalamazoo in 1983. In 1985, he opened the Kalamazoo Brewing Co. with very limited equipment and a very small market in which to sell his new kind of beer, and that's where the new chapter of brewing in Michigan really begins.
In 1985, I was six years old. Budweiser had recently developed a light beer to compete with Miller Lite, and Coors was not yet sold east of the Mississippi. With the exception of Fritz Maytag's Anchor Steam Beer in San Francisco and Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in Chico, CA (among very few others), not much was going on with beer.
It's difficult for someone like me to imagine, but bars around the United States resounded with arguments about who had the lightest beer, both in terms of caloric content and with regard to flavor. Thus, the stage was about to be set for a kind of revolution in beer, but it would take a very long time and destroy a lot of the pioneers who worked to cause this change.
Between 1985 and 1997, a few brave souls opened brewing operations with varying degrees of success. Some, like John Linardos' Motor City Brew Works and Detroit's Traffic Jam and Snug, are still in business. Most aren't.
Larry Bell and Tom Burns, owner of the Detroit Mackinac Brewery and "recovering attorney," worked in the early part of the 1990s to change the laws in Michigan to help small brewers compete against their much more powerful national counterparts. Most of those laws are still in place. These two men, along with a handful of others, helped to establish the Michigan Brewers Guild, an organization meant to promote Michigan beer, unify Michigan brewers, and ensure a healthy beer industry in the state. It is now one of the strongest guilds in the nation.
Then the late '90s came, and we saw an explosion in the number of breweries in Michigan. Of the breweries that opened between 1995 and 2001, less than 25% are still open. According to the brewers who worked during this time, and the distributors who sold the beer, there was an almost uniform problem with the beer being produced by these upstarts. To put a fine point on it, too many amateurs got started all at once. They ended up training each other, and a great number of production techniques and quality control solutions (which were known to trained, professional brewers in the past) were forgotten or lost.
However, not everyone suffered from these problems. A few production breweries, including New Holland, under the leadership of their young owners (Michigan Brewing Co. with Dan Rogers at the helm and Arcadia Brewing Co., led by George "Murf" Murphy) came through largely unscathed. A great number of brewpubs (restaurant breweries in which the beer can only be sold in house) – including Royal Oak Brewery, among many others – also made it through and remain successful today.
In almost every case, the breweries that have withstood the test of time and the market have been led by dynamic owners and very well- trained brewers. They made up what I think of as the first wave of craft brewers in Michigan, and I owe my career as owner and brewer of Detroit Brewing Company to them.
In the last decade, steady growth and a growing recognition of quality have been the hallmark of the Michigan brewing industry. I started working here in 2002, and took my first four years in the industry to learn as much from the "first wave" brewers as I possibly could. I got to work with Pierre Celis, who resurrected Belgian Wit beer in Europe in the 1950s at Hoegaarden, and then again in the U.S. under his own name. I worked with Jean-Luc Suys, who at 82 was a luminary in the establishment of Belgian beer in North America. I did this all right here in Michigan.
The Kuhennen brothers, whose brewery is located in Warren, opened my eyes to what could be possible with the use of extremely non-traditional techniques and ingredients in the early part of the last decade, and in my opinion have still not been topped in that "experimental category."
I worked with a few really arrogant, under-trained brewers who thought way too much of their own skill. They are those who prefer the kind of respect that the title of brewer attracts, without putting in the work to develop themselves as well rounded "masters" of the trade. Bastone, Dragonmead, Harper's in East Lansing and the Livery in Benton Harbor are some more great brewers who you should know. Brewery Vivant in the Grand Rapids area and North Peak in Traverse City are great, too.
Ron Jeffries, the quiet and studious brewer/owner of Jolly Pumpkin (who makes some mind-blowing beers using indigenous microfauna – and if you don't know him and his beer, you are missing out), has said that he started brewing only because he wanted to be a professional brewer. His steadfast commitment to his own vision has been an inspiration to me as I followed the same path. This is the only real career I've ever had, and I love it.
From crazy craft beer to the more traditional Detroit Lager, Detroit Dwarf, Sander's Chocolate Stout and Detroit Radler (which my company produces), there are a lot of beers to choose from in Michigan. I can only recommend that, whatever kind of beer you like, try them all with an open mind and judge them as they are. If you like beer brewed with pies or pig heads, you can get them here, I shit you not. If you like Czech Pilsener, the Detroit lager has won national awards in that category, and I hope you keep a six-pack in your fridge at all time.
In every case, though, buy local and buy Michigan first. | RDW