This city recently was my last stop on a quest to visit more than 100 Michigan breweries for a road-trip guide I’ve been working on. I knew to expect great things in Beer City USA (Grand Rapids), Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo (you’ve heard of Bell’s, right?), and maybe even the Upper Peninsula (“What else is there to do up there?”). But Detroit has long been the epitome of urban collapse stories, and now bankruptcy news makes the dark cloud even darker. But the craft beer scene alone is reason enough to visit Detroit.
In 1850, German immigrant Bernhard Stroh established Stroh’s Brewery in Detroit. It would go on to be the city’s most famous beer and a nationally recognized brand, but the brewery closed in 1985, and the company sold off its products in 2000, thus its name survives.
So is Detroit beer another failed industry?
No, Detroit beer is a success story. How is it that these things go under the radar? It’s not even recent news. Since as far back as the 1990s, Detroit entered into the craft brewing scene, and while new brewers continue to emerge — from the heart of downtown outward into the greater metro area — a few breweries that are staples set up shop a decade or more ago.
Founded in 1997, and under new ownership since 2005, Atwater Brewery occupies a 1919 former auto parts factory in the Rivertown-Warehouse District along the Detroit River. In 2012 it doubled capacity with an internal expansion. Visit the bier stube inside the brewery or join a tour at 7 p.m. (except Mondays). Vanilla Java Porter and Dirty Blonde are the two most popular beers, but brewmaster Hazen Schumacher is more partial to his Purple Gang Pilsner or Voodoo Vator Doppelbock. The bottled brews are available in more than half a dozen states. A $60 million residential development is planned for the riverfront just a short walk away.
In 2003, Detroit Beer Co. moved into a refurbished 1902 former medical supply building downtown. If you’re in town for a Lions or Tigers game, you are just steps from its eight tap beers. A Prohibition-era photo of a man pulling a barrel with a “We Need Beer” sign adorns the wall opposite the bar and its gleaming serving tanks. For a meal and a brew before or after a game, this answers the photo’s demand.
Moving north from there, find Traffic Jam & Snug, a conglomeration of several old buildings sewn together to make an eclectic restaurant, bakery and ice cream shop with its own collection of memorabilia and quirky antiques. Also within, hooked up to the city’s steam system, is a brewery. Brewer Chris Reilly brews his beer with the same dairy equipment he uses to make the house cheese. On the menu you might find meatloaf or an Ethiopian dish, deep-fried smelt or Carolina crab cakes, but you’ll always have five house beers to choose from.
Right across the street is Motor City Brewing Works. Production brewery on the left, tap house on the right, and Detroit’s first Green Alleyway Project out the back door. (The “green” doesn’t end there: Spent grain is being composted and used for Palmer Park, an urban orchard a block away.) The English-style mild ale, Ghettoblaster, is the top seller, but among the seven on tap there always are some seasonal brews or even some test batches. The brewery distributes in the Detroit-Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo areas and a bit in the Upper Peninsula, and this year’s capacity expansion will take it even farther. Sit at old diner tables or along the U-shaped concrete bar, or when warmth returns, take an outdoor perch on the rooftop patio. The brick-oven-baked pizzas pair well with the brews.
Coming in January, Detroit will see its first “nanobrewery,” meaning brewing fewer than four barrels per batch. Batch Brewing, which recently won the Hatch Detroit Business Incubator Contest, will open in Detroit’s oldest neighborhood, Corktown, next to the footprint of the old Tiger Stadium. Brewer Stephen Roginson will offer rotating small batches but also plans to help two new brewery startups each year. Call it beer synergy.
Heading north 8 miles on Detroit’s main drag, Woodward Avenue, takes you into Ferndale, where you’ll find Woodward Avenue Brewers. The regulars call it The WAB. Custom Blonde or Detroit Maiden IPA is a good place to start sampling. Decorated with Michigan license plates on the walls, the two-floor, open-front brew pub is attached to a former massage parlor turned pool hall called The Loving Touch.
Brewer Greg Burke had worked a bit at several of the Detroit breweries before heading out on Woodward. The Michigan Brewers Guild’s slogan “The Great Beer State” came from these guys.
Warren, Detroit’s largest suburb, is home to three breweries. Visit Kuhnhenn Brewing. Brothers Bret and Eric Kuhnhenn create beer in what used to be the family’s hardware store.
They make more than 3,000 barrels per year of “beers with distinct personalities.” The 1929 building also was a blacksmith’s shop, and while it still has a workshop’s attitude about it, the taproom fills with devotees. Loonie Kuhnie Pale Ale is the most popular brew, but Imperial Creme Brulee Java Stout might be more indicative of the boundaries they’re pushing. But that doesn’t even scratch the surface of the varieties brewed here.
Walking into Dragonmead Microbrewery, my first thought was “Dungeons and Dragons.” From the full suit of armor to the dragon tap handles, the brew pub does seem to channel Gary Gygax. It’s touted as “The Biggest Nanobrewery in the World,” and they brew a lot of batches.
Founders Larry Channell, Earl Scherbarth and Bill Wrobel have a quest: brew every one of the 139 officially recognized styles. And not just any old recipe will do either: In order to count a style as done, their brew needs to make it to a medal round in worldwide competition or be used to train beer judges (such as Final Absolution Belgian Trippel has been). Ingredients are shipped in from the land of origin of each particular style. Medals adorn the walls.
An internal expansion will multiply their capacity sevenfold and bring the taps up to 75.
Not to be forgotten, Falling Down Beer, new in 2013, is the latest to join the Warren brewers.
Another great ‘burb, Royal Oak, has four to itself: Royal Oak Brewery, Lily’s Seafood and Bastone are all within a short walk of each other. The production brewery Millking IT is also in town, and Jolly Pumpkin, famous for sour ales, is looking to open a pub here as well. Quite the town for a brew pub crawl.