Heritage beer brands have made a comeback in and around the city of Detroit, becoming a prominent feature in many bars, tap lists, and stores. Big names like Altes and Stroh’s that once were key players in Detroit’s beer scene are being brewed within city limits again.
The heritage brands’ city roots, history, and the introduction of quality easy drinking products in an oversaturated market at the right price are driving the resurgence, industry experts say.
“Oftentimes people want to drink a beer that tastes like beer,” says Mike Turriff, owner of beer wholesaler M4CIC and certified cicerone. “It’s a convoluted thing to say, beer that tastes like beer. But there’s a reason the Big 3, ABI, Miller, and Coors took over the market. That, and their price point. Now we’re seeing a resurgence of heritage beer brands not only in the city, but nationally as well. Champagne Velvet for example — it’s doing well in its home state Indiana but also in Michigan.”
Michigan ranks fifth (first east of the Mississippi) in the number of breweries in the country, and the industry is a significant economic driver in the state, with nearly $500 million in gross state product in 2016, contributing nearly $1 billion and nearly 10,000 jobs. With more breweries than ever before, supporting local beer is a priority for many who enjoy a cold one.
“The notion of supporting the little guy is a big component when thinking about the way consumers purchase beer,” Turriff adds. “Craft beer took off in a way many did not expect and the idea of being able to purchase local was a big factor. And now in the beverage industry we’re seeing a rise of low abv (alcohol by volume) and non-alcoholic beverages. These heritage beer brands hit the market at the right price point for multiple generations of consumers, hold the nostalgic narrative of the city, and are a low abv option to allow for a more social drinking environment.”
Stroh’s and Altes aren’t only making waves with consumers, but also beer buyers in the city. “When purchasing for taps or a packaged list many buyers aim to support local breweries,” says Turriff. “Some are keeping to their Michigan only lists, which isn’t hard to do with the growing number of breweries in the state. But when purchasing, margins are always a factor and not all Michigan beer can match what a bar can make when putting a large-format domestic on draft.”
Stroh's Bohemian-style Pilsner was the first beer the brand brought back in 2016.
A rich history
Both brands’ roots are firmly rooted in the city.
Altes was originally a part of Tivoli Brewing Company on the east side of Detroit. Immigrants from Belgium came to Detroit in the 1890s to start brewing. That was when Detroit was becoming an industry hub. Around 1910 they started brewing Altes — a beer specifically crafted for the automotive industry that later became advertised as a beer for the working class. Altes was a traditional Bavarian-style lager, and at the time lagers were becoming popular around the country. So, they brewed an upscale lager and called it Altes, meaning old in German, a nod toward it being the good old beer. By the ’40s the beer was so popular that the brewery changed their name to Altes Brewing Company.
Stroh’s was founded in 1850 by Bernhard Stroh who arrived in Detroit, as the story goes, with a suitcase in one hand and a family beer recipe in the other. Originally named the Lion’s Head Brewery, the emblem still visible in advertising and product labels today, the brewery evolved as new generations took over the company. In 1902 Stroh’s was rebranded and introduced the European fire-brewing method, common in Europe before World War I, which uses a direct flame rather than steam to heat beer-filled copper kettles. The company claimed that the resulting higher temperatures brought out more of the beer’s flavor — crafting their signature fire-brewed lager that took over the market. As the million-square-foot factory on Gratiot near I-75 grew, they not only became Detroit’s largest brewer, but also the third largest in the country.
By the 1980s Stroh’s and Altes’ products faded from shelves and taplines with the companies’ closures. Stroh’s struggled through the ‘80s and announced in 1985 it was shuttering its Detroit facility.
Altes was acquired by several parties over the course of the ’70s through the ’90s and it was owned by Heileman Brewing at the end, which Stroh’s acquired in 1996. At that time, brewing was all about production scale and efficiency. Many brands left the scene as brewers started making cheaper products, and many of the beers began exhibiting a similar flavor profile. By 1999, Stroh’s (which at the time owned Altes) was sold off to Pabst after bringing too many brands into their portfolio. As the local Detroit breweries lost their local presence they became less relevant to the local and core markets.
Old brands with local soul — and stories
Now both have returned and are being brewed within city limits again. Stroh’s was revived in 2016 with its Bohemian Pilsner while Altes returned to shelves last year with the launch of its Original Detroit Lager; Brew Detroit produces both beers. Both those who enjoyed Altes and Stroh’s back in their heyday and those who are getting introduced to the brands and their history and heritage for the first time.
At union meetings, many police retirees will tell stories of “the back door of Altes which lead to a room of card tables and chairs, and a single tap on the wall,” says Carl Erickson, co-founder of Detroit National Brewing Company. “The only requirement was that the police and fire departments had to bring their own cups, and many met at the brewery after their shifts for cards and a tasty brew.”
Carl Erickson, Eric Stief, and Pat Kruse, co-founders of Detroit National Brewing Company. In 2016, the trio of beer lovers launched an effort to restore Altes to its former glory.
Many bars in the city carry Stroh’s and Altes, and nearly every beer drinker who cracks a can or pops a cap has a story about it being one of their first beers. “Stroh’s reminds me of my dad and grandpa,” says Tony Barchock, an avid Stroh’s drinker. “It was their beer of choice and reminds me of those times when my dad would give me a sip of his beer. You know, the first sip when you’re a kid is always disgusting and you never understand how adults can drink the stuff. But whenever my dad or grandpa would hand me a bottle to try, I would always take a sip. It’s hard to put into words, since it’s been around for so long. Hate to sound cliche, but Stroh’s has just been a part of the family.”
Beer is also a part of Eric Stief's family. The co-founder of Detroit National Brewing Company got his first taste swiping a beer (or several) from his parents’ fridge. “And now I’m able to repay my dad for all those beers by bringing him cases of Altes whenever we show up for dinner. It’s an ongoing joke, an unspoken nod of appreciation.”
“Heritage brands are great for two reasons,” says Eric Stephenson of Wayne County Community College District’s craft brewing program. “It’s the beer my dad drank. He’s told me stories about trading Stroh’s for Coors back in the ’70s before beer trading was a thing and before you could get Coors east of the Mississippi. And in my cases, they replicate the original recipes without cutting corners, allowing them to be stand-outs amongst most macro beers. After drinking heavy IPAs and stouts all day, an easy American lager is ridiculously refreshing. Especially after a brew day.”
As far as Rachel Keeton, brand manager of Stroh’s, is concerned, don’t call the revival a comeback.
“I’m glad Stroh’s is feeling relevant again, but our goal has never really been about a comeback,” says Keeton. “If by doing the things that we feel are important — like brewing back in Detroit again, supporting local clubs, communities, and culture — we’re more top-of-mind now and people are choosing our brand more regularly, that’s great.”
“But for us a comeback will never really be complete or accomplished because we’re going to keep going and keep challenging ourselves – it’s always what we do next. And I don’t mean that specific to our products necessarily, I mean it as an ethos,” says Keeton. “We’re an old brand with local soul, but that doesn’t mean we need to live in the past. We respect it and we’re proud of our heritage, but we’re really focused on the future and on every day being a new beginning. People might be sensing that, or seeing that in our recent work. That could feel relatable for them and where they are at in their lives or where Detroit is at as a city — always pushing forward.”