'Detroit's Brewing Heritage' on tap at Historical Museum

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

Attention all beer nuts: "Detroit's Brewing Heritage" at the Detroit Historical Museum, up till next fall, is a compact, highly entertaining tour through the Motor City's romance with its favorite beverage.

And that affection started early -- Cadillac, no fool he, wasted only a few years after founding Detroit to import a brewer, Joseph Parent, in 1706. Of course, back then much of what was produced was "small beer" -- a low-alcohol product preferred in the colonial era and well into the 19th century to water of suspect quality.

"It wasn’t good beer, frankly," said Joel Stone, the museum's senior curator. "It was small beer that’d been heated up so it wouldn’t kill you."

Snappy ad copy accompanies the Historical Museum's look into "Detroit's Brewing Heritage," up through next year.

Discovering Parent and the French origins of the local brewing industry was a particular treat for a historian like Stone.

"It's not in Peter Blum’s book, 'Brewed in Detroit,' which is sort of the gospel," Stone said. "And it’s not in most of the books that followed. Nobody had investigated before about 1830. But we had beer going back to the early French period," he said, "and that was fun to find."

"Detroit's Brewing Heritage" takes the viewer from a rude French settlement to the explosion of highly curated craft beers today, a shift over the last several decades that's added variety and personality to what's locally available.

Today, as the show notes, there are 80-plus breweries and brew pubs in the metro area, from Motor City Brewing Works to the Rochester Mills Beer Co.

Time was, of course, when a light lager was the limit of most Americans' beer experience, whether Hamm's or Coors. Today, of course, the taste spectrum is dizzyingly large.

"Detroit's Brewing Heritage" makes clear there's a beer for every taste.

"I was in college in late 1970s," Stone said, "and the only thing you could get was some lousy Guinness and some pretty decent Bass, Beck's and Heineken. And that was our good beer. I also appreciated Pfeiffer," which was local, "a great, clean American lager."

Part of what made Detroit's beer world exciting a century ago, of course, was that each ethnic group had its own distinctive approach to brewing, whether French, Irish, German, Polish or Belgian.

Beer, inevitably, established a niche in popular culture - with ads ("Mabel - Black Label!") and branding that became bywords for specific periods in time. Reflecting that, a fabulous collection of bottle labels rings the show, and will delight anyone with a long memory.

A rich parade of bottle labels rings "Detroit's Brewing Heritage" at the Detroit Historical Museum.

Happily, Stone was able to find the perfect source.

"John Stroh III has a wonderful collection of Detroit and southeast Michigan beer labels," he said. "We sent one of my assistants over, and he spent entire day scanning them."

There's more coming than just the exhibit, which is adjacent to the museum's Streets of Old Detroit. Check out the museum's website for upcoming news on podcasts and virtual tours for those who can't make it downtown.


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'Detroit's Brewing Heritage'

Through Fall 2021

Detroit Historical Museum, 5401 Woodward, Detroit

10 a.m.-5 p.m. Thurs.-Sat; 1 p.m.-5 p.m. Sun.

Tickets: $10 - adult; $8 - first responders, veterans, seniors, active military & college students;  $6 - kids (6-17)

Note: While the museum still accept walk-ins, the best option is to reserve a slot for an hour-and-a-half visit by clicking here.


(313) 833-1805