Where to Drink in Detroit, Michigan

Destinations by | Oct 2016 | Issue #117
Illustrations by Sam Brewster

In something of a Back to the Future moment, Brew Detroit brought Motown’s storied brewing history full circle this summer when, on behalf of the Pabst Brewing Company, it began production of Stroh’s Bohemian-style pilsner at its 68,000-square-foot contract brewing facility. For the first time in more than 30 years, the Detroit-born beer returned home—though now, in a fitting sign of the times, in the hands of a craft brewery.

Founded in 1850 by German immigrant Bernhard Stroh, the Stroh Brewing Company outlasted (and in some cases acquired) its Detroit brewing contemporaries on its century-long march to statewide and, eventually, national prominence, which peaked in 1982 with a takeover of the Schlitz Brewing Company. By this time, Detroit’s beer icon already managed multiple breweries and brands and distributed to more than half the country, but the Schlitz acquisition catapulted Stroh’s into the stratosphere of American macrobrewing to compete with Anheuser-Busch, Coors, and Miller.

This bold move, however, proved overly ambitious. Debt soon burdened the company greatly, and in 1985, just three years after making its Schlitz splash, Stroh’s closed its landmark Detroit brewery on Gratiot Avenue. The company soldiered on elsewhere until 1999, when Miller and Pabst swooped in like vultures to gobble up its meatiest scraps, effectively severing Stroh’s remaining ties to Detroit.

By 1999, a sea change in America’s beer culture was well underway. Michigan was no exception, and in the early ’90s the state legislature lifted regulations prohibiting on-site alcohol service at breweries, thereby clearing the way for entrepreneurs to guide Detroit’s then-stagnating beer business into the 21st century.

The city’s current brewing resurgence began in 1992 when Traffic Jam & Snug, a family-owned restaurant, bakery, and dairy that opened in the mid-’60s, became Michigan’s first brewpub (with the brewers actually using the same equipment that TJ’s uses to produce its award-winning cheeses). Two years later, Motor City Brewing Works debuted across the street, and is now Detroit’s oldest still-operating brewery and the second-oldest (to Kalamazoo’s Bell’s Brewery) in Michigan. Ghettoblaster, a classic English-style Mild Ale, is its flagship brew. Atwater Block Brewery followed in 1997 and has since become one of the state’s most ubiquitous brands, largely due to the success of its widely distributed Vanilla Java Porter, HopAPeel IPA, and Dirty Blonde Wheat Ale. Next year, Atwater continues its aggressive $25 million expansion plan by launching a 27,000-square-foot brewery in Austin, Texas, with partner Flemish Fox Brewery & Craftworks.

Today, the sprawling metro Detroit area and its westerly cousin, Grand Rapids, lie at the center of Michigan’s evolving beer frontier. Four years ago, there were less than 100 breweries and brewpubs statewide; in 2017, there will be well over 300 and counting. A year-end report by the Michigan Brewers Guild revealed local beers secured just under 9 percent of the market in 2015, an increase of almost 2.5 percent over the previous year; the guild expects double digits for 2016.

Hop farms, springing up across the state, have found robust demand from in- and out-of-state brewers, including the likes of Founders, Short’s, Mikkeller, and Hill Farmstead Brewery. And in 2014, MotorCity Malt House arrived as the first maltster to open since Prohibition wiped out the city’s once-thriving malt trade.

117destinations2In downtown Detroit, the Fisher Freeway bisects the areas where the best bars, brewpubs, taprooms, and other beer-friendly venues are located. North of the freeway, in Midtown’s Cass Corridor district, a number of notable watering holes have popped up in recent years near modern-day innovators Traffic Jam and Motor City Brewing.

HopCat Detroit, part of a Grand Rapids-based gastropub chain, set a new world tap takeover record at its 2014 launch party with 120 different brews from Bellaire-based Short’s Brewing Co. The bar has 130 taps in all, at least 30 of which feature Michigan beers. Head upstairs on Tuesday nights to catch cover band Tributesville perform hits from Bob Seger, KISS, and other classic rock ‘n’ rollers.

A few short blocks away, complex barrel-aged wild ales and sours flow from many of the 30 draft lines at the newest outlet for Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales. Beers from sister brewery North Peak Brewing Co. also figure prominently in this bright, 5,000-square-foot bistro, where the kitchen specializes in unique pizzas, like Korean short rib and pork pie. President Barack Obama, however, opted for a cheeseburger when he visited in early 2016. Down the road at bottle shop 8 Degrees Plato, browse more than 1,000 bottles while snacking on locally produced chocolates and cheeses and drinking (or filling growlers) from 16 rotating taps, including beers like a Milk Stout from nearby Farmington Brewing.

South of the freeway, not far from the Comerica Park and Ford Field professional sports stadiums, Detroit Beer Company is a 10-hectoliter (about 8.5 barrel) brewery serving classic American bar food and up to nine house-brewed beers, including the bready, malty Altbier Detroit Dwarf. Nearby at stylish Wright & Company, chef Marc Djozlija became one of two area chefs to receive a James Beard Award nomination in 2015, the first time any Detroiter had received such recognition in decades. Handcrafted cocktails and a bottle list heavy on sour ales and limited releases (Leelanau Brewing’s Michilimackinac Line 5 Batch III sour bourbon barrel-aged Imperial Stout) complement Djozlija’s seasonal small plates like roasted beets with spiced yogurt and candied walnut, heirloom tomato caprese.

Intricate woodwork and handsome brass chandeliers hanging from vaulted ceilings set the scene at Grand Trunk Pub, which occupies a gorgeous late-19th century building once used as the Grand Trunk Railway Station’s ticketing office. Bell’s, New Holland Brewing, and Arbor Brewing are among the Michigan companies well-represented on the bar’s 22 taps and 80-odd bottle menu. And less than 2 miles east of Grand Trunk, Atwater Block Brewery keeps 20 beers tapped at its industrial-style brewhouse.

A few miles west, in the historic Corktown district, Slows Bar BQ sits in the long shadow of Michigan Central Station, the imposing Beaux Arts landmark abandoned almost 30 years ago. Here staff pair baby-back ribs, beef brisket, blackened catfish, and other American barbecue staples with 56 taps weighted toward Michigan brews, including occasional Slows collaborations. Expect long waits during weekends. Walk across the street to similarly popular Mercury Burger & Bar for proper shakes, burgers, tater tot nachos, and 16 craft taps. Wash down the Southwest Detroit burger (chorizo slider, jalapeños, Münster cheese, tortilla strips, and pickled carrots) with a Cheboygan Brewing Blood Orange Honey Wheat Ale.

Batch Brewing Company, also in Corktown, is a partly Kickstarter-funded nanobrewery where brewers experiment with such ingredients as caramelized pineapple, chamomile, and pink peppercorns. Drink from the Feelgood Tap—one of 15 in the tasting room—to donate $1 per beer to Batch’s monthly nonprofit charity of choice.

The new Stroh’s torchbearers at Brew Detroit, just around the corner, pour their own rotating small-batch beers from 10 taps and host food trucks on Fridays and Saturdays. 

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