Photo via Flickr user captainfats

The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Detroit's Oldest Beer

Tom Perkins

When Detroit collapsed in spectacular fashion, the demise of Stroh’s—cheap suds once popular on college campuses and with the blue-collar crowd—wasn’t far behind. Starting in the late 1980s, the brand quietly faltered, then mostly vanished from store...

Photo via Flickr user captainfats

It wasn't long ago that Detroit and Stroh's Beer grew to be the nation's third largest city and beer, respectively, and the Stroh brand was as recognizable as Budweiser, Miller, and Coors.

But Detroit collapsed in spectacular fashion, and the demise of Stroh's—cheap suds once popular on college campuses and with the blue-collar crowd —wasn't far behind. Starting in the late 1980s, the brand quietly faltered, then mostly vanished from store shelves outside Michigan over the last two decades.

Detroit is back from the grave, however, and the beer that made its name here will, at least partly, once again be a product of the Motor City. Stroh's, now owned by Pabst, is reviving and brewing its Bohemian-style pilsner at Brew Detroit, a contract brewer that bottles popular local flavors like Atwater and Kid Rock's Bad Ass American Lager.

The announcement comes several months after Frances Stroh, a fifth-generation Stroh heiress, released her new book, Beer Money: A Memoir of Privilege and Loss, which is a personal tale about growing up in a crumbling beer dynasty. But Stroh's brand manager, Eric Phillips, stressed to MUNCHIES that Pabst isn't involved with the book, and the family no longer has any business association with the company.

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Brew Detroit, a contract brewer, is helping to revive Stroh's Bohemian-style pilsner. Photo by the author.
18335082204_d50fcfa844_b Stroh's began brewing in Detroit in 1850. Photo via Flickr user Wystan

While the return to Detroit is seen as a wise move, the immediate goal isn't to grow the Stroh's label, Phillips says. Instead it's part of Pabst's larger effort to brew its portfolio's regional beers in their birth cities. The move also coincides perfectly with Detroit's comeback.

"We recognize and appreciate that the culture of beer in America is powered by local brews," Phillips tells MUNCHIES. "Detroit is where Stroh's was founded in 1850. Stroh's is as synonymous with Detroit as Ford or GM. By bringing brewing back to the city of Detroit, we honor the history and heritage of Stroh's, and the innovation and hard work of the people of Detroit."

Stroh's will, however, continue brewing its lager and light beer in Ohio, for the time being.

Phillips describes the Bohemian pilsner as a "crisp, balanced pilsner with a floral aroma, subtle hop spice and a rich, bready maltiness made from Saaz and Magnum hops and Vienna malt." It's "based on" the original Stroh's recipe the family brought over from Germany, though, like all beer companies, Stroh's began adding more water after WWII.

It's fitting that the city and the Bohemian pilsner are simultaneously being resurrected. Frances Stroh explores in her memoir how the growth and dissolution of Detroit, Stroh's Beer, and her family share a similar arc.

In its early pages, Stroh writes, "Many years would pass before I would come to see that the Stroh's Beer story, and the story of the once great city of Detroit, were all intertwined, our destinies and histories so enmeshed that in their final days, the brewery, the family, and Detroit all tumbled together, a long eroded cliff falling whole into that inland sea."

The family's story is presented in a succession of sometimes tabloid-worthy snapshots, though it isn't a cheap or scandalous read. Stroh simply explores growing up and developing into a moderately successful installation artist while navigating a collapsing beer empire and troubled Fortune 400 family.

She tells MUNCHIES she views the memoir as a very American story that's "a love letter to my past, and a book I needed to write in order to reconcile with that past."

The saga starts in the old-money Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe, where the Strohs shared a ZIP code and private clubs with the Fords, Fruehaufs, and Chryslers. Frances describes lounging at the club pool at nine years old with Alison Goodyear, who, during a discussion on money, announces, "We have $60 million!"

Even at an early age, Stroh understands what that means: "I was already aware that if you were rich, you could be as bad as you wanted and get away with it."

Of course, that's only true to a degree, as being bad can catch up, and impressive bank statements don't cure alcoholism and addiction. Behind the stately façade, a slow spiral was already in motion.

A large part of that can be attributed to Frances' alcoholic father Eric Stroh, who co-managed the company until the 80s. He was fond of Frances, encouraging her to become the photographer he wanted to be instead of a beer baron, but their complex relationship wasn't totally healthy.

For example, he occasionally subjected Frances to a terrifying "game" designed to teach her how to avoid getting kidnapped. In it he drunkenly beckoned her while dangling a Hershey's bar out the family car's window. Frances played along, and ran away screaming as she was instructed to do "with a surge of dread twisting inside."

Later in life, Eric Stroh married Frances's high school classmate, who Frances remembers as a quiet girl with a sweater reading, "Eat the rich."

While deranged at times, the Stroh's family drama and Frances's teen years are often relatable—especially for those of us who also grew up in suburban Detroit and spent nights listening to the Talking Heads and exploring abandoned factories on acid.

Drugs and booze are a logical escape for the Stroh siblings, but by the 1990s Frances was a Fulbright Scholar living in London. There she made a legitimate run at becoming a star in London's art world, but her work was more helpful in making sense of her own world: "… I was finding that gaining perspective on false constructs was a far simpler feat in art than in life itself. In life, the false constructs themselves tended to take over."

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Photo courtesy of Frances Stroh.

At the same time, Stroh's Beer fought for its life in the face of competition from expanding national brands like Miller and Coors, but the Stroh family opted to chart those waters and grow on its own instead of recruiting seasoned corporate help. That led to a series of missteps that spelled the end of the company. Heavy investments in the tanking 1990s Detroit real estate market didn't work out, nor did acquiring the sinking G. Heileman company, producers of Old Style.

At another point, Stroh's attempted to build off the successful "It Doesn't Get Any Better Than This" ad campaign for Old Milwaukee, one of the brands its portfolio, by committing $9 million to a marketing blitz featuring the Swedish Bikini Team. In the over-the-top ads, shapely blonde babes dance on boats or surfboards, while cases of lobster and cold six-packs parachute into the party. The commercials were a smash hit, and it looked like Stroh's struck gold.

But the campaign backfired when a female Stroh's employee sued the company for sexual harassment, igniting a national debate over feminism. That landed Stroh's on the front page of the Wall Street Journal as the case worked its way to the Supreme Court.

The Stroh's kids never directly received large fortunes from the company, Frances writes. But as the end approaches, she discovers the difference in "having money and pretending as if one didn't", and starts to suspect pursuing a career as a visual artist is "frivolous and misguided."

Finally, in 1999, the Strohs sold their brewing business to Miller and Pabst, but the sale's revenues evaporated after they were invested, just ahead of the dot-com bust.

"The family was crestfallen, our 150-year brewing tradition gone, just like that," Stroh writes.

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Frances Stroh. Photo courtesy of Frances Stroh.

While the story isn't uplifting, Frances's love for her family is evident throughout the book, and she tells MUNCHIES penning it was therapeutic, in a way.

"By reconstructing the past through the writing of the book I was able to reclaim many of the feelings that I'd had to push aside through the years, feelings I hadn't been able to feel at the time because the events that triggered them were too taboo to talk about, such as my brother Charlie's drug bust. As I wrote the book, patterns began to form, links that connected events that had never before seemed connected—such as the simultaneous unraveling of my family, our business, and Detroit."

These days, Frances Stroh rarely drinks Stroh's. She says it's difficult to find in San Francisco, where she lives with her son, invests in real estate, and is at work on a novel. But she adds she's thrilled the beer is once again being brewed in Detroit.

"Americans are deeply nostalgic, and anything that evokes the romanticism of America's manufacturing past will be successful, making Pabst's move to re-launch Stroh's Beer in Detroit a brilliant move indeed. There's nothing more emblematic of the American Dream than both Detroit and Stroh's Beer, and Pabst's timing could not be better with the city roaring back to life."