Until the craft beer movement emerged, Billy Wall-Winkel’s generation knew beer to mean pretty much three things: Bud, Miller, and Coors. So, the metro Detroit native and Detroit Historical Museum assistant curator was fascinated when he explored the depths of Detroit’s brewing history.
“It wasn’t something trendy. It was a tradition, and not a lot of people know that,” he says. “In Detroit, we tend to get stuck on cars, and the history beyond that gets drowned out.”
But the Detroit Historical Society is working to fix that, with its new podcast, Untold Detroit. The show follows a serialized format consisting of six-episode seasons, each exploring an overlooked area of Detroit’s heritage.
As host of the podcast, Wall-Winkel kicked things off with — you guessed it —beer. Untold’s first season chronicles the history of Detroit’s brewing industry, stretching all the way from French colonization to the modern, craft-beer boom. The podcast was released shortly after the introduction of the Detroit Historical Museum’s latest exhibition, Detroit’s Brewing Heritage. It offers an auditory complement to the collection of historical artifacts and vintage photos.
Listeners will enjoy interviews with today’s brewing heavyweights, including John Stroh III of Stroh’s Brewing and Larry Bell of Bell’s Brewery, as well as historians and other industry professionals. One of Wall-Winkel’s personal favorite moments is a conversation with John Lenardos, owner of Motor City Brewing Works. “Motor City brews Ghetto blaster, which was the first craft beer I’d ever seen,” Wall-Winkel says. “So, knowing the story behind that was fascinating to me.”
What’s up after beer? The podcast’s second season will dive into Detroit’s musical legacy. Motown, of course, is a huge part of that legacy, but Wall-Winkel is especially interested in the city’s often-overlooked contributions to techno. “The story of Detroit techno is really well known outside of the United States — especially in Europe,” he says. He hopes to release the new season in February 2022.
Quirky facts about brewing in Detroit
Here’s some of what we learned listening to the first season of Untold Detroit.
1. In 1706, Joseph Parent became Detroit’s first brewmaster.
2. Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, the founder and attendant first commander of Detroit, sequestered a chunk of Parent’s product for himself — for free, of course.
3. Early brewing in Detroit resembled modern home brewing. It was small in scale, used primarily amateur-grade equipment, and focused on easy-to-make styles, such as ales, stouts, and porters.
4. Ales and stouts became Detroit’s drinks of choice following Britain’s takeover of the city in 1763.
5. Ales fell out of favor around 1860, after German immigrants introduced the lager.
6. Bernhard Stroh intended merely to pass through Detroit on his way to Wisconsin, but he liked the city so much he decided to stay. He was the founder of the Stroh’s Brewing family, once the nation’s third-largest brewer.
7. Detroit’s beer industry grew with the city’s rapidly expanding population, and in 1879, its brewers produced 3.5 million gallons of beer. That’s 30 gallons for every Detroiter.
8. In the early 1900s, Detroit’s breweries bought up local saloons, trying to ensure that only their beer would be served.
9. Many saloons at that time provided complimentary meals to patrons who ordered beer on their lunch breaks.
10. By the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933, Stroh’s Brewing was the last operational brewery in Detroit. It survived by selling pop, ice cream, dealcoholized beer, and “Malt Extract Kits.” The name provided legal cover for the actual product — a set containing all the necessary ingredients for home brewing.