Stroh Then But Also Now

image-20For information on classic American beer composition, Beeretseq generally looks to sources from pre-Prohibition, or latest the 30s when restoration of brewing was still under aegis of old methods.

At that time, almost 100 years ago and more, malt adjuncts such as rice and “corn products” were frequently used in American beer recipes. Still, final gravities and hop usage were high by today’s commercial norm, which lent considerable taste to the beers. In addition, a lot of lager was still a light reddish-brown or light amber which further enhanced the malt qualities and taste.

I have discussed such beers from many viewpoints here over the last few months.

But how about gaining inspiration from something written last month? Yes, last month. A story out of Detroit reports that Pabst has brewed an original – late-1800s – recipe of Stroh beer in Detroit. It’s the first brewing of Stroh in Detroit in over 30 years. Stroh sold its brands to the mighty Pabst in 1999 after a period of growth-by-acquisition when it absorbed the legendary Schaefer and Schlitz. The debt loads proved formidable and the company, a brewing dynasty which had begun in the 19th century, was dissolved after a distinguished long run.

The brand Stroh is still made and widely distributed by Pabst, but to its credit, Pabst, with its own venerable, German-American history, has done what Beeretseq has long argued for, restored a historic recipe from its archive. (It also brought back Ballantine India Pale Ale and Ballantine Burton and has announced other plans of interest to craft fans).

image-18The new/old Stroh is over 30 IBUs and uses Vienna malt in the grist to get some of the old colour and taste. Hopefully gravities follow old methods as well. Early reviews on Ratebeer sound positive, in fact the verbal descriptions belie the middling scores. One compares intensity of flavour to Sam Adams – a win right there as Sam Adams is a flagship for 19th century American lager quality.

I plan to be in the Windsor area again, in November, and will cross the border to find the restored Stroh, it’s a must.

But let’s go back, not to the 19th century or Taft-era America, but 1960. It was a time of commercial and industrial expansion in America, when technology and efficiency had perhaps their greatest hold on the public imagination. This was before the 60s, Timothy Leary, the counter-culture, and the slow pushback which re-introduced artisan methods in food and drink: think Alice Waters in Berkeley, CA, Elizabeth David’s books in England, Anchor Brewing and homebrewers on the West Coast, etc.

This 1960 booklet, a descendant of the early 1900s corporate hagiographies I discussed earlier, is a fascinating document, providing as it does a detailed account of brewing Stroh in its post-war heyday with those day-glo photos so evocative of the era. In this sense, the Kodachrome-like “nice bright colours” are a bridge to the psychedelic 60s.

From a brewing standpoint, while final gravity and hop levels were probably down from 1800s levels, one may note the beautiful open wood fermenters – nothing in craft brewing today has anything on those. The book makes much of the company’s storied “fire-brewing” system, as well. It was probably a pretty good beer, and now it’s back and probably even better.

image-19The book portrays the brewery at the peak of influence and power in its original market, and must have been a great tour for the beer fan. The Bier Stube looks cozy – it appears there were two of them, one with leaded glass which retained a Germanic look despite the two world wars, and another (pictured in the link given) which was more utilitarian, a probable replication of the 50s “rec room” complete with chips and nuts on the table. (Enter bemusement by British readers).

Chips, nuts, pretzels. That was beer cuisine then, or half of it.

The original Detroit brewery was taken down long ago, but real Stroh is back. Good job.

Note re images: each image above was sourced from the 1960 Stroh booklet referenced in the text (from HathiTrust). All trade marks and other intellectual property in such images belong to their lawful owners or authorized users. Images are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.



9 thoughts on “Stroh Then But Also Now”

  1. I wouldn’t be so sure the 1960 Stroh’s was a good beer — by the 70s at least, it really wasn’t anything all that different from Miller, for example. It wasn’t terrible, although for reference sake I don’t think Miller is a terrible beer either.

    To be honest, I think “Fire Brewing” added about as much special character to Stroh’s as “Beechwood Aging” does to Bud these days. I won’t say it’s meaningless, but the lack of these methods in other macro beers doesn’t seem to really matter to them.

    I remember the old Stroh’s brewery in Detroit very well — it was a huge, hulking complex a few miles north of downtown. I only saw the outside, and it had the same mysterious quality as Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. From time to time you could smell it — not a bad smell, although not as great as the smell of the Wonder Bread bakery a couple of miles away. Stroh’s tasted better than Wonder Bread, at least.

    At any rate, I’m glad to hear the historic version is coming back. It will be interesting to see how it’s hopped. Cluster might be the obvious choice, but it’s not necessarily what modern tastes might favor.

    • Thanks for this, very interesting. I think hopping was still reasonable around 1960, but hard to know at this juncture…

      The report I read on the recreation suggested “Noble hops” were used, so perhaps all-German import, or Cluster + the Noble for aroma maybe.

      Thanks again Max.


  2. Hell, Gary, it was nearly impossible to avoid drinking Detroit-brewed Stroh’s in the 80s! Though I had an intrinsic bias against the brand at the time, it was decent beer. I always detected a bit of a peppery (but not hot) note to it for whatever reason. Hops, perhaps?

    When the Lehigh Valley brewery was about to close, I bought a final case of Stroh’s and remember thinking there was nothing remarkable about the beer. I really need to read Frances Stroh’s “Beer Money” to get her take on the collapse of the once-proud enterprise. Another must-read book on an American brewing family is “Lemp: The Haunting History.” What a troubled clan, running a massive and once-dominant empire.

    • Thanks Sam,and those books are musts I agree, I need to get them.

      But did you try the new Strohs, the 1880s recreation being brewed in Detroit now?


      • No, but I sure would like to. I’ve no contacts in Michigan, so I’ll have to rely on your review if you’re fortunate enough.

        By the way., I enjoyed both the new versions of Ballantine IPA (draft) and Burton (bottle). I first had the IPA in 1978 or so in the squat NR bottle, but it was not a regular of mine and I only had it a couple of times, so can’t make a fair comparison.

        to score some.

  3. With my father having worked in a small regional brewery at the time, I watched the incredible rise of Stroh’s during the 80s, and it appeared to be an unstoppable force. It seemed every party in western Pennsylvania suddenly had a keg of Stroh’s on tap instead of Stoney’s or Iron City.

    I met Peter Blum back then, who was the staff historian for Stroh (Yes, they actually employed a historian!). Peter was a font of beer knowledge, but was very dismissive of the smaller regionals, believing that big-brewery beer was a superior product in every sense.

    I believe that Schaefer and Stroh illustrate the importance of place in the life of a brewery. Scheafer moved out of New York City to the Lehigh Valley and promptly lost their relevance to the hometown crowd. Stroh followed them to the very same brewery when real estate in Detroit became too expensive to remain there. Ironic in hindsight, isn’t it?

    Stroh invested a ton of money in the Lehigh Valley plant, as they wanted to continue fire-brewing in the new location. In addition to the two massive stainless steel kettles already in place there, they added a “copper side” to the brewery when they purchased it.

    Those copper kettles are the only modern versions I’ve seen that employed rummagers, copper chains that rotated against the bottom of the direct-fired kettles to keep any solids from sticking to them.

    That brewery, the most beautiful modern brewery in the country to my thinking, is now owned by Boston Beer Company and it is my understanding that the copper side is not utilized by them. What a publicity coup it would be to brew something distinctive in them, enhancing the reputation of Samuel Adams instead of chasing the next fad: alcohol teas, sodas, and seltzers et al.

    And so it goes…

    • Very interesting Sam, thanks very much for this. I think by the late 70s, large brewers were fixed on scale advantages, the largest producers were regarded as those most likely to survive, hence the moves and large investments in distant locations. The trend to regional and finally new-emerging breweries completely escaped that perspective. I’ll write more on this soon.


    • Sam, another thought: did you try the Detroit-made Stroh, any comments? I like what I’ve read about it. I think Pabst misstepped with Ballantine IPA (although it’s great they brought it back, in general that is).

      I didn’t see the point of putting Cascade and other “new taste” hops in it, it made it similar to many other IPAs when Cluster, Northern Brewer and other pre-1972 hops would have been in keeping more with the beer as it was – which would have meant too something distinctive in today’s market.

      The new Stroh seems to hew closely to 19th century specs and that’s a good move IMO.


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