by Anthony Higle
The history of the Stroh Brewing Company started with Johann Peter Stroh in 1775 in Kirn, Germany. Johann and his family lived in a house with an adjoining brew house attached, and ran a local inn that served meals and their family’s recipe for Bohemian-style Pilsner Ale. Johann had three sons and one daughter. His second son, Georg Freidrich Stroh, inherited the brew house. Georg’s youngest son was
Johann Bernhard Stroh (known to the world as Bernhard), who was born in 1821. On February 22, 1848, revolutions erupted across Europe. With all the turbulent violence surrounding Europe in the mid-19th century, and with his father Johann’s death and his elder brother Georg inheriting the family business, a 27 year old Bernhard Stroh, who had learned the brewing trade, immigrated to the United States.
Bernhard Stroh arrived in the United States in 1850 and settled in Detroit, MI, where he immediately started his own business. He used his coveted family’s recipe for brewing beer, and started just as many businesses start; very small and slowly growing a customer base. Later that same year, Stroh opened a brewery on Catherine Street…He developed a market for a new light lager beer among the larger German immigrant population, and names his new company Lion’s Head Brewery, adopting the Lion’s Crest logo from Kyrburg Castle in Kirn, Germany. The company uses this same crest as their logo to this day. With only an investment of $150 (in 2016 dollars, this would amount to $4,409.53) that he provided himself through working for the family inn back in Germany, Stroh had to be very frugal in his spending. By 1860, Stroh’s customers had a desire for Stroh to start bottling his famous beer so they could enjoy the Bohemian-style Pilsner Ale at their homes. So Bernhard Stroh would have his sons personally cart small kegs of beer to his customer’s homes and business by wheelbarrow.
Bernhard Stroh inevitably died on June 24th, 1882 at his home in Detroit, and is buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Detroit. After his father’s death, Bernhard Stroh Jr. took the helm of Lions Head Brewery, and his first item on the agenda as president of the company was re-name it to B. Stroh Brewing Company, to honor his father’s memory. The company started to expand and gain some recognition in the Great Lakes and New England regions with the introduction of pasteurization and refrigerated rail cars, allowing Stroh Jr. to ship his beer to Massachusetts and Florida. As well, in 1893, Stroh’s Bohemian Pilsner Ale won a Blue Ribbon at the Columbian Exposition (The World’s Fair) in Chicago, IL. Along with the expansion and distribution of the company and gaining the attention of the East Coast, Stroh Jr’s other great deed he accomplished for the company was changing the name of it yet again, this time to the name it still holds; Stroh Brewing Company, which he did in 1902, right before he stepped down as president of the company.
After Bernhard Stroh Jr. stepped down as the leader of the company, his younger brother Julius became CEO in 1908. Before he assumed office, Julius Stroh took a tour of famous European breweries, where he studied the “fire brewing” method of brewing beer. To this day, the Stroh Brewing Company continues to be the only American brewery that uses the fire brewing method.
Stroh’s continued to operate as a small regional brewery from 1908 until 1920, when the American Prohibition period started. Prohibition has its roots in American history dating back to the 1820’s and 30’s. After the United States entered World War I in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson instituted a temporary wartime prohibition in order to save grain (the main ingredient in alcoholic beverages) for producing food. That same year, Congress submitted the 18th Amendment, which banned the manufacture, transportation and sale of intoxicating liquors, for state ratification.
With prohibition enacted, Julius Stroh had to adapt and transform the company so as not to close his family’s business. Julius Stroh operated the business under the name The Stroh Products Company, producing near beer (beer with its alcohol extracted), birch beer, soft drinks, malt products, ice cream, and ice. The company remained relatively successful during the thirteen years prohibition existed in the United States, and although the company ceased the production of most of these products they produced during the time, their ice cream is still sold to this day in most retail grocery shops, mainly in the Great Lakes and North East regions of America.
Julius Stroh remained as CEO of the company until his death in 1939, where upon his son Gari Stroh assumed his father’s old office. Gari Stroh was only CEO of the company for 11 years. As Stroh’s was exponentially increasing its sales, Gari Stroh built a new packaging center, which was able to keep up with the demands of the consumers. The packaging center was considered Gari’s major contribution to the company during his tenure.
After Gari Stroh stepped down as CEO in 1950, his brother John Stroh succeeded him, with Gari’s son Peter Stroh joining the company as well after his graduation from Princeton University in 1951. Business was “as usual” in the 1950’s, although Stroh’s was facing heavy competition from Goebel’s and Pfeiffer brewing companies, both also Detroit native companies. Stroh’s growth started to decline with the Detroit “Beer Strikes of 1958”. The strikes occurred for simple reasons; workers wanting more money and better working conditions. The beer strikes effected the five main breweries in Detroit; Stroh, Goebel, Pfeiffer, Altes, and Schmidt. Stroh’s was hit hard during the strikes, but not as hard as Goebel’s, which was facing bankruptcy by the time 1964 came around, three years after the strikes had ended. The Goebel plant was razed and production moved into the Stroh brewery, which Stroh had acquired in 1964. With the acquisition of Goebel’s brewing company, Stroh’s started to become a national brand name, and although they were still suffering from the loss that the beer strikes had inflicted, Stroh’s sales increased and the company continued to expand.
he 1970s and 1980s were very productive years for the Stroh’s; sales continued to increase with the acquisition of Goebel’s, new leadership came in 1967 with John Stroh becoming CEO and Peter Stroh, Gari Stroh’s son, became President. The duo expanded the company to its greatest height throughout the two decades with new marketing and aggressive advertising strategies. With increased sales, the Stroh brewing company was able to match the big three car companies in terms of salaries and benefits. Early in the 1980’s, Peter Stroh started looking to take Stroh’s to the national stage, and made a bid on the Schaeffer Brewing Company and Schlitz Brewing Company. Schaeffer started to go into debt in the late 1970s and early ’80s, making the buyout from Stroh’s all too easy in 1981. Schlitz accepted a buyout offer of $17 a share. Schlitz became a wholly owned subsidiary of the Stroh Brewing Company, making Stroh the third-largest brewery in the United States. With all this expansion, Peter Stroh, now CEO at this time, realized his company was overextended. By 1985, Peter Stroh recognized his company was operating with excess capacity, so the company closed its 71-year-old Detroit brewery that year. In 1989, the company agreed to sell to Coors, but that deal fell apart. A decade later, the Stroh Brewing Company ceased to operate independently with a deal to sell all remaining operating facilities to Miller and Pabst Brewing Companies.
The Stroh Brewing Company remains as a subsidiary of the Pabst Brewing Company, and is still ran by a member of the Stroh family. In the August of 2016, Stroh’s began brewing again in Detroit, after a 31 year disappearance when the company closed the Detroit brewery in 1985. Many Michigan based newspapers and media outlets covered the resurgence, such as Crain’s, Detroit Free Press, and The Lansing State Journal, all giving praise to Stroh’s quality product, and toasting the legacy created by Bernhard Stroh Sr.