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The Swabian Battle for Beer

When the seventh century Irish missionary, Columbanus, first encountered Swabians, he happened on a ritual sacrificial offering of beer. Of course, the Celts themselves loved alcohol. The burial tomb of a Celtic chieftain north of Stuttgart held a container for a hundred gallons of fermented honey.

In 1834, soon after his arrival, Pastor Frederick Schmid was approached by a Ann Arbor Presbyterian minister who asked that Schmid persuade the Germans to follow Presbyterian temperance rules forbidding alcohol and even coffee and tea. Schmid replied that Christians guided by the Holy Spirit would not drink too much and thus misuse the gifts of God. He added that Jesus drank wine. This was the beginning of a 150 year battle between the Swabians and the Americans in Ann Arbor.


Beer tent at Cannstadter Volksfest in Swabia

The Swabian attitude toward beer is shown in this picture from the Cannstadter Volksfest, the second largest beer festival in Germany after Munich's Oktoberfest. Note the presence of children and women, as well as men, all drinking beer.


Nineteeth-century Stroh's beer advertisement with child drinking

German American parents would let their children taste beer. It was a family drink.


February 31st gravestone at Bethel Church

Drinking alcohol was also popular west of town, but instead of buying beer, the frugal Swabians drank their own hard cider. According to former pastor Roman Reineck, families would bring hard cider or wine to the Bethel Church graveyard while the stonecutter worked. After a while, he got a little confused and substituted February for January.


Advertisement for the new Michigan Union Brewery building

This 1902 building on Fourth Street in the middle of Cabbage Town (today's Old West Side) produced 3000 barrels of beer a year for German drinkers. An advertisement in the Ann Arbor City Dirctory.


antique Michigan Union Brewing Company beer bottle

A bottle from the Michigan Union Brewing Company.

The early twentieth century saw a heightened drive by American churches in Ann Arbor to prohibit alcohol. In1902, Carrie Nation, known for her hatchet attacks on bars and bottles in dry states, was invited by the Methodist Church to come to Ann Arbor where she spoke on State Street. In 1916, famed former baseball player and evangelist Billy Sunday held revival meetings in Detroit before 50,000 people. In Ann Arbor, he spoke to 11,000 jammed into the Coliseum ice rink. A statewide vote in 1916, saw Ann Arbor's German ghetto vote two to one against prohibition, but the state as a whole voted dry.


Carrie Nation with hatchet and Bible

Carrie Nation was invited by Ann Arbor's Methodist Church to attack alcohol in town.


Dynamic Billy Sunday's strenuous preaching against alcohol

A Detroit newspaper's impression of Billy Sunday's dynamic preaching against alcohol.

Meanwhile across the nation, Methodists and Southern Baptists rallied against alcohol. Then, World War I drove the last nail into the coffin of alcohol. Congress was told that major breweries were owned by German aliens. What better way to get at the hated German Americans by taking away their beer? Prohibition started nationally in January 1920, two years after Michigan went dry.

Of course, the nation finally realized that Prohibition had only increased the production of illegal alcohol, especially spirits, instead of the beer and wine that was less lucrative for the gangsters. After Prohibition was rescinded in 1933, the Michigan Union Brewery reopened as the Ann Arbor Brewery.


Beer barrel at the former brewery building

The building formerly housing the Ann Arbor Brewery is now occupied by Math Reviews. Norman Richart on the staff has accumulated many mementos from the former occupants.


beer bottle label, cream top

The Ann Arbor Brewing Company resumed beer production in the Fourth Street building after Prohibition's end.

Ann Arbor's small brewery found it hard to compete against the many large breweries exporting beer across the nation. One tactic for efficiency used by the local brewery was to bottle all its beer in unlabeled bottles, with only "beer" on the bottle cap. Labels for its three beer brands were made available to bars, and the small inventory of bottles served drinkers' fluctuating demand. Most drinkers apparently didn't notice that the beer was all the same.


metzger's restaurant carving extolling drinking and eating

This large wooden carving rests behind the receptionist at Metzger's German Restaurant. It was commissioned in the 1930s by owner William Metzger. A large carved inscription in German asserts: Good drinking and eating you'll never forget.


Haab's, another Swabian bar

Haab's Restaurant and Bar on Michigan Avenue in Ypsilanti was founded in 1934 by local Swabians Oscar and Otto Haab.


The main bar with drinkers at the Heidelberg

At the Heidelberg Restaurant and Bar on N. Main Street, Ann Arbor.


beer steins and glasses on display at the Heidelberg

A collection of beer steins and glasses at the Heidelberg.


Rathskeller at the Heidelberg

Another venue for drinkers, the Rathskeller at the Heidelberg Bar and Restaurant.


Sign for Old German Bar and Bierkeller

A sign for the Old German on Ashley Street.


Craft beers during Oktoberfest at Arbor Brewing

Arbor Brewing Company on Washington Street puts on an annual Oktoberfest in downtown Ann Arbor.