Pfeiffer Brewing Company

Beaufait at Sylvester on the east side of Detroit

The picture above shows the Art Deco office building dating from the post-prohibition era when Pfeiffer was one of the three leading brewers in Detroit. The pre-prohibition brewing building adjoins this office building across the former rail tracks and located at 3740 Bellevue.

There is a long history of brewing in Detroit and yet, in a real sense, it is a new industry, much more recent than vehicle manufacturing. In his book Brewed in Detroit: Breweries and Beers since 1830, Peter Blum cites an 1829 Cleveland newspaper announcing the arrival of beer from Detroit and reports that Farmer’s Brewery was producing beer in Detroit 1831. Yet, brewing is a new industry, thanks to prohibition.

Cultural conflicts raged in the United States after Catholics and Jews arrived from southern and Eastern Europe in large numbers in the late 1800s. A northern European Protestant elite governed the nation for much of the Nineteenth Century, but their hold on political power was challenged, first by the Irish and then by eastern and southern Europeans. Eventually, they lost their control of the nation’s political system. By the 1880s, the immigrants and their descendents were “out-voting” the Anglo Saxon elite who assumed they would continue in power. The newcomers did not agree with the Protestant elite about numerous social issues and political policies, such as how the Sabbath should be kept, about whether parochial schools were permissible, about municipal voting systems and—very importantly—about the consumption of intoxicating beverages.

The Prohibition movement began in the mid-Nineteenth Century but developed greater strength around 1900, partly in reaction to the increasing political power of immigrants. Using intoxicants was viewed by some or many Protestants as a serious moral failing. Others argued that social problems, especially the poverty of wives and children, resulted from men spending their earnings on drink. Henry Ford believed that the productivity of workers would increase were there no alcohol.

Despite opposition from eastern and southern European immigrants, states began to enact prohibition legislation. The lawgivers in Lansing enacted legislation that banned the sale or manufacturing of intoxicants in Michigan after January 1, 1917. The state’s breweries closed. The next year, Congress passed the 18th Amendment prohibiting the sale, manufacture or transport of alcoholic beverages in the USA. Three-quarters of the state legislatures ratified that amendment and the nation went “dry” on January 1, 1920. The Volstead Act was enacted by Congress in March of that year, specifying how the federal government and states would enforce the prohibition on alcohol.

In 1910, only a few optimistic individuals would have conjectured that the manufacture of motor vehicles would be Detroit’s leading industry in the 1920s, and propel the city to rank fourth in population size at the end of that decade. No one in 1910 would have conjectured that the distribution of spirituous liquor would be the city’s second leading industry in the 1920s. Cultural conflicts raged in Canada similar to those in the United States. Ontario, then as now, ranked with Kentucky as a leading North American center for manufacturing liquor. By 1927, Ontario enacted strict laws prohibiting the production of alcoholic drinks. However, the Quebecois population and the many Jewish immigrants in Montreal did not support prohibition, so Parliament in Ottawa never passed laws against liquor. Ontario’s many distillers successfully argued that they were governed by Canada’s national laws, not by the regulations of the province, so they drastically increased their production. Most of the liquor and beer that US residents drank during prohibition was produced in bathrooms and isolated rural areas of this country, but there was clearly a demand for the much higher-quality products made in Ontario. I have seen estimates that as much as two-third of the imported liquor consumed in the US during prohibition entered the nation across the Detroit River—a narrow 58-mile stretch that could easily be crossed by bootleggers.

The Republican Party, in general, supported prohibition in the 1920s while the Democrats—deriving much of their support for immigrants and their children—strongly opposed it. By the end of the 1920s, many Republicans conviently defined prohibition as an experiment, suggesting that they were not surprised that it was a noble experiment that failed. The mayors of almost all large cities strongly opposed prohibition and were reluctant to devote any resources to enforce laws against drink. These cities, of course, were home to southern and eastern European immigrants and their offspring.

In the midst of the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt was overwhelmingly elected in 1932, and Democrats were chosen to dominate Congress. Almost immediately, the Democrats amended the Volstead Act in March, 1933 to permit the production and sale of beer with an alcohol content of up to 3.2 percent. Congress also approved the 21st Amendment, calling for the repeal of the 18th Amendment and state legislatures quickly approved. On January 1, 1934, the great prohibition experiment came to an end. Brewers and distillers were free to go back into production in accord with state laws.

Before prohibition, as many as a score of brewers sold their product in Detroit. After January 1, 1934 only nine brewers made beer in the city before the rise of the micro breweries in the 1990s. These nine were Atles, Auto City, Detroit, E. and B., Gobel, Koppitz, Pfieffer, Schmidt and Auto City.

Conrad Pfieffer founding a brewery on Mack Avenue in 1882. His business prospered, and by 1914, his output ranked eighth among the Detroit’s brewers. He had capital to erect the large building that you see on 3740 Bellevue between Mack and Sylvester. Production stopped in 1918 and the building sat idle. As early as 1926, investors sought to purchase the Pfeiffer properties, foreseeing the end of prohibition. With the election of President Roosevelt, a new firm was incorporated using the Pfieffer name, but with no members of the founding family. Production resumed in 1934, and in that year, Pfeiffer ranked third in output in Detroit behind Stroh’s and Schmidt’s. Production steadily increased during World War II, but after that war, Pfeiffer sales soared, thanks to effective advertising and to the managerial skills of Alfred Epstein, an Austrian who came to the state in 1922. He remained as an official firm until its demise in the late 1960s. In the 1950s, Pfeiffer’s sales were so good that they overtook Stroh’s and Gobels to become the city’s leading brewer, but a strike in 1958 cut output and then sales declined sharply in the early 1960s.

Through the 1950s, one, two or three local brewers dominated the beer market in most metropolitan areas—Stroh’s, Gobels and Pfeiffer in Detroit. But radical changes were underway as a few producers—Budweiser, Miller’s, and Pabst—sought successfully to become national beers. Because of their assets, their access to capital and their huge advertising budgets, they effectively put most local brewers out of business. Presumably, this was accomplished primarily because of advertising and financial resource, not because of the superior quality of their product.

Recognizing these trends in the industry, Pfeiffer was one of many local brewers that sought to become a national beer. Coors and Rolling Rock succeeded, but Pfeiffer failed. Pfeiffer purchased the Dailey brewery in Flin, then acquired Dewey’s in South Bend, Schmidt in St. Paul, Sterling in Evansville, and Piles in Brooklyn and Narragansett in hopes of marketing their products nationally. Then they changed their name to Associated Brewing, but they could not compete effectively with the other national brands. By 1966, the brewery on Beaufait in Detroit was closed and the surviving remnants of the firm were sold by 1972.

The surrounding buildings date from before prohibition and are similar to many other large breweries built in Detroit. The major brew house in the pre-Prohibition era is located at 3740 Bellevue adjoining the office building in the photograph.

Architect: Unknown to me
Architectural style: The building at the corner of Sylvester and Beaufait is Art Deco.
City of Detroit Local Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Places: Not listed
National Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
Use in 2005: Idle building awaiting conversion into another use or being razed.
Photograph: Ren Farley; August, 2005

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