Ann Arbor author covers Michigan beer history from Prohibition to brewpubs in new book

ANN ARBOR, MI — Whether you drink Miller Lite or brew your own stouts, one Ann Arbor teacher’s new book is set to teach you about Michigan’s boozy history.

Patti Smith, a teacher with the Ann Arbor Public Schools, recently published “Michigan Beer: A Heady History,” her fifth traditionally published book and fourth historical book. Smith also wrote “Vanishing Ann Arbor,” “Downtown Ann Arbor” and “A History of the People’s Food Co-op Ann Arbor.”

“Michigan Beer” starts with Michigan immigrants in the mid-1880s and goes through what she calls “the new wave” of beer with the return of brewpubs to the state in the 1980s.

The historical guide, which Smith calls her “pandemic book,” starts in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, turning its way through each area of ​​the state and walking through readers through immigration, “financial panics,” different breweries, Prohibition and the World Wars.

“In some cases, some of the cities, a lot of the information stopped at Prohibition, but for bigger cities like Grand Rapids and Detroit, I had information post-Prohibition into World War I and post-World War II,” Smith said, adding that available information tapers off in the 1950s and 1960s and picks up again in the 1980s.

While the book covers primarily Michigan beer history, there is also something for those who are less interested in brewing or specialty beers, Smith said.

“I think there’s some really interesting stories about people and about Michigan as a whole,” Smith said. “We owe so much to these people, these literal pioneers, who built these industries from nothing. Some were trained in Germany; a lot weren’t. They just came here and said, ‘Well, I got to do something,’ and that’s what they did. And they really laid the groundwork for this amazing scene that we have today.”

Smith, who is preferential to stouts and seasonal beers, has been writing about the boozy beverage since 2010, has even dabbled in brewing herself. Despite her familiarity with both beer and historical books, the process for writing “Michigan Beer” was different than she expected. Shortly after she wrote her proposal, libraries and other research facilities locked down due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Writing about the history of beer during the pandemic also gave her new perspective, she said. While the term essential service “didn’t really mean anything” to her pre-pandemic, it took on new significance after she discovered breweries were declared essential services during World War II, with the United States government telling breweries to direct 15% of their products to the military.

“Essentially, it pretty much guaranteed that the men overseas would receive beer in their rations,” Smith said.

The breweries were then able to tout beer’s nutritional properties — pointing to its Vitamin B and yeast content — as well as brand themselves as patriotic, helping to boost their image post-Prohibition.

“So that was something I had not known and was pleasantly surprised to discover,” Smith said.

Writing the book during the pandemic, with many libraries closed, also highlighted a lack of access to information, which is increasingly hidden behind paywalls, Smith said.

“We’re talking about articles that are 150 years old. And the people who wrote the articles are long gone, the photographers are long gone. Their families are not getting the money,” Smith said. “The hardest part of me is watching knowledge, especially this kind of historical knowledge, getting hard to find and more restricted.”

She hopes her book, available both in the library system and in various stores, will help inspire others to continue writing about Michigan’s beer history.

“I want to honor these folks who came before us,” Smith said. “That’s kind of my driving thing.”

Michigan Beer: A Heady History is available through Literati Bookstore or through Arcadia Publishing. Connect with Patti Smith through her website or through social media.

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