Tapping into the Detroit spirit

Tapping into the Detroit spirit

Atwater Brewery’s hard work of bringing a storied tradition new life is gaining momentum.

There is a sound echoing in bars and households throughout the country—and across international borders—reminding the world of Detroit’s enduring and entrepreneurial spirit.  It is the resonance of metal caps clinking on countertops, tabs puncturing aluminum seals, and award-winning beers running from tap to glass. 

It is the acoustics born from Atwater Brewery: a brewery located in the historic Rivertown District in Detroit, and founded with a vision to continue the community’s rich tradition of producing quality beer.

“Detroit had more than 40 production breweries pre-prohibition. It had more than anywhere else in the country, so there is quite a heritage of brewing beer in the City of Detroit,” said Mark Rieth, current owner of Atwater Brewery. “In 1997 the original owners wanted to bring back the German-style lager that was predominant in the 1800s in Detroit.”

Atwater Brewery’s Detroit Tap House is located in a former parts and manufacturing plant originally built prior to prohibition in 1919. The old production facility was completely renovated before opening its doors to the public in 1997 and features an imported Kasper Schultz, which has allowed the team to brew beer in the traditional style associated with the very lager they wanted to re-invent. The brewery also happens to be located across the street from the original Stroh Brewery Company headquarters, which served as driving inspiration for bringing the Bohemian-style lager back to the area. 

Rieth officially took over sole ownership of Atwater Brewery in 2005 after recognizing an opportunity for the company in the industry. It was also due in part to his own passion for craft brewing, which stemmed from home brewing while he lived in Boston during the late-80s and early-90s. When he moved back to his hometown of Detroit around 1997, he discovered Atwater’s German-style lager, ultimately invested in the company in 2002, and then decided to purchase it three years later. 

Rieth also noted he saw a significant opportunity for craft beer since it was a point in time when people were starting to become interested in the industry.

“I had been to Germany and Europe, and saw every town had its own brewery or breweries. It wasn’t owned or monopolized by huge producers. At that point it might have been a little before its time, but I wanted to be involved in the industry,” said Rieth. “It was located in the City of Detroit, which I have a passion for and…I saw a vision for where the industry was going.”

Since 2005 Atwater Brewery has experienced an impressive amount of growth, such as 68 percent in 2014 and an additional 25 percent in 2015. The development has not only supported the company’s expanding distribution network domestically and its international presence with exportation of its craft beer to countries like Canada and Germany, but also has led to tripling its production capacity at its main plant to nearly 40,000 barrels a year during a recent addition. Atwater has also invested in a number of Biergarten and Tap House projects, produced more than 40 different styles of beer, and launched Atwater Spirits and Detroit Dry Cider brands. 

With three locations in the state of Michigan alone—Detroit, Grosse Pointe Park, and Grand Rapids—Atwater is on track to continue expanding its presence with its upcoming planned opening for another facility in Austin, Texas this spring. The reason behind the smaller Biergarten and Tap House projects is to bring the Atwater brand “closer to customers,” according to Rieth. 

“We have a small brew house in each one of those locations where we make small batch beers just for that location. It is a very competitive market now, but we have an established brand,” said Rieth. “We feel that because everything is localized, it is really important to be closer to your customers and show them what your brand is all about.”

Atwater’s branding message is an empowering one: “Born in Detroit. Raised Everywhere.”  

“We use the terminology of bringing Detroit everywhere,” said Rieth. “It is hard working beer for hard working people and we want to bring that message, not only across the country, but also internationally.”

As Atwater has continued to invest in renovation and upgrading to its facility, the brewery has partnered with local artist Tony Roko, who has done work for the company in the past, to design new labels for some of the craft beers. 

“Beer is art,” said Rieth. “[Roko] draws caricatures and it brings life to each beer. Each beer that we came back out with has a caricature associated with the packaging and a story behind it.”

Behind the brand and label, however, is award-winning beer that has the ability to bring people together. The brewery’s Atwater Lager, which is crafted in the Munich Helles Lager style, recently was recognized at the international 2016 World Expo of Beer in Frankemuth. The traditional Bavarian-style Helles swept both the light lager and pilsner categories for its light and refreshing taste, delicately balanced with notes of Hersbrucker hops. 

It is Atwater’s year-round Dirty Blonde Ale and Vanilla Java Porter though comprising approximately 60 percent of the company’s overall sales. While the Dirty Blonde Ale incorporates crushed orange peel and subtle hints of coriander with wheat, the Vanilla Java Porter brings notes of vanilla and specialty coffee beans to an English-style porter.

“We try to find the best options: for grain, we have specialty grains from Germany and Europe and we also receive a lot of our base malt, pilsner, and pale malts from Canada. We have made some unique products for the state of Michigan, meaning we went out and sourced local hops from a Michigan hop farm to make a wet hop, which is a really unique style,” said Rieth. 

“We have also made beers that are all malt and all hops from Michigan as well on a smaller batch basis. I see that trend continuing to grow, because there are a lot more hop farms and malt farms popping up across the Midwest and in Michigan,” added Rieth. 

Some of the other year-round, specialty, seasonal, and small-batch beers Atwater Brewery has crafted comprise: Whango Mango Wheat, Bloktoberfest, Traverse City Cherry Wheat, Voodoovator, Purple Gang Pislner, Blueberry Cobbler Ale, Decadent Chocolate Ale, Going Steady IPA, Christmas Ale, and Corktown Rye IPA. 

“We have fun with it. I let our brewers come up with unique recipes, and we will sample them to make sure they taste good in our pilot facilities,” said Rieth. “One example of that is Whango, which is mango wheat. We made that in our small facility in Grosse Pointe Park a couple of years ago and it took off like gangbusters. It is now our best-selling seasonal product.”

Now, more than 160 years after the original Stroh Brewing Company made a name for itself in the historic Rivertown District, Atwater Brewery is taking on the mantle to build upon a storied tradition and take it forward into the future. 

“I see beer as a vehicle to bring people and communities together. I think it gets them talking, it is a very social way of communication, and it is passion,” said Rieth. “What gets me up every day is the passion for making a great product, seeing smiles on people’s faces, and spreading the cheer.”

Photography courtesy Atwater Brewery

As printed in The Golf Explorer Magazine, Volume 1, Issue 1