Officially the first certified brewpub in Michigan, Traffic Jam's history goes back 50 years (and the building itself nearly twice that). Their tagline is "so local it comes from the same address," and they're not kidding: they are a brewery, a creamery, a bakery, and a from-scratch restaurant with their own rooftop garden.
The following is an excerpt from an upcoming book on American breweries written for Traffic Jam by Eat It Detroit's Nicole Rupersburg:
When [Scott] Lowell and [Carolyn] Howard took over, Traffic Jam was having their wort contract brewed by Motor City Brewing Works across the street. In 2001, head brewer and cheesemaker Chris Reilly came in and decided that they really needed to start making their own beer.
Reilly was an avid homebrewer but had never brewed commercially before, and had certainly never made cheese. In 2003, Reilly had his friend and master brewer Greg Burke (now at Woodward Avenue Brewers) come into Traffic Jam and teach him how to brew on their dual-use dairy and brewing equipment. Reilly shadowed him for a year and after that went all in; they’ve brewed all their own beer on-site ever since. Lowell, who had learned how to make cheese from Edwards and had earned his cheesemakers license in Wisconsin specifically for Traffic Jam, also taught Reilly how to make cheese. “He just took right to that like a duck to water,” says Lowell.
Reilly has been the head brewer and cheesemaker ever since.
All of the beers brewed at Traffic Jam used to be 100% open fermented because the dairy and brewing equipment was all the same – if Reilly was making cheese, he couldn’t also be brewing beer, and vice versa. But their cheese production was increasing to the point that sharing equipment was no longer tenable. Now there is a dedicated fermenter which has enabled them to increase the production of both products and keep brewing and dairy operations totally separate.
There are only five taps at Traffic Jam so Reilly keeps his beers traditional and palatable. Beer geeks looking for extreme IPAs topping 100 IBUs or bourbon-barrel-aged barelywines with a double-digit ABV really need to look elsewhere. “We’re not a destination brewery,” Reilly says. “We’re not in a position like most microbreweries where to keep their customers and audience captivated they have to come up with crazy, more extreme styles.”
Reilly generally stays true to style and if he pushes the envelope at all, it’s gently. Their beer has to be easy-drinking and approachable for the wide range of customers who come through the door. His pilsner is his top-seller followed by the not-too-hoppy IPA, both of which are always on tap. The other taps he changes out to be more seasonal: perhaps a stout and a strong wheat beer in the cold months replaced by a maibock and a lighter, crisper wheat beer in the spring and summer. “That first 70-degree day people generally want a wheat beer.” His doppelbock is also very popular so it’s usually on more often than not.
Though Reilly claims that Traffic Jam is not a “destination” brewery, near-weekly brewery tours and a recent showcase on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives seem to indicate otherwise. While business has certainly increased for this almost 50-year-old restaurant/brewery/bakery/dairy in light of its recent national fame, Traffic Jam and Snug is still the same place it has ever been: a place for old friends to meet and a place to meet new friends.