Simon Majumdar Interviews The Curator on Brewing History for the Smithsonian's
American History Museum,
The History of Beer
Bonus Episode 5 Show Notes:
Theresa McCulla Interview
A very special interview of Theresa McCulla, the Brewing History Curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, where they will discuss the fascinating history of beer.
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Simon Majumdar (SM):
Hi, everybody. It's Simon Majumdar here, and welcome to Eat My Globe, a podcast about things you didn't know you didn't know about food. And on this very special episode of the podcast, I am delighted to be joined by someone who has one of the most fascinating job titles of anyone I have ever heard. So, I would like to introduce you to Theresa McCulla. And Theresa, perhaps you could tell us a little bit about your job title and how you managed to come by it?
Theresa McCulla (TM):
Sure, and Simon, thanks so much for having me on your show. It's truly an honor. My name is Theresa McCulla. I'm the historian of the American Brewing History Initiative at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. The Smithsonian is the largest research complex in the world. We have multiple museums and institutions here in DC, and further afield, but I have the fantastic job of being a historian of beer and brewing here at the American History Museum in Washington.
And so I started my work a little more than two years ago to document and collect the history of beer and brewing in America, with a special focus on the stories of home brewing and craft beers that has evolved largely in the United States, but also around the globe, from the mid 20th Century to the present.
For those people who haven't yet listened to the beer episode, I would recommend you go and do that, which was a more general view of beer and its history worldwide, and then come back and listen to this episode, which will be specifically about beer in America.
But Theresa, beer is very much back in focus now, particularly, as you say, with the rise of this US craft brewing movement, which has spread all over the world. And it's been central and almost vital to the population of the United States since the arrival of the first settlers. But what I'd love to know is, before the first settlers arrived here, and we'll talk about those in a moment, was there any evidence of fermented drinks among the native communities?
Yes, we do have evidence of fermented drinks among various Native American communities on the continent, prior to the arrival of European colonists. And so, scholars have especially located a strong tradition of making alcoholic beverages in present day Central America, which spread into the current American Southwest.
And so for example, archaeologists have shown us that communities living in these areas would produce fermented beverages, wines and beers, from ingredients like fruits, like plums and pineapples, corn was a prevalent ingredient for the making of fermented beverages. Also things like agave sap, and even saguaro cactus, and so it's a myth that European settlers brought alcohol to the Americas, it was very much in use before contact.
And when it was used, was it really… was it used in a ritual sense, or purely for a pleasure?
Right, so scholars also have found that concurrent with the development of agriculture in these regions, that communities used alcoholic beverages primarily in the context of religious rituals. So in our present day societies, we associate alcohol primarily with pleasure, and in colonial times, and early America in particular, there was a more of an approach to alcohol with reference to utility, and we can talk about that in a moment. But there is evidence that Native American communities approached alcohol from a primarily ritual perspective, different from these other approaches.
So a very different perspective to the ones we have today, speaking as a man who drank a little bit too much beer last night. I said earlier that beer was vital to the first colonists, and one of the things I read, and I'd love for you to talk about whether it's true, and why it was, that the passengers on the Mayflower were set ashore, one of the reasons, because they were actually running out of beer. Now, I'd love to know if that's true, and if so, why was running out of beer such a catastrophe?
Well, and this is such a great story to imagine that a certain sense of arrival in America began with this need to preserve beer. And records are somewhat scanty, but there does seem to indicate the fact that William Bradford, who was the first governor of Plymouth Colony, he wrote in his History of Plymouth Plantation that there was a decision for the party on the Mayflower to disembark at Plymouth, because the ship's store of beers was running low. And it's not that the ship had totally run out of beer, but apparently the captain wanted to conserve and save enough beer for sailors on the return voyage to England.
And so, this would have been such a catastrophe if they had run out entirely, because at that point in time, the English, and Europeans in general, had developed really a thorough distrust of water. There was the notion that water was unhealthy to drink, we have descriptions of Europeans during this time saying that they didn't necessarily like the taste of it, and they could not have been aware that the boiling involved in making beer would render water safer to drink. But beer was certainly seen as a safe beverage, but beyond that even really a food. That beer was considered to nourish you while you were drinking it, just like bread could, or just like other foods on the table.
And so it was really central, not just to the diet of these particular settlers on the ship, but really of their whole notion of culture, and of society. So beer did feed into the consideration to land at that time.
And that included children as well, wasn't it? It was very much a part of their diet, too.
Absolutely, yes. Men, women, and children all drank beer, and brewing beer in this early era... and I'm talking about in America, from our perspective here, in the 17th century, 18th century... was very much the work of women, enslaved people, whoever was laboring in the home. Brewing beer was very much a domestic task, and it was not until later in our history that brewing became really a profession that was separate from other domestic chores.
And talking about those early stages of colonization, and the founding of places like Plymouth, the beer I believe was mostly imported from Britain as ships arrived. But as you said, they soon began to brew themselves, and I've actually seen some advertisements, or notes of advertisements, for them advertising for brewers back in England to come out to the colonies. So what are the earliest signs of them beginning to brew themselves? Do we have archaeological history, do we have records? What do we find to support that?
We do have archaeological records for sure, and written records as well. Interestingly, at the time that Bradford and others landed in Plymouth, desperate for beer, there was already a professional brewery on the continent. It's thought that the first professional brewery is considered to have been established in 1612 in Manhattan, by Dutch settlers by the names of Adrian Block and Hans Christensen. And so we find that whenever colonies were developed, one of the first tasks that was done was to build a brewery, or brewhouse. Some kind of facility for brewing beer.
And so we can see that there was small scale beer production in colonies as they grew, but as the American colonies developed and became bigger, and ever more thirsty, yes, the colonists did import beer from England, and from Europe, to drink here until a brewing profession developed.
And one of the things that I found really interesting when I was doing my research for the beer episode was that the Founding Fathers had a real particular taste for beer, and particularly porter beer, which is obviously a very British drink, and I'd love to hear more about that. That kind of love of the beer. And I believe they even wrote letters about people making it in the United States, and not being able to drink the British beer, particularly as they got into the conflict. Because A, they couldn't get it, I guess, and B, they saw it as unpatriotic. Is that really the case?
No, that's true, yes, we do... there's a letter from George Washington in particular describing how he came to rely on a Philadelphia brewer of porter beer, which he came to prefer over importing English beer, as a kind of patriotic stance, which is a fascinating parallel to the drinking of coffee versus tea.
But we do have, in written record of our Founding Fathers, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, references to drinking beer, to the brewing of beer on their estates, and also to ordering beer. And so this goes back to your question as to what kinds of sources do we have to tell us what people drank during this era, and we have written sources like ledgers recording purchases, or letters between figures. But we also have a material culture. Archaeological history, but also material culture such as beer drinking glasses that can show us that people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson enjoyed beer often. That glasses filled with beer were often on their tables.
And again, it's important to point out that we're not sure exactly the extent to which figure like Washington were directly involved in the brewing of beer. It's much more likely that enslaved people were doing that work in the home. And so we do know, for example, that Peter Hemmings, an enslaved man who labored for Thomas Jefferson, and was trained as a very sophisticated French style chef, was trained as a maltster and a brewer, around 1812. And Hemmings became Jefferson's primary brewer from that point onward. So again, we can find these kinds of records in letters, primarily written by Jefferson, and other records in his estate.
So we find this wonderful connection, I think, with history and beer, and one influencing the other. And as the United States began to grow, obviously they began to attract people from all sorts of other countries in Europe, not obviously just from Great Britain. And that changed the type of beer that was being produced, which had a great impact on, I think, the beers that America enjoys today.
So I'd love to hear from you about that, about the impact of arrival from people, obviously we think about Germany, Czechoslovakia, places like that. When they started to arrive in great numbers, and how they got involved in the brewing business.
Absolutely yes. And scholars talk about a couple revolutions in American brewing history, and we are currently experiencing our craft beer revolution, as we call it. But really, truly the first revolution in American brewing occurred in the mid-1800s with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of immigrants from present day Germany, and the Czech Republic, that area of the continent. And it was during this time that professional male brewers arrived from these regions, and came to the United States ready to set up professional breweries.
And again, until this point brewing in America had been primarily a domestic task, possibly there were professional breweries in various cities, but not enough to really satisfy Americans’ thirst, and so for the first time in the mid-19th century, you do have a large wave of trained men who are ready to run these very modern brewing facilities. And so what that does is really change the landscape of beer production and consumption in America. And these brewers, importantly they bring this new lager style of brewing. And so they work with a different kind of yeast that sits on the bottom of the fermentation vessel and as lager beer is brewed and then aged, all the yeast sinks to the bottom of the vessel, and the various particles in the brew also sink to the bottom, and so you're left with this very clear, effervescent, very refreshing beer. That's quite different from what Americans have been drinking before then.
And so what that means is that the arrival of these immigrants also had a big impact on the consumption of beer in America. Who drank beer, where it was drunk. And so the new tradition of biergartens springing up in the country, where entire families could go and enjoy the, again, refreshing, light alcohol style, sitting somewhere outside for the day. And at the same time you have also a just enormous tide of saloons that are founded and established in cities throughout the country. And so wage working Americans, primarily men in the wake of our civil war, they would go to work in the factory, they'd have a little extra money to spend at the end of the day, and lo and behold they would walk out the door of their factory, and find a saloon on nearly every corner.
And so interestingly, in the late 1800s, you have parallel tracks of Americans being able to drink together in family friendly settings, but ever more beer became tied to more male realms, such as the saloon.
And we also see cities becoming very associated with beer, and I was recently in Cincinnati, which was very much a beer town. Milwaukee, very much a beer town. And that's because, I assume, because of the arrival in those towns of people from those countries.
Yes, that's definitely true. Important also to notice the climate in those areas, so just the cities that you mentioned, especially Milwaukee, Cincinnati, St. Louis, New York City, the climate was very favorable to the production of lager beer, which requires cool temperatures for aging. And so I visited Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, it was in the last year, and one of the long-time breweries there, they still have lager in caves that were dug into the hillside beneath the brewery, and in these lagering caves, large barrels of beer would be stored, cool in the earth, as they aged. And so brewers made use of the natural environment when they could, or else they created cooler conditions for themselves. But absolutely, the growth of brewing during that time had a major impact on what urban America looked like.
I've actually been fortunate enough to see some of these caves in Cincinnati, in an area called Over-The-Rhine, where they had a lot of breweries. And I've been down into the depths where they kept them, and it's a very exciting thing, because you still find bottles, and all kinds of treasures down there that give us a real insight into how people were drinking, and creating the beers. I think one of the things that you touched on there is the fact that beer became increasingly a kind of male-centric pastime, having moved from a family occupation, or maybe a dual track.
And I'm not saying it's because of that, but the drinking of beer became something of... what's the word that I want to use... it almost was seen as a bad thing by many, and we have this move towards the biggest challenge of course, was Prohibition. And I'd love to touch on this briefly, and I talk about it in the episode, about the impact of the anti-alcohol laws on the breweries, and the cities that had these huge breweries. Because I know it had a major impact on them.
Yes, Prohibition was a landmark event in the history of brewing in America, and really in our larger social and cultural history as a nation. Federal Prohibition lasted from 1920 to 1933 in America, and during those years it was illegal to produce, transport, or sell intoxicating beverages. It was not actually illegal to consume intoxicating beverages, and so that meant that if you were wealthy, in the years, or the months, leading up to Prohibition, you could plan ahead, and perhaps stock up your cellar with things that you like to drink, and then enjoy those things during the dry years.
If you were less fortunate, you did not have that kind of capability, and so Prohibition had very different effects for different social classes in America. But really, one of the very strongest ingredients for the arrival of Prohibition in 1920 was the effect that saloons had on American political culture, and especially the way that saloons were portrayed as being these kind of dens of political corruption, of disorderly conduct among, especially immigrants to America, because it was primarily working class immigrants who patronized saloons.
A lot of the portrayals of saloons and the people in them were not very favorable, and prior to prohibition, the majority of saloons were tied to particular breweries, who had a formalized relationship in which the brewery would supply all of the beer, as well as the ornamentation, the trays, the glasses, that were used in the saloon. And so temperance advocates, it was a movement that really originated in the early years of American history, they really came to the fore in the late 1800s, very early 1900s, to tip the nation into this federal ordained Prohibition.
And so, Prohibition just had a completely devastating effect on the brewing industry. As I mentioned, it was illegal to produce alcohol, and so that meant that nearly all breweries had to shutter their doors. Scholars count approximately 1400 breweries operating before Prohibition, but only about 160 or so open after it went into effect. And some of them were able to stay open because they redirected their activities toward other means, for example, some breweries produced non-alcoholic tonics from malt and hops, or they produced ice cream, or cheese, or items like that. But it was an extended dry period for American beer.
And when Prohibition ended, obviously as you said there were far fewer breweries. Those that had managed to be entrepreneurial and survive in another way. But that had an impact on the beer as well, because the view of beer until fairly recently outside America was that it was very kind of homogeneous, fairly weak light beer, that often created a lot of disdain in Europe, and was that caused by this, they all had become very formulaic? Or was there another reason for this very style of American beer that we used to almost laugh about when I was younger?
Certainly the biggest breweries, as Prohibition began, the biggest breweries that were best poised to wait out the dry years, and to bide their time until Prohibition was repealed, and so the very biggest beer producers, like Coors, and Miller, and Pabst, and Anheuser-Busch, they all produced this light bodied lager style that, after Prohibition ended and these breweries were still standing, over time, breweries consolidated as well, and we got into a situation where breweries were producing a kind of standard, homogeneous style of light bodied lager, which eventually became boring to certain beer drinkers.
But what is important to remember is that many Americans loved that style. They wanted light bodied beer, they found it refreshing, there was a concern for maintaining a svelte figure that had emerged during Prohibition and after, and so women in particular had dropped off of breweries' radars as beer consumers. But yes, this standard light bodied style was a hallmark of American brewing from the post Prohibition era into the 70s.
And in the 70s, that all began to change. And the one thing you certainly couldn't say about American brewing right now is that it was boring. I mean it's certainly very exciting, but I'd love to know, almost is there a big bang? And I'm not often a fan of big bangs in history, but I think with brewing there might be one at some point in the 70s, and I'd love to hear how that began to change, and how we emerged into this new revolution of craft brewing.
Right, and so now this is where we begin the second revolution in our brewing history, what we now know as the craft beer revolution, and this is really where my job comes in, here at the American History Museum, because we sensed here that there was not yet a comprehensive archive or collection effort related to this major shift that happened in American brewing. So here has been the major focus of my work. The thing you asked me about a big bang, and I'm not so sure if it was a big bang, or how I would describe it is more a few strands that started to be woven in the late 1960s, early 1970s, that suddenly produced something much bigger and much more cohesive in the decade after it.
And so if you look in the mid-1960s, yes, this is when certain beer drinkers were becoming to get a bit tired of American styles. We have a handful of American men, in particular, who went overseas during the middle of the 20th century, whether it was for educational opportunities, or for military service, and just found different beer abroad. They went to Germany, or to England, or to Belgium, or to Scotland, and were just very inspired and struck by the variety of beers that they found elsewhere that was really not available at home.
And so a few very important figures who were all working separately in the mid-60s, but eventually their influences would combine, and I want to mention three important names of the time. So in 1965, Fritz Maytag, who was an heir to the Maytag washing machine company fortune, he was living in San Francisco, and he purchased Anchor Brewing Company, which was a longstanding brewery in San Francisco which had been struggling since Prohibition. But Maytag had become interested in their steam beer recipe, and decided to purchase this ailing brewery, and really turn it around. And so that was one event in the mid-60s.
At the same time, a man by the name of Charlie Papazian was in college on the opposite coast, the University of Virginia, and tasted a sip of beer that had been home brewed, it was brewed by an acquaintance of his in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Papazian just became very excited by this prospect of brewing good beer at home, and teaching others how to brew. And that was kind of the beginning of his story, he became just an enormous influence in the world of American home brewing.
And then third, also in the mid-60s, we have a professor by the name of Michael Lewis who was a biochemist who had studied at the University of Birmingham about the properties of yeast in brewing beer, and then eventually found his way at the University of California, Davis, and he built up a new program in brewing science that would come to educate many of the next generation, and the generation after that, of home brewers and what we would eventually call craft brewers. And so you have various people laying the foundations for what would follow in the years after that.
I was lucky enough to meet Charlie, because I entered a beer in the Great American Beer Festival in 2013, which was named after my last book, "Fed, White, and Blue." But it was actually called "Fed, White, and Brew." It was an ESB, and we actually won a bronze medal, so I went up-
I know, so I have it hanging on the wall, right next to me as I speak. And I'm very proud.
You should be proud.
I was very pleased when we got that award. But the craft brewing movement has truly exploded, and I think when I was doing the research for the episode, I found that the equivalent of almost two breweries a day are opening in the United States, so obviously there's a major number. Do you think it's sustainable, or do you think it will settle down to find a more mature realization of the craft brewing movement?
Well, yes. This is a truly amazing time to be studying brewing, and to try to preserve this history of brewing. At the moment we have more than 7000 breweries in America, which is just a number that has never been seen before in this country. And part of my job has been to tour the country, and to meet brewers, and to sit across from them and record world history. So I ask about the progression of their careers, and how they got into brewing, and then just some big thoughts about brewing today.
And it's a really interesting way to conclude each interview to ask them this question, because they're the ones really in the thick of it who are experiencing it for themselves. And I think there's a common thought that America and the world cannot necessarily sustain this pace of growth, but one brewer that I spoke with recently put it very well, and she said that, "Breweries that have a good business model and brew great beer, they'll be able to sustain whatever extremely intense competition is happening, and whatever will come." That if you have those two ingredients, that you should be safe, but breweries have been opening at such a pace that not all of... each of those cases is not necessarily there all the time.
So yes, we have this massive surge in brewery openings, a lot of consumers have met that with a lot of interest and rejoicing, and other people are a little bit overwhelmed by just the quantity and variety of styles that are out there, but a food and drink critic in the DC area put it well recently, that there's never been a better time to be a beer drinker, and I would say it's the same as to be a beer historian.
I know we only have a few moments left, but I'd love to know what you think of the next trends and what's going to happen for beer in the US, and also I'd love for you just to share where people can find out more about your work, which is obviously fascinating, and the work of the museum itself. And where they can tap in to some of the research that you're doing, whether they're brewers, or beer lovers, or just historians who want to find out more about it.
Sure. So in terms of what's coming next, again, I ask brewers what they're brewing these days, and brewers hope that, and see, many consumers longing for a return to what they call more sessionable styles, and so that would be lower alcohol styles, cleaner, simpler styles, like lagers, filtered in particular. Those styles really showcase a brewer's skill. If you have other styles, which are sometimes called extreme styles, that are very high alcohol, have lots of ingredients, and to a certain extent, in certain settings, those are really enjoyable to drink. But I think a lot of brewers really want to expand beyond those, and beyond the IPA, which is … continues to reign supreme among craft beer fans here and elsewhere.
So I think it's actually an interesting conversation between brewers, and between consumers, that brewers always say they brew what they want to drink, but they're always listening to what their customers are interested in, and hope they're going next. But in terms of learning about the archive that's growing here at the museum, and about my work here, absolutely. Everything I collect belongs to the public, the American people. That goes for the oral histories I record, for the objects that I gather. And so I would invite listeners to look at the museum's website, AmericanHistory.si.edu, and we have a special page on the website related to the American brewing history initiative.
I also try to post updates on my research on Twitter, my handle is T-H-E-R-E-S-A-M-C-C-U, so TheresaMcCu, and I enjoy sharing photos of my work, and my public programming there. And then related to public programming, yes, a very important part of my work is sharing what I do with the public. And so that happens at various events, whether it's an academic conference, or a public program at places throughout the country.
But then also every fall, we invite the public here to the American History Museum in DC for the Smithsonian's Food History Weekend. On this upcoming year that will happen on November 7th to 9th. It always concludes with a brewing history event, and this fall it will be especially exciting, because we expect to be able to unveil a refreshed food history exhibition that's very popular here at the museum, and I will be able to share with the public some of the objects I've collected related to the early history of microbrewing, and homebrewing, and craft brewing. Those will be on display for the first time ever. So please check out the museum website, or my Twitter feed, for more information on those things.
That's wonderful, and I have been lucky enough to be invited to the Food History Weekend to moderate some panels, and it is a wonderful, wonderful weekend. And if people do have the opportunity to get to DC and to go along, and listen, not just to your panels, but to all of them there, I think they really change the way you think about the way that food and history connects. And I've certainly found that today, I'm so grateful that you took the time to join us, I know how busy your schedules are there at the museum, having visited a number, and having many friends there.
So I really appreciate, I am sure people who listen to this will have learned a lot more about beer, and its relationship to the United States of America. And I do recommend that people go and look on those websites, and check them out. So Theresa, thank you so much for joining us on Eat My Globe.
Thank you so much Simon.
Hi everybody. If you're enjoying these podcasts, you may enjoy seeing a series of cooking videos that I made with my friends at PureFlix.com. "Simon Says" is a series of videos showing me cooking some of my favorite dishes from around the world, with a little bit of history in each case. So do go and check them out, they're great fun. Streaming exclusively, on PureFlix.com.
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The Eat My Globe podcast is a production of It's Not Much But It's Ours, and Producer Girl Productions.
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And it's created with the kind cooperation of the UCLA Department of History. We would particularly like to thank Professor Carla Pestana, the department chair. We would also like to thank Sybil Villanueva, both for her help with the research, and in the preparation of the transcripts.
Published: May 13, 2019
Last Updated: October 1, 2020