Beer Drinkers Sample A Variety Of Styles And Flavors At Chicago Beer Festival
Beer lovers sample offerings from brewers at the American Beer Classic craft beer festival at Soldier Field on May 9, 2015 in Chicago. Scott Olson / Getty Images

8 Questions for the Smithsonian's New Beer Historian

Updated: Apr 10, 2017 10:23 AM ET | Originally published: Apr 07, 2017

For National Beer Day in the U.S., on Friday, many beer lovers might think to celebrate the beginning of the weekend with a pint — but for Theresa McCulla, beer is work.

In January, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History announced that McCulla would be the Smithsonian's new "brewing historian." In that role, McCulla works with a team at the museum's American Brewing History Initiative. For National Beer Day, TIME talked to her about what's brewing on the research front:

TIME: Do you remember when you had your first beer or when your interest in beer began?

McCULLA: Growing up, my dad very much fit into the history of home brewing in America, which was very popular in late 1980s, early 1990s. He comes from large family from Milwaukee, where beer is part of the culture. I remember being about 7 or 8 and helping him cap bottles in the kitchen and fermenting beer in the shower. The aromas of brewing beer weren't terribly appealing as a kid, so my sister and brother and I would tie bandanas around our faces.

How has the type of person who brews beer in the U.S. changed over time?

We have records of figures like George Washington, who grew hops at Mount Vernon, but [in terms of] who exactly was brewing it, most likely it was enslaved men and women. The public persona of beer is relatively masculine. Taverns, which were also serving spirits or punch, have an interesting history of being important not just as social places, but as places where men could gather and talk about politics. But it was something that was brewed by women before America was founded. Native Americans brewed it, women did it. It was a practical thing to drink when the water source wasn’t always certain.

In the 19th century, a huge wave of German immigrants came and brought a lager style of beer to America. What was being brewed in America [before] was more an English-style ale, which was heavier in terms of the feel of the beer. The German-style lager is very much a lighter style, more clean-tasting, effervescent. By the mid-20th century, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, people on the the West Coast became very enthusiastic and skilled home brewers—starting shops, clubs, and really new kinds of styles of beer. There was a real thirst, if you will. There are several reasons for that. Some of the people involved in brewing during this time period had served in the military. They had gone to Europe and sampled different kinds of beers produced in England, Belgium, Germany, and brought guides to them back and began brewing them at home.

In addition to that, there’s the whole history of the counterculture in California of the 1970s and a new awareness among Americans about the richness and potential of indigenously American food and drink. That wasn't just important to the growth of the wine industry in California, but also a new kind of beer industry at the time. Some of these home brewers turned professional, like Sierra Nevada's [founder] Ken Grossman, who started out running a home brew shop in Chico, Calif.

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In the National Museum of American History's collection, there's an ad that touts Milwaukee's Schlitz as "famous for purity." Why would that have been something they'd boast about?

Schlitz beer ad, circa 1899.  Courtesy of National Museum of American History: Smithsonian Institution 

In the colonial period, beer was drunk throughout the day as a substitute for water and was seen as relatively benign, healthful, and part of the diet. But once you get to the early 20th century, this talk of purity comes up when factory settings where meat was processed were not yet fully federally regulated to ensured the cleanliness of these operations. [For example,] Upton Sinclair's book The Jungle exposed the Chicago meat industry. The Progressive movement emerged to make sure that America's food and drinks were produced in pure settings. So breweries often touted themselves as high-tech, modern operations to reassure customers that unlike these other things you’d see in the newspapers, they offer a clean, safe product for you to enjoy.

You also had the temperance movement, and beer was also considered less dangerous, or a lesser evil, than spirits, which had higher levels of alcohol than Americans were accustomed to drinking.

How would you describe the period we're in now, in terms of beer history?

This is the definitely the age of craft beer. In the last decade, we’ve seen an explosion of new craft breweries. We now have more than 5,000 breweries total in the country, the most at any point in our history, even more than pre-prohibition. Consumers are becoming very attentive about the label and thinking about where beer comes from.

In recent weeks, there's been a class-action lawsuit filed against a Hawaiian brewery that hasn't been brewing in Hawaii. Contract brewing, when someone who has a recipe doesn’t necessarily own the space where the recipe is produced, is not necessarily a new trend. It's from the 1980s. But [what's new is] how people are thinking about their beer now. It's probably something that, in the past, wouldn’t have prompted a lawsuit, but people are thinking about their beer in a new way now. So it's a very energetic movement, but it's important to note that if you look at it very big-picture, craft beer is a minority of overall beer sales.

What beer is in your fridge now?

A six-pack of Sierra Nevada Beer Camp Golden IPA .

What's your favorite type of beer?

The answer will change according to the time and place. When I'm traveling or in a taproom, I like to order flights. And when I do that, I try to order a range. My chilly-weather beer is the imperial stout made by Marble Brewery in Albuquerque, N.M., where I was living before I took this job. Also like Third Coast Old Ale by Michigan's Bell's Brewery, a barley wine style. But I love IPAs and barrel-aged beers. More recently, I've become interested in sour beers.

Favorite drinking song?

There is one that is in our sheet music archives, the title is "I Wish I Was Back in Milwaukee."

Are there parts of beer history we don’t know enough about that you hope to delve into over the next three years?

Milwaukee, St. Louis, Cincinnati — these are all places that are central to history of German immigrants, so when we think of beer, we think of places like that, and German culture and dining remain fairly visible in those cities. But one place where brewing was incredibly important and often not mentioned is New York City. There were an amazing amount of breweries on the waterfront, but they're no longer there, so it's harder to see that history. New York was actually the first state to commercially produce hops in the 19th century, before the Pacific Northwest was known as the "king of hops" in North America. In Washington, D.C., Christian Heurich's brewery, on the banks of the Potomac, brewed beer throughout the first half of 20th century and was the second largest employer in the city after the federal government. It would also be fair to say that we think of New Orleans more as a cocktail city. But in the mid-1800s, German immigrants came through New Orleans or took the Mississippi River up to the Midwest. [Much later] Abita was one of the early craft breweries, on the vanguard of craft breweries in the South.

But the focus of my project is home brewing from the 1960s to the present. There is no current archive of that yet. So my role is to reach out to people involved in the recent history of beer — collect objects and go on research trips to visit growers of hops and barley, to document oral histories that will go into the museum's permanent collection. I'm very interested in newsletters of early home-brewing associations. They usually have funny names like the Maltose Falcons or the San Andreas Malts. Pre-Internet, these newsletters were the way people shared ideas and recipes.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated when contract brewing began. It was in the 1980s, not the 1990s.

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