June 12, 2017

The Smithsonian’s Beer Historian Answers Listener Questions

By Avery Kleinman

Make Your Own Beer at Home, Advertisement for malt extract, circa 1900.

Make Your Own Beer at Home, Advertisement for malt extract, circa 1900.

Last week, Kojo chatted with Theresa McCulla, the Smithsonian’s new brewing historian. She talked about the history of beer in America and the D.C. region, and listeners quickly flooded the show’s phone lines, email inbox, and Twitter with questions and comments. Here are answers to questions we weren’t able to address on air.

One listener, Barry, sent us an email: “What makes beer different from other fermented beverages such as wine and hard cider?”

Theresa: These all have different histories within the broader American story of food and drink culture. Geography is especially important in the production of wine. When you look at America in particular, wine grapes can be grown in a much more limited geographic area compared to where you can produce beer. Beer requires agricultural ingredients such as barley and hops and yeast. With access to clean water, transportation networks, and enthusiastic consumers, beer can be brewed almost anywhere. Wine has a different history too related to its use as a sacramental beverage, which led to different treatment of wine versus beer during Prohibition. Wine continued to be allowed for religious purposes and families could make small amounts for home use. And cider was especially popular in colonial America. Colonists made cider in order to preserve apples; in this way it functioned as a preservation method and was more than a simple  beverage.

Listener Jon tweeted a request:

Theresa: Religious monks and nuns hold an important role in the history of brewing, especially in Europe. Missionaries brought particular styles of brewing to mainland Europe in the 6th century or so. Monks and nuns were literate at a time when many in the communities around them were not. Monasteries and convents became centers of learning, which included the practice of brewing. Religious figures were able to write down the recipes they used, which allowed them to improve brewing techniques and share knowledge. The oldest written reference to brewing with hops comes from a German monastery in the 8th century.

Steve from Baltimore sent us an email: “How does your guest think that history will view the monopolistic behaviors of [Anheuser Busch InBev] (ie; purchasing the entirety of the latest South African hop harvest) against the back drop of an expanding localized craft market.”

Theresa: In the last several years, large beverage companies have been acquiring smaller breweries at a rapid pace. This is not the first time this has happened in the brewing industry. There is an earlier history of consolidation among American breweries following Prohibition and continuing through the mid-20th century. These changes prompted beer flavor profiles to become much more homogeneous. Now we find similar consolidation, on an arguably global scale. Larger beer companies are seeing the appeal of craft beer. They’re wanting to add craft beer to their portfolios. That is causing consternation among smaller brewers who have to fight for access to distribution networks and high quality ingredients. This moment of change makes my job interesting—I get to consider what is happening on the ground month to month. Recent evolutions in the industry also  point to a changing definition of craft beer. How big or small are craft breweries? To what extent does the customer care about who owns the brewery or where their beer is brewed? These questions figure into debates about beer in America today. Part of my job is to capture reactions to those changes, for the historians of the future.

Steve from Baltimore also wanted to know: “Also, what’s her take on the New England IPA.” 

Theresa: People like to debate the extent to which regional identity is relevant in beer. The existence of a New England IPA– which tends to be an unfiltered style,  different than the west coast style which is very hoppy and clear– that distinction points to the importance of regional differences. Styles like steam beer or the California common are other examples of beers historically tied to particular regions of the country. I imagine that listeners could offer additional examples of regionally specific beers.

Listener Ron tweeted a history question:

Theresa: In 1978, President Carter signed the House resolution that removed restrictions on home brewing. But home brewers were brewing before then. Charlie Papazian, godfather of American home brewing, taught home brewing classes in Colorado in the 1970s. To my knowledge home brewers never experienced any legal repercussions, but Carter’s action gave the official seal of approval. His signature paved the way for home brewing to become mainstream. This was important because virtually all craft brewers began their involvement with beer as home brewers. That continues to be true today.

A listener sent us an email: “I wonder if your guest studies the structure of state regulations and how that affects brewing as a viable industry. For example, [regulations] allowing small brewers to sell on premises.”

Theresa: The history of governmental regulations is very important to the longer story of beer in America, especially when you consider more recent histories of home brewing and craft brewing laws. One example of that is the effort to persuade President Jimmy Carter in 1978 to sign a House resolution that removed major restrictions on home brewing. Another example of this might be the prominent role craft brewers played in shaping laws as they related to alcohol production and sales. The founder of Weeping Radish Brewery, the first microbrewery in North Carolina, is a German immigrant. He worked directly with legislators to change regulations to allow him to produce beer in the state. Craft brewers have found that laws allowing them to sell on their own premises, such as those that encourage the development of brewpubs, really give them a head start.

Mary sent us a message on Twitter: “I am doing research on the role of women in the history of beer for my women’s craft beer club. Can you direct me to an exhibit or texts that reference women and beer?”

Theresa: For a primary source that speaks to an American woman brewing as part of her daily tasks, the listener could consult the diary of Martha Ballard, a midwife who lived in Maine in the late 18th century and early 19th century. The diary is available online. Historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has written about the diary in her book, A Midwife’s Tale. For references to women brewers around the world and in previous eras, the listener could consult A History of Beer and Brewing, by Ian S. Hornsey, and The Oxford Companion to Beer, edited by Garrett Oliver.

Here’s one last question from Lost Lagers:

Theresa: I think Matt Lauer excited a lot of people when he described the job that way, but the primary tools of a historian are not drinking on the job. My daily responsibilities include research, writing, and conducting oral histories, toward the ultimate goal of building an archive.  But beer is a unique subject to study because it’s not just a matter of science or history;  it’s also a matter of taste. So certainly when we go out to visit and talk to brewers, tasting is a way to respect their work. Through taste we can understand innovative brewing methods, the creative use of ingredients, and other factors that make every brewer and brewery unique.


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