By Kate Oczypok | March 3, 2017 | Food & Drink
The Smithsonian’s beer historian Theresa McCulla talks to us about her new position working on the American Brewing History Initiative and all things beer.
Months ago, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History posted that they were looking for a historian for their new American Brewing History Initiative and found their match in Theresa McCulla, who holds a culinary arts diploma from the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts’ Professional Chefs Program and will soon receive her doctoral degree from Harvard University.
Here, McCulla talks with us about what Smithsonian patrons should expect from the initiative, what beer is in her fridge at home, and where she enjoys dining and drinking around DC.
What drew you to apply to such a unique position and what are you most excited about?
Theresa McCulla: As a historian, this position was incredibly exciting to me because it involves work at both ends of the historical process. The goal of the American Brewing History Initiative is to build an archive related to brewing history in America for the permanent use of scholars and the public. At the same time, I’ll also be working on the other end of the spectrum, to interpret the things we find for museum visitors and brewing history buffs. I’ll do this in the form of public events hosted by the National Museum of American History (NMAH), like our annual Food History Weekend in October, and posts on the NMAH blog and social media. Many Americans already feel a sense of enthusiasm for and connection to beer. My job is to show them its fascinating and important history.
Can you describe what you do in a typical day?
TM: As I settle into the job, I’ve been delving into the archival collections already held by NMAH related to beer and brewing. We hold turn-of-the-century brewing equipment from mid-Atlantic breweries, import/export documents related to the shipment of hops from Europe to America in the late 1800s, and early 20th-century sheet music of drinking songs. In addition, I receive a variety of emails every day from Americans who own items related to brewing history that they would like to donate to NMAH, brewers who are just opening new breweries and invite me to visit, and archivists from breweries around the world who are eager to share their collections and collaborate with our work. I’m also beginning to plan our regional research trips. We plan to travel around the country to meet professional brewers, hops farmers, home brewers, and a variety of other experts and enthusiasts who are shaping American beer today. On these trips, we’ll conduct oral histories and see what objects and documents people might want to contribute to NMAH collections. What I don’t do during the work day is drink beer. That’s for after hours.
I saw in your biography you've cooked in various kitchens throughout your life thus far. What are some of your favorite dishes you've cooked?
TM: On a weeknight, I could be making Marcella Hazan’s classic tomato sauce or a favored recipe for Szechuan-style mapo tofu made vegetarian with ground mushrooms in place of pork. An ideal Sunday might involve a big pot of New Orleans red beans and rice on the stove, made with Camellia red beans from Louisiana and smoked ham hocks.
Do you think DC is a big beer city? What drew you to work specifically with the drink?
TM: DC fits neatly into the larger history of brewing in America. Brewing was crucial to the urban fabric of DC in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with Christian Heurich Brewing Co. brewing beer on the banks of the Potomac, where the Kennedy Center stands today, throughout the first half of the 20th century. But the second half of the century saw an extended brewing drought, if you will, for DC as well as other cities like Baltimore and Boston. Craft brewing has returned to the District with the recent surge in smaller, craft breweries, mirroring similar trends in other American places. And in terms of the bigger picture, beer is uniquely useful to me as a historian because through it we can understand virtually all facets of American history. Through the lens of brewing, I can explore histories of immigration, urbanization, the expansion of transportation networks, consumer culture—you name it, it holds a connection to beer.
What can Smithsonian patrons expect?
TM: The work of the American Brewing History Initiative is unique among many projects at the Smithsonian because its initial goal is collection, in order to construct an archive, rather than the creation of a specific exhibit. Objects related to American brewing history will be integrated eventually into exhibit space within the museum, but for now we’re focused on amassing a comprehensive array of oral histories, objects, and documents that will preserve the history of American beer for decades to come. For example, we may be looking to collect the logs and recipes of brew masters, newsletters of early clubs of home brewers, and advertising material and business plans that helped craft breweries become successful businesses. As we accomplish this research we’ll stay in touch with the public on social media to share what we’re finding.
I saw you come from a long line of home brewers. Do you brew yourself at home and if so, do you have any advice for novices?
TM: My Dad is a home brewer. Several of my many cousins and uncles are home brewers—one uncle is planning to open a brewery in Radford, VA, and another uncle works at a home brew supply store in Manassas, VA. But I do not brew myself; I benefit from the labors of others in that respect.
What sort of myths do you expect to debunk when it comes to beer?
TM: I think it’s fair to say that beer has a largely masculine identity in America today. Much of that originates in the waves of immigrant German entrepreneurs, mostly men, who transformed brewing into a major American industry in the mid-to-late 19th century. But women and enslaved people brewed beer before them, in the home, and some Native Americans brewed even earlier. Additionally, Americans may think of Midwestern cities like Milwaukee, Cincinnati, or St. Louis when they think of beer. But brewing was crucial to the economies of virtually all American urban centers—North, South, East, and West. Especially before Prohibition, America’s cities were filled with an amazing diversity of small breweries who served nearby consumers. We’re now seeing a renewed enthusiasm for beer brewed fresh, with a strong local or regional identity. In just the last couple years, the number of breweries in America reached an all-time high, higher than the pre-Prohibition total. Within that context, my work will look, in part, to return the full diversity of people and places to American brewing history as we collect the stories of American beer today.
What beer is in your fridge at home?
TM: Beer is seasonal and regional, so that answer would change according to the time of year and the geographic location of my fridge! (In the past 5 years I’ve lived in Somerville; MA; Madison, WI; Albuquerque, NM; and now Washington, DC.) Still, I would be delighted to open my fridge and find the Jack D’Or American saison brewed by Pretty Things in Somerville (now defunct); the Hopalicious APA, by Ale Asylum in Madison; and Marble Brewery’s Red Ale, brewed in Albuquerque. I’m also aging a few bottles of Third Coast Old Ale, an American barleywine available only during the chilly months from Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo, MI. For now, that’s in storage and off-limits for drinking.
Are there any plans for the Smithsonian to expand its Brewing History Initiative after its initial few months?
TM: Yes! This is a three-year project dedicated exclusively to researching, collecting, and programming related to the history of brewing. It will result in a permanent, prominent role for American beer and brewing at NMAH, in our archival collections, public programming, and exhibits.
What are some of your favorite places to eat and drink in DC?
TM: A longtime favorite is 2 Amys for their menu of Italian “little things” and pizzas. I love the Taiwanese and northern Chinese small plates at A&J Restaurant, in Annandale or Rockville. I have to include a shameless plug for the creative scones, cookies, and desserts at Northside Social Coffee & Wine, Lyon Hall, and the Liberty Tavern, all in Clarendon, where my sister Bridie McCulla is executive pastry chef. In terms of places to drink, I just moved back to DC to begin this job and I’ve found a whole new world in terms of beer and spirits. I would love readers’ suggestions of where I should relax at the end of a work week spent studying beer.