By Tom Natan, Capital Cooking Contributor
Beer is a very old beverage. It was brewed in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, and some of the earliest writings in existence refer to it. Today, beer has found new life with craft brewers making what they like -- and forcing the big national breweries to go beyond the lowest common denominator of the light lagers that took over the U.S. in the mid-20th century.
The Washington, DC area has a long history of making alcohol, especially beer, back from the earliest English settlers, through the decades of German immigration, the Civil War, and into today's craft revolution. Author and historian Garrett Peck recounts the story in Capital Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in Washington, D.C. [Full disclosure: Garrett is an old friend and a customer of my wine business.] Beer is intertwined with the history of the area. While Capital Beer is likely to be of more immediate interest to beer lovers, even non-beer enthusiasts can enjoy reading about the changes in drinking habits that were shaped by geography, immigration, and politics.
According to Peck, the history of beer brewing in the DC area followed the trend of the northeast/mid-Atlantic region as a whole from the 1770s on. Settlers and residents of English descent wanted their beer, which was a source of nutrition as well as a beverage. But the hot, humid DC summers called for something more thirst-quenching than the relatively heavy English-style ales brewed at the time. Beer was also heavily taxed while whiskey wasn't, so things weren't looking too promising for a while. (It's funny to think of beer as being more expensive than whiskey, but we're not talking about a fine, barrel aged drink here, more like moonshine.)
Beer got a helping hand from German immigrants in the first quarter of the 19th century, as they brought their beer-making skills with them. In 1840, the first brewery making German-style lager opened in Philadelphia. The lighter, more refreshing lager quickly swept through and became the predominant style of beer.
Capital Beer explains how the DC area -- which wasn't a brewing powerhouse in the late 18th century -- became one some 50 years later thanks to lager and its special requirements for production. Lager needs about six months of cold storage for fermentation and conditioning. Before the invention of mechanical ice-making, lager could only be made in places that had cool enough temperatures in fall and winter. While we don't think of DC as having really cold winters (if you ignore this year), it was cool enough for lager. The region became the southernmost point of lager production in the eastern U.S. Combine that with easy railroad access for distribution, and the lager business boomed as beer could be shipped to the south by rail. While the Civil War brought north-south trade to a halt, the massing of troops in DC more than made up for any drop in business from southern states.
It's hard to imagine DC as a city with thriving beer gardens, but as Peck describes, it was, amazingly, even into the 20th century. Brewery-owned beer gardens flourished, often featuring cheap or even free food as an incentive to drink. But that didn't last. Prohibition came after World War I, and DC-area breweries shut down or had to do other things to survive. The Heurich brewery, located along the Potomac where the Kennedy Center currently sits, took advantage of its massive ice-making equipment to keep the doors open. But prohibition gave people a taste for hard liquor, which has more alcohol per ounce and makes for easier transport. It was a hard recovery after prohibition for Heurich and the other breweries, and they couldn't compete with nationally distributed beer brands. By the mid-1950s, there were no breweries left in the region.
The craft beer movement that began in the 1980s revitalized DC-area brewing in the 21st century. Peck has come to know many of the area brewers personally, and he's skilled at profiling them and their businesses, as well as weaving their stories into the history of the area. For me, this was the most vibrant part of Capital Beer, and it makes me wish there was an organized tour so I could visit them all and sample their wares. (Perhaps Peck, who regularly leads tours of DC landmarks related to prohibition, will start one.)
Peck has written about DC's alcoholic past before, in Prohibition in Washington, D.C.: How Dry We Weren't. The District, which was supposed to be a model "dry" city for the nation, was instead awash in speakeasies and colorful lawbreakers. Capital Beer doesn't have the same kind of characters, since lawbreakers often seem more interesting than the everyday, law-abiding brewers who made beer in the D.C. area from the 1770s on. Christian Heurich, who would have to be considered DC's Beer Baron, was an astute businessman, but was also a model of rectitude. Add to this that there are a lot of different brewery names and people to keep track of here, and the reading isn't always easy, at least at first.
Still, breweries are businesses, and very little has changed regarding business drama in 240 years. Peck recounts how the Coote brothers, who owned the Washington Brewery in the 1820s, aired their finger-pointing business travails in the local newspaper -- just the way the Haft family did with Total Beverage a few years ago. And the book's account of the trade war over beer prices in the early 20th century echoes the infighting we saw recently with the lawsuits over e-books and price fixing. It turns out that a beer glass isn't a bad window onto history after all.