Ben Franklin once said beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. Garrett Peck shows that beer brewers once and still love Washington.
In his latest book on Washington history, Peck’s Capital Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in Washington, D.C. tells the history and people who made a heady glass of ale in town. Monumental Thoughts asks Peck 5+ questions about his must-read book.
1. The book exhaustingly details the history of the city’s brewers, but it seems a forgotten part of our history. Do you agree and why?
Commercial brewing in the DC area goes all the way back to 1770 in Alexandria. That’s earlier than many other cities. We have an extensive, rich history in brewing, and lager beer was absolutely essential to surviving a hot summer here. (In fact, I’d argue that it still is.) But Prohibition destroyed much of the brewing industry, and only the Christian Heurich Brewing Co. successfully reopened. When the Heurich brewery closed in 1956, we were without a brewery for 55 years. People simply forgot that brewing was one the second largest employer in DC after the federal government. And now we marvel at the craft brewing resurgence (the first craft brewers, Port City and DC Brau, opened in 2011), as if somehow locally produced beer is a new thing. It isn’t!
2. When the city allowed brewers to resume, it sparked a micro trend. Do you think the major beers are too hard to overcome or will the locals gained a significant marketplace one day?
D.C. changed its laws in 1991 to allow brewpubs, and the next year Capitol City Brewing opened, becoming the first brewpub in the city since before Prohibition. But it wasn’t until 2011 that the city got its first production breweries (DC Brau was first, followed by a slew of small breweries). People immediately embraced these local brewers. It’s great to see how passionate people have become in a very short time, eager to try the latest creation and to support our local businesses. And there’s been a big resurgence in the number of bars that specialize in craft beer, such as ChurchKey, the Iron Horse and Meridian Pint. You can even get local beer now at Nationals Park to go with your hotdog.
I think the local brewers have made a dent in the marketplace. There’s still plenty of room to grow: beer is half of all the alcoholic beverages that Americans consume. Craft beer is growing rapidly, and it’s taking a lot of market share from the big national breweries, which offer dumbed-down beer. Still, I shake my head at all the hipsters who order Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR). It’s crappy beer, and they know it, but they’re drinking it to be ironic. If only they’d spend their money on drinking quality local beer instead.
3. Tell us more about Fantastic Mrs. Dentz. She seemed like an amazing person in your book. Maybe a future book on just her?
Oh yes, Mrs. Katherine Dentz. She was the first documented woman commercial brewer in D.C.; she ran a small brewery in Georgetown in the 1870s to early 1880s. Her brewer husband died, leaving her as a 25-year old widow, and she did what she had to do to put bread on the table for her small children. I found her story so compelling. She was also in constant legal trouble, as she broke the law numerous times, selling beer and cigars on Sunday in an era of blue laws. Her attorney was one of her best friends, tried to marry her, and probably fathered one of her children. It’d be great if someone wrote a book about her. It’d need a lot more research: what I dug up on her was largely through the newspapers of the time. I couldn’t find when she died or where she’s buried.
I should add that women in brewing was not a new thing: women were the brewers for much of human history (and pre-history), as it was a cottage industry. Only when brewing left the home to become a commercial produced beverage did men take over.
4. Christian Heurich also seems like a compelling person as the city’s major brewer more than a century ago. Tell us something that’s not in the book.
Christian Heurich’s story is pretty incredible. He was the largest brewer in the city with about 50 percent market share. After suffering several fires at his Dupont Circle brewery, he decided to massively rebuild – with a huge, 500,000 barrel a year brewery in Foggy Bottom, right along the Potomac River. It was where the Kennedy Center stands today. This brewery opened in 1895, and was built of concrete and steel so it couldn’t burn down. When it was demolished in 1961, the ice house alone took three days of dynamiting to take it down. These were buildings built for the ages.
Heurich himself was quite the entrepreneur. He invested heavily in real estate, a wise move as D.C.’s population was growing, and between strong beer sales and development he became very rich. Heurich’s mansion, the Heurich House Museum (also known as the “Brewmaster’s Castle”) on Dupont Circle, is our lasting legacy to historic brewing in DC. And incredibly, Heurich died in 1945, just shy of his 103rd birthday. Longevity seems to run in the family: his youngest daughter, Karla, died in January 2014 at the age of 106.
5. You’ve worked behind the bar. Are Washingtonians beer drinkers or more for the hard stuff and wine? What’s the most popular request?
Actually, I haven’t worked behind the bar (except at home when I throw a party). But I always watch to see what people are ordering, and it really depends on the bar and its demographics. D.C. has long been known as a cocktail and wine town, largely because of the absence of good beer choices until recently, but I’ve seen a pronounced shift since the Great Recession. Beer is an affordable luxury, cheaper than wine by the glass, and often you can have two beers for the price of one martini. Overall, I’d say that D.C. matches what the rest of the country drinks. That is: men tend to prefer beer, women prefer wine, and both equally like cocktails. Though you definitely see more women drinking beer these days.
5+. What’s the next book?
I’m working on a history of Walt Whitman in Washington, D.C. He was the poet laureate of the Civil War, volunteered for two years as a one-man USO to help hospitalized soldiers, got hired as a federal clerk, and composed poems that would finally put him on the literary map during his decade in the nation’s capital (1862-1873). I’m hoping to have the book out by spring 2015. Whitman’s partner, Peter Doyle, was in Ford’s Theatre and witnessed Lincoln’s assassination. Next year, 2015, is the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death and the end of the Civil War.