Participants can talk about that first book that caught their attention, which brought them to get interested in beer; or maybe about books that helped develop their local beer scene. There’s also the -bad- role of books that regrettably misinform readers because their authors did not do their work properly. There are many different ways to tackle this topic.
In this world of misattribution, lack of legitimate sources, and not a fact checker in sight, it’s amazing anything is correct anymore.
But then, with longer-form formats like books it sets our hearts at ease to know there are beer historians like ourselves that take historical research VERY seriously. One of those historians is our good friend Garrett Peck. With this post we are writing to the theme of “books that helped develop their local beer scene.”
While Garrett’s 2014 book “Capital Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in Washington, D.C.” didn’t necessarily develop our local scene it did go above and beyond to document the history of the local brewing scene in our nation’s capital. In cataloging that long history of beer, DC’s scene does feel a new sense of legitimacy. For all of the “firsts” that our scene has experienced in the past 5+ years (first production brewery, first cidery/winery, first distillery), We still have an pre-prohibition OG history to celebrate.
DC is by nature a transient city. Representatives are re-elected. Representatives are unseated. New staffers come into town. There is the Presidential Transition Act of 1963 and the Presidential Transition Act 2000. And every summer new interns, “hill rats” as they’re endearingly referred to, flood the district and look for cheap housing. Yet it seems every year affordable housing gets less and less. Gentrification some call it. Others call it ethnic cleansing.
Not to veer too far from beer, Garrett’s book is important because it has informed many brewing projects that are of the utmost import to us as beer historians. We have recreated beers that the historic Washington Brewery at Navy Yard produced in 1812. We have also recreated the lager of the largest-ever and most successful DC-brewery with a pre-prohibition style lager.
Garrett’s book asks big questions like “who was the first Brewer to make lager in Washington?” While this may seem trivial to the casual drinker it is of dire import to beer historians today. Brian Alberts, a PhD Candidate at Purdue University, is currently exploring the rise of lager breweries in the Midwest as a lens to explore how new German immigrants navigated the market revolution and dealt with assimilation into American culture.
While pre-prohibition style lagers gain popularity, and are generally indicative of a beer brewed with rice and/or corn, there were of course all-malt pre-prohibition lagers. Finally, pre-prohibition connotes a time as the genesis of lager brewing is not a monolith. The time frame of lager beer brewing is different in every state. Garrett’s research pinpoints the 1850s as the decade of the very first brewing of lager beer in Washington, D.C. And that means that a pre-prohibition lager in Washington, D.C. could be 160-years-old or 99-years-old at the youngest. The beer brewed in 1856 was called “lager” just as it was in 1917 (the last year of pre-prohibition brewing in Washington, D.C.) but it would be naive to think that the means of production like raw ingredients, brewing materials, and fermentation practices remain unchanged. Lager is not a monolith and neither should the brewing practices and flavor profiles of modern pre-prohibition lagers be all the same.
Garret’s book informs us that the District’s first brewers were immigrants. The first brewers in DC were Scottish, English and eventually German. His book does a fantastic job of documenting the earliest Brewers in DC. But perhaps the most important thing in Garret’s writing is the thirst it imparts to search for further answers to questions as important as “who brewed DC’s first lager?”
While I don’t want to give away Garrett’s book I will post what he writes in regards to his open-ended question:
A June 1856 article in the Evening Star noted that Joseph Davison, owner of the Washington Brewery, had brewed 20,000 gallons of lager the previous winter, meaning that he probably started in late 1855. Davison also advertised in the 1858 Boyd’s Directory that he was brewing lager in addition to his English-style ales.
Charles Gerecke advertised in the Evening Star in November and December 1856 that he was brewing lager at his brewery at Pennsylvania and Nineteenth Street. Gerecke then disappears from Washington’s historical brewing record. He was probably related to the Gerecke family that was importing lager from Philadelphia in the years’ prior, whose advertisements pop up frequently in that same newspaper. (Peck, 34)
It is likely that the first brewer of lager was not even a German, but an enterprising brewer of English ales. Certainly, the story of immigrants assimilating into American culture is classic, but so is the story of appropriating immigrant culture for financial gain. But this blip does not hide a much deeper German-American brewing tradition heralded by DC’s Christian Heurich, one of the longest brewing and most successful of his generation.
Very few people today equate DC as a beer town. But with a closer studying of the facts, DC as a brewing center does have deep historical roots. If indeed, DC’s first lager was brewed in 1855, that’s only 15 years after what is generally accepted as the first lager brewed in America. That distinction “first lager in America” belongs to John Wagner a Bavarian immigrant of Philadelphia.
So, America’s first lager was brewed in Philadelphia 176 years ago. And DC’s first lager was brewed 161 years ago. At least until another beer historian uncovers an earlier lager elsewhere (we’ll be looking).