DC’s Lagers of Yore

Last week, multimedia reporter Martin Austermuhle covered a fascinating development on a Capitol Hill ‘Shotgun House’ which was built around 1850. The article is a quick read and beer is not the central focus but it’s worth excavating the article. We wanted to try to put the information from the article into the context of DC beer in the mid 19th and early 20th Centuries. The article states, in a caption, “the team of archaeologists found a variety of beer bottles, including a Schlitz bottle from 1911 and an ale bottle” supposedly from the 1850s. Though no mention is made of the provenance of the bottle or how that was determined.

Excavation of the historic residence was spearheaded by Ruth Trocolli who is the official D.C. archaeologist. Trocolli has traced back the house’s earliest resident as German immigrant Ernst Tungel, who purchased it in 1853. The house remained in the family for the next 40 years. When Tungel bought the house in 1853, brewing in DC was 62 years old. Andrew Wales and his wife Margaret, DC’s first commercial brewer, set up shop in 1791. Wales’ brewery was located in Alexandria, which was incorporated into the District in 1791.
Moving right along we ask you to ponder the years of 1853-1893. These were boom times for DC and DC beer. But they were also boom times for the nation and not necessarily in the sense of a bullish market. 1853 was eight years before the start of the civil war, and lest we forget a massive number of immigrants made up the union army: 177,000 German born and 144,000 born in Ireland according to these sources. More than a third of the city’s inhabitants today.
Mr. Tungel was German born and by the time Mr. Tungel’s property purchase turned 17, in 1870, Washington DC had 13 breweries. More than it has today.
Walter H. Voigt Brewing Industry Collection, 1935-1967, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.
Walter H. Voigt Brewing Industry Collection, 1935-1967, Archives Center, National Museum of American History
The quote that drew us in was Trocolli’s discussion of the house in its place and time:
 
“We’re finding out about German immigrant community that sort of flew under the radar. They had a brewery down the street, they were buying and selling property to and from each other, and they had their own institutions. This was the fringe of the city, it was still the country at the time, there were farms nearby. And we really don’t know much about this community,” Trocolli said.
It is unclear from the article which year or which brewery Trocolli is talking about. But to say there was “a brewery down the street” is irrefutable. But perhaps a more accurate statement would be ‘there were breweries all over town’ or ‘many streets led to breweries.’
George Beckert brewer and plasterer of Smithsonian Institute? Daily evening star. (Washington [D.C.]), 29 Aug. 1854. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress
George Beckert brewer and plasterer of Smithsonian Institution? Daily evening star. (Washington [D.C.]), 29 Aug. 1854. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress
It is difficult to find record but we know from Garrett Peck’s Capital Beer that Beckert’s Garden, a beer garden which also had a small brewery, stood on Fourteenth Street, NE between D & E Streets, SE from 1850-1859. This is likely the one Trocolli is referring to.
George Beckert brewer and buffalo-owner? Evening star. (Washington, D.C.), 04 Sept. 1857. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
George Beckert brewer and buffalo-owner? Evening star. (Washington, D.C.), 04 Sept. 1857. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
Various owners brewed on the property up until its last iteration when it closed as the National Capital Brewing Co. in 1917. While Beckert’s name has largely faded from the history books, he is potentially the first lager beer brewer in Washington DC, and this is a BIG DEAL to brewers, cultural historians, immigration historians, German/American ethnographers, and any other person who believes the study of beer history and beer culture should be taken seriously.
National Capital Lager Beer in 1914. The Washington times. (Washington [D.C.]), 12 Nov. 1914. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
National Capital Lager Beer in 1914. The Washington times. (Washington [D.C.]), 12 Nov. 1914. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
Further west was the Island Brewery which lasted until 1858 at Maine Avenue between 4-1/2 and Sixth Streets, SW.
Another brewery not quite two miles to the north at what is today Stuart-Hobson Middle School. It started as the Juenemann Brewery and lasted from 1858-1863. It then became the Mount Vernon Lager Beer Brewery from 1863-to 1886, it was Albert Carry’s Brewery until 1889, and then finally the Washington Brewery from 1889 to 1917.
Washington Brewing Co. Culmbacher lager. Evening star. (Washington, D.C.), 25 April 1903. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
Washington Brewing Co. Culmbacher lager. Evening star. (Washington, D.C.), 25 April 1903. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
You’ll notice that many of these breweries closed in 1917. This was the year that prohibition was enacted in DC. Ask a dozen historians why prohibition happened and you might get a dozen answers. But we believe the following: xenophobia and the entrance of the US in WWI helped quash much of the beer drinking culture, both customs and regulations, prior to prohibition. In the easy-to-imagine  scenarios, many Americans feared Germans. Other xenophobic displays included mobs who “harassed anyone who opposed the war, especially those of German stock, but also socialists, pacifists, and conscientious objectors.” Though she may call herself dubious in the role of expert, we have to agree with Dr. J. Nikol Beckham that prohibition was always racialized.
Looking back at the ridiculousness of the temperance movement, we cede that the prohibitionists did get one assertion right: people in the early 20th Century loved to drink beer.
So much so that in 1915, according to source material, Washington, DC, brewed 169,973 barrels. According to another source this large quantity was brewed by only four breweries. And nearly all of it lager. Only one brewer is listed as making ale, and the owner of that brewery was a German immigrant no less! 1915’s number, 169,973 barrels, makes 2015’s number seem insignificant. 29,727 barrels were brewed in 2015. A quick bit of math shows that the 1915 brewers made 140,246 barrels more than DC’s modern day brewers.
It is unclear if the 1915 numbers include massive out-of-town breweries like Schlitz who were sending beer into the District to be bottled for District consumption. One bottling agent for Schlitz was Samuel C. Palmer.
Mike Cianciosi is a font of knowledge and has a great site which gives input as to what Palmer was bottling, amongst other things, cider, Belfast Ginger Ale, and Jos. Schlitz Brewing Co.’s Milwaukee Lager Beer.

Perhaps if the massive nationally-shipping breweries numbers were taken out it would look like a more fair fight between DC’s brewers in 1915 and 2015. But, the following ad states “Jos. Schlitz Brewing Co. 3d & Randolph Place, N.E. Washington, D.C” yet there’s no evidence that an actual brewery which produced Schlitz’ lager in DC existed. It was most likely a bottling plant. Still, it is important to remember the massive influence lager beer has had, and fortunately continues to have, in our nation’s capitol.

Schlitz, brewed in the dark? Evening star. (Washington, D.C.), 10 July 1912. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
Schlitz, brewed in the dark? Evening star. (Washington, D.C.), 10 July 1912. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

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