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New Wave Of D.C. Brews Draws From Tradition Going Back Centuries

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An 1879 ad touts lager beer as a healthy, family-friendly beverage.
Library of Congress
An 1879 ad touts lager beer as a healthy, family-friendly beverage.

The Washington area has been experiencing quite the beer — and beer-brewing — renaissance since 2011. Bill Stewart of Bardo Brewpub in Northeast D.C. has referred to this resurgence as "Beer 2.0.” Because as local historian Garrett Peck will tell you: D.C. already experienced Beer 1.0 a pretty long time ago.

“It's interesting to see in D.C., everybody in recent memory forgets that we had this lengthy brewing past that went all the way back to 1770,” says Peck.

The Nationals Stadium parking lot H/I was once the site of Dr. Cornelius Cunningham’s Washington Brewery. (Garrett Peck)

A brewery by any other name...

And this “lengthy brewing past” is the subject of Peck’s new book, Capital Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in Washington, D.C. I recently met up with Peck at quite the "headily historic" location in Southeast D.C.: a parking lot between the Nationals Ballpark and the D.C. Water Pumping Station.

“This was the site of the Washington Brewery,” Peck says. “This was on the coastline when it first opened up, and then gradually all the land south of here — eventually about a block further south — has been infilled.

“But when the brewery first opened up in 1805, it was right on the water itself. It had a wharf and everything,” Peck says.

An English doctor named Cornelius Cunningham opened the place, and it continued brewing beer all the way until 1836. But lest you think that was the end of "The Washington Brewery," as Peck points out in his book, that name showed up at a variety of beer-making operations around town.

“The Washington Brewery was this quintessential name,” Peck explains. “Cunningham founded the very first one, and the very last Washington Brewery was in the 1990s; there was a very short-lived contract brewer that had picked up the name. But other than Christian Heurich, who is our best known brewer in D.C., it’s certainly the longest lasting brewing name.”

Not that all the Washington Breweries were related: they were different companies in different locations.

“It was such a great name that one brewery would shut down, there would be a couple years gap, and then suddenly someone else would rename their brewery as the Washington Brewery, because the name had credibility,” Peck says.

Despite D.C.’s long brewing past, Peck writes in his book that the District’s first brewer was actually in Alexandria, Va.: Andrew Wales, who started brewing in 1770.

“Of course, then Alexandria gets incorporated into the District of Columbia in 1791, which makes the Wales the first brewer in the District of Columbia,” Peck explains. “[He’s] not the first brewer in the city of Washington, but rather in the greater District of Columbia.”

The Heurich House Museum (a.k.a. The Brewmaster’s Castle) near Dupont Circle is Washington’s link to its brewing past.

Boom time for D.C. brews

Moving forward in time, we come to the Civil War, which Peck describes as “a boom time for brewing” in Washington, because the city became a “huge garrison” for soldiers.

“So the city practically exploded with breweries,” Peck recounts. “The Civil War then becomes this fundamental moment in American drinking history, because before the war, Americans — especially men — were drinking whiskey. But after the war, now they’re drinking lager beer.”

Thus began what Peck refers to as “the gilded age” of D.C. brewing. In the 1870s, several inventive brewers came to prominence, such as Robert Portner in Alexandria.

“You can thank brewers for the invention of air conditioning and ice-making machinery,” Peck says. “And that came about largely because Portner was quite an innovator. Once you had this machinery invented, though, you could start to brew lager year round. But what that meant was that you had to have the capital to be able to afford all this machinery."

Consequently, smaller family brewers were squeezed out, to the point that D.C. had just six big breweries by the 1890s, including the Consumers Brewing Company in Alexandria County (now Arlington, Va.), Robert Portner’s Tivoli Brewery in Alexandria, the Christian Heurich Brewing Company and Abner-Drury Brewing Company in Foggy Bottom, and the Washington Brewery on Capitol Hill.

“Each [brewery was] able to brew at least 100,000 barrels of beer per year,” Peck explains. “And Christian Heurich of course was the largest of all the brewers. He had half the capacity in the city alone; his brewery could brew 500,000 barrels a year.”

As a result, Peck says, “the other breweries kind of ganged up against him and tried to force him to raise the price of beer because they were all being squeezed out by his capacity in the market.”

This incident became known as The Beer War of 1904, and Peck says it ended when D.C.’s “faced up against a much larger nemesis”: the Temperance Movement.

Bluejacket is one of the new production craft breweries that have sprouted up in D.C. in the past several years. Pictured here: The Betty (left), an “imperial apple crumble ale,” and The Dalmation (right), a “strong vanilla blond with cacao nibs.”

Prohibition chills D.C. beer industry

At that point, the breweries’ main outlet for selling beer were the city’s many beer gardens and saloons.

“On an annual basis when the beer garden or saloon would renew its license, they would have to go before the Board,” Peck explains. “And so of course, there would be a member there of the Anti-Saloon League to challenge them. And most of the breweries were simply just shut down entirely.”

Peck does note that two breweries did manage to survive Prohibition: Christian Heurich and Abner Drury. The latter did wind up closing within a couple of years, but the former stayed open until 1956.

“Heurich himself had died in 1945, just before his 103rd birthday, which is pretty amazing,” Peck says. “His family continued brewing for another decade or so and the local brewing market was really petering out then. The national beer market — Budweiser, Pabst and Schlitz — had really taken over. Heurich is now a little guy [who] just couldn't compete against the national breweries.”

As for what became of D.C.’s many breweries, Garrett Peck says with most of them, you'd never know beer was once made on that site. For instance, Trader Joe’s in Alexandria was once the Tivoli Brewery. In Capitol Hill, the present site of Stuart-Hobson Middle School once had a Washington Brewery. The Safeway on 14th Street SE was the National Capital Brewing site.

Again, Christian Heurich’s brewery was the last one standing. It shut its doors in January 1956, and as Peck points out, D.C. went 55 years until another brewery opened up. In the interim, we did see a few brewpubs crop up, including Capital City.

But it wasn’t until 2011 that Port City opened, followed shortly by DC Brau, Three Stars, Chocolate City, and a number of others.

“We’ve had this wonderful flurry of production breweries and brewpubs,” Peck says with a smile. “Essentially in less than three years’ time, it’s been a wonderful avalanche or cascade of beer."

“It’s been really cool to see how much Washingtonians have really embraced local beer now. We are not starved for choices any more. It’s a good problem to have, you know?” he says.

Music: "Beer Barrel Polka" by Frankie Yankovic and His Yanks from Complete Standard Transcription Disc 1

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