History isn’t always found in Ken Burns documentaries and textbooks; sometimes it’s in your pint glass, or so says the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Beer scholar Theresa McCulla is working to chronicle the United States’ long relationship with our favorite happy hour beverage as part of their Brewing History Initiative.Despite my personal bias toward McCulla — she revealed one of her favorite spots for enjoying a brew is my alma mater’s Memorial Union Terrace — she will certainly prove to be an integral part of the Smithsonian’s work. While there may not be “National Treasure” -esque secret map embedded in your Hamm’s can, beer still acts like a portal to another historical dimension.
“We really feel quite strongly that beer is a very effective lens into much bigger questions about American history,” McCulla said in an interview with Smithsonian Magazine. “If you look at the history of beer, you can understand stories related to immigration and industrialization and urbanization. You can look at advertising and the history of consumer culture and changing consumer taste. Brewing is integrated into all facets of American history.”
McCulla’s comments ring especially true as brewing has grown astronomically in the United States in recent decades. Though small-scale brewing has been around since the earliest colonizers, Pabst receiving that blue ribbon in 1893 (for his horses nonetheless) signaled a long streak of beer barons controlling the industry, many of which managed to survive Prohibition. Few today recognize Velveeta as Pabst Brewing Company’s cheesy recipe that helped them scrape by during that pesky 18th Amendment.
Subsequently through the 1980s, the American beer industry was dominated by a select brewing juggernauts, who presented their light fare in simple cans and without much variation. In the last few decades, however, craft brewing has created a diverse market and even more diverse products. In fact, a recent Harris Poll revealed beer as the nation’s favorite alcoholic beverage. This latest boom makes beer’s history seem as important — and present — as ever.
In addition to educating the general public about alcohol’s unique role in American society, McCulla’s work could also be useful to contemporary creators. Will brewing history, with its inevitables ebbs and flows, repeat itself? It was not so long ago that large brewing operations began buying or merging with others, and smaller breweries consequently suffered. Or, are micro and craft breweries here to stay? Time will tell.