Ever wonder what beer was like in Washington before DC Brau brought brewing back to the Capital in 2011? Grab a pint with local historian Garrett Peck. The beer scholar’s new book, “Capital Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in Washington, D.C.,” traces the area’s beer beginnings back to 1770, and explains why, after Prohibition, it took decades for the District to start brewing again.
D.C., Alexandria and Arlington had numerous pre-Prohibition breweries. Did you uncover any you didn’t know existed while researching?
What was really cool was finding how many there were during the Civil War. It was boom times for beer. You had all these soldiers coming here and D.C.’s population exploded. A big minority of the soldiers were German Americans, so the Civil War really becomes this seminal moment in American drinking history because beforehand, Americans largely drank whiskey. Afterward, they drank lager.
Before the Civil War, ales were most Washingtonians’ beer of choice. Lagers caught on later, because they take twice as long to brew as ales.
It also took this wave of German immigrants to the city, who introduced it to us. Philadelphia was the first city that began brewing lager and it became a major exporter of lager. At some point, all the brewers realized, “We can do this ourselves.” Around 1864, 1865, all the brewers start making it, and it caught on so quickly. People were just nuts about it, because it was such a new thing and it was just the right thing for D.C. summers.
Why did it take so long for D.C. to embrace craft brewing?
With [prominent D.C. brewery] Heurich closing in 1956, the local community and culture toward beer essentially petered out. You’ve also got high real estate costs — that’s a big factor.
But it was Prohibition that doomed local breweries.
People had really shifted their drinking habits toward liquor because liquor was so much more profitable for the bootleggers to bring in. After Prohibition, the ones that survived were the big national brewers, and they had access to the national media markets that emerged after Prohibition. The big national magazines and radio became huge and [marketing] cost a lot of money, so these little guys couldn’t compete. In response to all those great Anheuser-Busch and Schlitz advertisements, people who once proudly drank local began drinking Bud.
In the book, you note that around the turn of the 20th century, local breweries had the combined capacity to make 1 million barrels of beer a year, but were only producing about 250,000 barrels.
These guys all built these huge breweries to grow into and they never really got to because the temperance movement came along and shut them down.
How do those numbers compare to today?
Our two largest brewers are [Alexandria’s] Port City and DC Brau and they are both at 12,000-13,000 barrels … so the two of them together is about 25,000 barrels. Chocolate City is 1,000 barrels, most of the brew pubs are about 1,000. We’re at maybe 12-13 percent the capacity of what the city’s peak was before Prohibition. But a lot of that was mass-produced beer and the stuff these guys are producing is not mass-produced — it’s craft beer.
Visit Garrett Peck’s website for a list of his upcoming local book and beer events.