Last Call for The District's Hometown Beer
Saturday, March 4, 2006
It's a sad week in Foggy Bottom and in all of Washington, a time to hoist one to the memory of the old German brewmaster Christian Heurich, to the glory days when scores of American cities boasted their own breweries, to the idea that each place deserved its own taste.
The Olde Heurich Brewing Co. -- successor to Washington's last surviving local brewery and maker of Foggy Bottom, Old Georgetown and Senate beers -- this week announced its demise. The last beers were shipped last week.
Olde Heurich -- unlike the original Heurich, which closed in 1956 and had a massive plant on the site of what is today the Kennedy Center -- did not make its beers here in the District. Rather, the beer was brewed on contract by a company in upstate New York, using the old Heurich recipes.
Throughout the 20 years in which he sold beer here, Gary Heurich -- Christian's grandson -- hoped to build his company to the point that he could give the District a real live brewery right in the city once again. It never happened, but Foggy Bottom was as close to a Washington beer as existed in recent years. (Sure, there are plenty of microbrews at various local watering holes, but Heurich was a direct link to one of the city's great heritage businesses.)
Gary Heurich's statement is a little bitter -- he believes Washington owed his company and his product a bit more loyalty. "The Washington area is unique among major urban centers in its relative lack of a hometown spirit," he wrote, "and as a native Washingtonian, this is something that is deeply and personally disappointing."
Certainly, Heurich played his part in fostering civic life in Washington. And, in fact, many people here showed some love in return, not only by buying his beer, but also by pushing it as a distinctly local item. The first concession stand at RFK Stadium to feature local items in the early part of the Nationals' inaugural season last year was the brewpub stocked with Heurich beers.
But as many beer lovers said this week, the idea that people should buy Foggy Bottom simply because of its heritage doesn't fit well with our capitalist system. Heurich agrees: "As a fifth-generation Washingtonian, I have the constitutional right to be disappointed," he said. "I would never ask anybody to buy my beer just because we're local. If you don't like it, don't drink it. But all things being equal, support the local team."
This is a rough time for Heurich. He has spent much of his time in recent months trying to save his grandfather's house, a stately Victorian mansion just south of Dupont Circle. The future of the "Brewmaster's Castle" remains in doubt, despite a strong public response to Heurich's appeal for help in staving off the bankers.
Heurich loves history, and especially the history of Washington and his family's business here. Christian Heurich, a German immigrant who would become the largest employer of Germans in Washington, lived to be 102, and for a good portion of his life, there were breweries dotted all around the city -- nearly 20 in all. Despite Washington's reputation as a city that never had much industry, there was indeed a strong merchant class, and Heurich and his fellow brewers played the essential civic and cultural roles that brewers have played in many American cities.
Baltimore had its National Bohemian ("Natty Bo"), Pittsburgh its Iron City ("IC"), Milwaukee its Pabst Blue Ribbon ("PBR" to the hipsters just discovering it) and Miller High Life, the "champagne of beers." Generations of New Yorkers were instructed by radio jingles to "think of Rheingold whenever you buy beer." Most once-dominant local breweries collapsed as national brands grabbed market share, in large part through advertising on sports programs on the new TV networks in the 1950s.
Some of those old local brands made comebacks when the microbrew movement fermented in the 1980s and '90s. But local brewers have not regained the success that made people like Christian Heurich such important figures.
The Brewmaster's Castle was a salon for musicians and businesspeople at its peak in the early 20th century. Heurich had a chance at one point to buy a large piece of land that had been part of George Washington's Mount Vernon estate, and the brewer bought it for the sole purpose of donating it to the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, making it a part of the historic preserve. The Heurich legacy lives on at Arena Stage, where one of the theaters is named the Old Vat, so dubbed because it was originally located along the Potomac where the old Heurich brewery stood.
The Heurich brewery even had its own gym at one point; Red Auerbach played there with the Heurich factory team. By the end this week, Gary Heurich was down to three employees at Olde Heurich.
Heurich plans to keep a hand in the beer business, but not here. Rather, he plans to open an inn at Lake Champlain in upstate New York, where he will now live most of the time.
"It's a sad thing," Heurich said. "I kept it going because I was dedicated to the idea that we should have a hometown thing. But we lost money every year for 20 years."