Historian Theresa McCulla Embarks on the Smithsonian’s American Brewing History Initiative

Last Call by | Apr 2017 | Issue #123
Art by Nathan Arizona

Theresa McCulla doesn’t have typical historian problems. For one, “I don’t need to work to interest Americans in beer,” she jokes. There’s also no lack of resources for her collection, with the National Museum of American History’s archives at her fingertips. In her new role overseeing the American Brewing History Initiative, McCulla has been sifting through those collections, from early 20th century sheet music of songs related to beer, to import-export records of hops shipments. Soon, she’ll be traveling the country, collecting oral histories and objects from beer industry folk. But while she might have unprecedented access to rare beer artifacts, McCulla still gets excited over a circa-1995 bottlecapper.

The history of beer offers perspective on many threads of American society and culture. Which are of most interest to you?
Through the lens of brewing, we can explore the histories of immigration, urbanization, expansion of transportation networks, and consumer culture. … I’ve always taken a personal and professional interest in cooking and the kind of tactile work involved in making food and drink. Many kinds of objects can tell the history of brewing from that angle, whether you’re talking about an early 20th century saccharometer … or a capping device used by a late 20th century homebrewer. Both of those kinds of objects were handled by real people in very different historical eras, and they can tell bigger stories about brewing in America.

What questions do you hope to research as you go through the archives?
I think it’s fair to say that beer has a largely masculine identity in America today, and much of that originates from the waves of immigrant German entrepreneurs who were mostly men. … But it’s true that women and enslaved people brewed beer before them in the home, and some Native Americans brewed even earlier. … [We] think of major Midwestern cities like Milwaukee or Cincinnati or St. Louis when we think of beer, but brewing was really crucial to the economy in virtually all American cities. … So within that context, my work will look, in part, to return diversity of people and places to American brewing history.

If you had to create an exhibit capturing your own relationship to beer in three objects, what would they be?
The first of those would have to be some kind of homebrewing equipment, perhaps a bottlecapper, because growing up my dad brewed beer at home … and I remember standing in our kitchen with our capping device. The second would be a chair from the terrace at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a beautiful place to enjoy a beer. … Those chairs speak to a sense of regional identity and communal experience that is such a hallmark of beer consumption in America. … Third, I have a metal thumb drive that doubles as a bottle opener. While I was conducting my dissertation research in New Orleans, which was on the history of the food industry there, I saved literally hundreds if not thousands of images of 19th and 20th century archival documents on the thumb drive. And at the end of the day of research, I used the other end of the drive to open a bottle of [Abita] beer when I was back in my apartment processing the images I’d saved that day. 

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