Photograph by Michael Stein from the Christian Heurich Brewing Company Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.
About a year ago DC Homebrewers President, Josh Hubner, and I set out to recreate a beer that hadn’t existed in over a century. A DC-brewed lager, pre-prohibition beer, classic American pilsner. In the end we wound up with a beer that is hopefully very similar to the beer that was brewed by the Christian Heurich Brewing Company between the years of 1898 and 1912. Unfortunately, no one is alive today to tell me how our beer stacks up to the original. (Or is there someone? If so, please email firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get you a bottle. Also, good on you for being a 102-year-old who emails.)
This is always the problem with recreating beers that do not exist or are not commercially brewed anymore. If you’re lucky you can find someone who remembers what the beer tasted like, and you can pour her a sample of your recreation and she will say, “bully!” Or, “pure bollocks.” This will make you feel great. Or completely defeated.
There are fantastic records kept in other countries which have prompted some of our favorite beer historians to give us the details, not just on ingredients but on processes (though in most cases modern processes are used in replace of old or outdated ones). Ron Pattison has done a great job with his “Let’s Brew Wednesday” posts, as a homebrewer, these are a great treat. He continues to do great work aiding the Once Upon A Time Series with Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project. Also, this happened.
Beware the blanket statement: “on a whole pre-prohibition American brewers brewed too much to record their processes,” “recently immigrated American brewers were too busy,” and “they just showed up and brewed.” I’m guilty. I’ve said all of these things in conversation before. Or, in reference to the Devils Backbone brew, “the English never made lager!” But history doesn’t work in blanket statements. It works on the individual experiences of many people.
In the case of Christian Heurich, he had endured several fires in his brewery. Many of us (archivists, historians, beer nerds) had always believed that Heurich had suffered setbacks from three fires. While very few have been lucky enough to read Christian Heurich’s translated autobiography, Aus meinem Leben 1842-1934. Von Haina in Thueringen nach Washington in den Vereinigten Staaten von Amerika or roughly: My Life 1842-1934. From Haina in Thuringia to Washington in the United States of America, but on page 64 a reader might be mislead, “the demon fire haunted me three times, I erected fireproof structures which are hard to destroy.”
The incredible staff of the Heurich House Museum has uncovered more fire. I won’t get deep into it but everyone from Assistant Director, Rachel Jerome, to Executive Director, Kim Bender, has done her part to excavate the truth and discover that the Heurichs suffered more than three fires (this information came from the careful scanning of old newspaper articles).
Presumably because of the fires, we don’t have completely accurate logs like some of the breweries in England or the Netherlands. Still, a crafty homebrewer/historian/archivist can piece together a recipe without logs. The recipe was cobbled together despite the firm facts we had. Our facts came from raw ingredients, not receipts on processes or strength. But, sometimes you get lucky, and sometimes the beer gods smile down to reveal a serendipitous turn of events.
Seeing this post validated the recreation of Heurich’s Lager Josh and I brewed. We were very close to the original gravity in that we brewed our lager to an original strength of 1.064, almost exactly the strength of his draught (not the bottled strength but that’s another aricle…).
Because language is fluid and we shouldn’t project a 21st century definition of “light beer” on to a 19th century descriptor. “Light beer” could simply be a comment on the beer’s color. Although keeping within true historical complexity, this beer was “lighter” in alcohol content than the majority of “light beer” today.
Surprisingly absent in our research was mention of Christian Heurich’s favorite beer. Though the man did a lot of travelling. Did the brewmaster favor altbier? Would he say it was Vienna, or Graz, that brewed the best lager in Austria? We know, thanks to page 50 of My Life 1842-1934, Heurich and his wife, “visited the well-known Carl Jacobsen’s brewery” in the summer of 1926. Many of our readers will know who Carl Jacobsen is, but how many Danes know who Christian Heurich is?
I did find an excellent quote in William J. Kelley’s ever illusive, Brewing in Maryland. Interestingly enough the comment comes under the “Cumberland” chapter, as the writing is mostly about Paul Hugo Ritter. Ritter was Heurich’s partner when they first purchased the plant of George Schnell, establishing their DC-based brewery. The entry on Ritter detours for a few paragraphs on Heurich and provides an excellent quote that speaks to Heurich’s taste.
On page 631, Kelley writes, “the aged Heurich resumed his career upon Repeal of Prohibition when he was 90 years old. He had often said his ambition was to produce a fine light beer, and claimed his beer, and that of other American breweries, was as good as any produced in Germany, with an exception, however, which he admitted, of the Pilsener beer made in Czechoslovakia.” I’ll let you guess which hops we used.
Certainly there are people alive who have had Heurich’s well-known brands Senate and Maerzen Lager, but what did it taste like before Prohibition? Certainly at the gravities of 1.0645 and 1.058 in 1891, it was not exactly light in alcohol.
I’ll be back with more research into the pre-prohibition beers of Washington where we’ll discuss more of Christian Heurich’s brewery, as well as the brewery of George Schnell and the beers brewed in DC.