Guest blogger Garrett Peck
If you’ve been to the Bier Baron, you’ve seen the huge collection of Breweriana – advertisements, beer cans and whatnot – that line the walls. These are artifacts that help document the DC area’s rich brewing tradition. Far less common are organic artifacts, such as wooden beer barrels; they deteriorate quickly. The fleeting nature of organic artifacts is why the discovery of a wooden beer barrel in Alexandria, Virginia has so captured the imagination of beer lovers, historians, and beer-loving historians.
The barrel was recovered during an archaeological investigation at the site of the Shuter’s Hill Brewery in 1993 – 1994 in advance of the construction of the Carlyle complex in the 2000 block of Duke Street. "The barrel was excavated from a subterranean passageway that led from the brewery to the beer cellar,” said Paul Nasca, an archaeologist and collections manager at Alexandria Archaeology, which runs a small but illuminating museum on the third floor of the Torpedo Factory (105 N. Union Street #327). "The passage and cellar contained 7-8 feet of water when first exposed during excavation. It’s because of this wet environment that the barrel was so well preserved.”
The beer barrel is itself a bit of a mystery. A quarter the size of a standard 32-gallon barrel, it is stamped W.B.C. WASH.DC, or the Washington Brewery Company, Washington, D.C. How did this barrel, owned by a DC brewery, make its way across the Potomac River to the underground cellars at Shuter’s Hill? "As with most archeological artifacts, they pose more questions than they answer,” said Nasca. Alexandria Archaeology completed a report about the brewery after completing the site excavation.
Alexandria Archaeology dates the barrel to the Washington Brewery that operated from 1889 to 1917. (There were six Washington Breweries that operated at seven different locations in DC’s history; this particular location is now the site of Stuart Hobson Middle School on Capitol Hill). The Shuter’s Hill Brewery opened in Alexandria’s West End in 1858, and was the first Alexandria brewery to produce lager. It had a short three-year overlap with the Washington Brewery: Shuter’s Hill burned down in 1892. Thus the barrel must be from the 1889 – 1892 period.
Paul Nasca of Alexandria Archaeology shows off the Washington Brewery barrel excavated at the Shuter’s Hill Brewery. Garrett Peck
The Friends of Alexandria Archaeology are embarking on a “Save the Barrel Campaign” to conserve and restore this very rare artifact of our brewing past. It is calling on the public’s help to raise funds to preserve the beer barrel. On April 9, Alexandria is holding its annual Spring2Action Campaign, a day-long fundraiser for city-wide charities. The Alexandria Archaeology Museum is generously offering to match up to $1,000 in donations. Thus if a person gives $10, the match will turn it into $20. To donate, visitwww.Spring2Action.org and search for the Friends of Alexandria Archaeology (FOAA) fundraiser. You can even schedule your gift now, and it will be donated on April 9.
Garrett Peck is the author of Capital Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in Washington, D.C.