For Washington D.C. craft beer lovers, happy hours at the Heurich House Museum on June 14 felt like a trip to Jurassic Park.
Except instead of dinosaurs, the “Brewmaster’s Castle” on Dupont Circle had brought Senate Beer back from the dead.
And it tasted refreshing and delicious.
The golden pilsner was the flagship beer for five decades for The Christian Heurich Brewing Co., the largest brewery in Washington D.C. and last package brewery in the district until DC Brau opened its doors in 2011.
First introduced in the 1880s, Senate Beer enjoyed a run unlike any other brew of its time and was the star in much of the company’s marketing and advertising. The Senate label was Heurich’s mainstay before and after Prohibition and survived until the brewery closed in 1956.
While the beer disappeared from bars and store shelves, Senate Beer memorabilia though has stuck around in antique shops and thrift shops.
But on this day, Senate Beer — real cold, liquid Senate Beer — was being poured from freshly tapped kegs to a roomful of thirsty patrons.
How was Senate Beer brought back?
Like an archeologist discovering a fossil in a mountain bed, beer historian Peter Jones came across a laboratory report on Senate Beer while scouring some records at the National Archives. The 1948 report had been sent to the U.S. Commerce Department as part of a letter Heurich sent to the government to argue for increasing his ration for tin used for cans. The government had restricted use of tin as part of a World War II rationing program.
Jones brought the report to Kimberly Bender, executive director of the Heurich House Museum, the Dupont Circle mansion that was home to Heurich and his family from 1894 until 1956 and that operates as a museum today bringing the beer maven’s rich heritage to life with tours and special events.
Jones had worked with Bender and DC Brau in 2016 to re-create Heurich lager. That historic brew was made via a reverse-engineering process where Jones and fellow brewers Mike Stein and Joshua Hubner made educated guesses about the beer recipe by looking at the brewery’s invoices for raw ingredients and researching Heurich’s taste in beer.
This time Bender knew she had a big advantage as she more or less had the recipe for Senate Beer as it was made in the 1940s.
She sent the lab report to Oregon State University’s Fermentation Science Department, which specializes in developing beers for industry, teaching studies about food science and has its own fully automated research brewery. The department had never tried to re-engineer a historical beer but armed with the ingredients and chemical markings of Senate Beer, it was ready to give it a shot.
To hear Jeff Clawson, pilot brewer at Oregon State, describe his work resurrecting Senate Beer sounds much like the fictional movie Jurassic Park scientists figuring out how to make a dinosaur from a handful of strands of its DNA.
Clawson found the type of hop clusters Heurich used for his lager but had to make educated guesses to mimic the malt style which had long since gone out of style. “We pieced things together to try to get the right alcohol and sugar content,” he said.
Instead of corn grits that were used in the original recipe, Clawson’s team used flaked corn. It added some Carmel malt to help get the right color of the beer.
One thing Clawson didn’t try to recreate was the Washington D.C. water of a century ago. Oregon water is much softer than Washington water which reduces the ph. of the beer, he said.
Clawson describes Senate Beer as a classic American lager. “It’s an easy to drink summer beer that’s light and clean with just a bit of bitterness,” he said.
Four kegs of the new Senate Beer were brewed and shipped to Washington with the first served at the special happy hours on June 13. The beer was served inside a special exhibit called Home/Brewed, which includes a rotating exhibit of 1,000 items such as bottles, cans, signs and other branded objects from the Heurich Brewing Co.
Attendees taste tested two styles of the new Senate Beer, made similarly but with different yeast strains that gave one a more flavorful and modestly hoppier tone. For a century-old beer, the new Senate tasted fresh and balanced.
Bender said the results from the test will go into helping Oregon State develop a more refined batch of Senate Beer that it will serve as a special Octoberfest celebration on September 21 at Heurich House.
Eventually, Bender has hopes to collaborate with a brewery in the district to make Senate Beer on a larger scale and possibly put it in cans and bottles like back in its heyday. “It’s a way of bringing some beer history to life,” Bender said.