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Hop-Picking with America’s Beer Historian

On Tuesday, September 10, there was a hop-picking just off 1200 Constitution Avenue NW. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History staff, volunteers, and I harvested 10 pounds of hops from their Victory Garden. 

The garden was buzzing with stink bugs, spiders, and praying mantises. A group of a dozen volunteers—led by Theresa McCulla, PhD, Curator, American Brewing History Initiative National Museum of American History—Smithsonian employees, homebrewers, and beer historians picked hops from eight plants, which had been planted in the museum’s garden six years ago. Originally 10 plants of three varieties sprouted up out of the soil. The Cascade and Nugget hops did quite well growing over 15 feet but Willamette struggled and never got over a few inches tall.

Becky Cate, Michael Stein, Theresa McCulla, PhD at the September 2019 Smithsonian National Museum of American History hop-picking.
Becky Cate, Michael Stein, Theresa McCulla, PhD at the 2019 hop-picking.

Last year’s Victory Garden hops were destined for the home brewery of former Brewers Association President Charlie Papazian, who brewed a beer he recalled from the very first Great American Beer Festival in 1982, a dry-hopped porter. This year’s hops were divvied up between two local homebrew clubs DC Homebrewers and GRIST (Grains Result in Something Tasty). GRIST had planned on brewing a Rye Porter while the DC Homebrewers cooked up American pale and amber ales.

GRIST club member Becky Cate was one of the volunteer hop pickers. Cate is a homebrewer who has been brewing for years, sometimes with Cascade hops grown in her backyard. Omar Al-Nidawi, the president of the DC Homebrewers Club, and Bob Rouse, former DC Homebrewers Club president, both made ales with the hops.

Al-Nidawi wrote of his beer’s fermentation and perceived character: “From 1.060 down to 1.011. I’d say there’s more bitterness than I thought those mild hops would impart… feels like around 30 IBU and there’s also noticeable hop flavor and aroma… My impression is that the beer is more like a high gravity (and nice) blonde ale than APA/IPA.”

Bob Rouse, writes via email: “I was pretty happy with mine. It’s a slightly bitter clean amber… with a nicely balanced malt backbone. The hops have some citrus, but they come off as more spicy. Very drinkable.”

Ultimately, great gratitude goes to Mathew Huber, James Gagliardi, and Erin Clark, the horticulturalists who carefully watched and raised the Cascade and Nugget hops. While these beers will soon be history, the historic work of McCulla and her colleagues continues. As for growing hops in the District, the first written record is from 1827. You can read more if you like.

Theresa McCulla was interviewed on our podcast in October. Listen here.

Finally, if you haven’t visited the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, go see their newly reopened food history exhibit, FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950–2000, which dedicates space to the history of beer thanks in part to a grant from the Brewers Association.

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