I hopped out of my car on Madison Drive, NW on Tuesday, September 13, 2022. I’d planned to arrive at the Victory Garden at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History between 9 and 9:30 AM but I got stuck behind a motorcade–nine cops and three black SUVs–on Constitution Avenue, which pushed my arrival time back.

Smithsonian horticulturalists, volunteers, homebrewers.
Photo Credit: Theresa McCulla

When I first stepped foot in the Victory Garden, ​Theresa McCulla, PhD, Curator of the American Brewing History Initiative at the American History Museum, welcomed me. It was thanks to her invitation that I was able to pick hops. The last time I stepped foot in the garden, almost three years to the day, was hop harvest 2019.

Smithsonian Gardens Horticulturist Sarah Dickert showed me to the hop bines, laid across tarps with several teams picking through the harvest. I sat next to homebrewer Russell Flench, who was diligently plucking Cascade hops off their bine. Pulling apart the bine from the twine and separating hop cones, we discussed the historic labor force used for hop harvesting. McCulla mentioned that many American populations like women, Chinese immigrants, and Native Americans worked harvests in the Pacific Northwest. “That’s not a history you hear a lot about,” one horticulturalist remarked.

George Ehret, Twenty-Five Years Of Brewing: With An Illustrated History Of American Beer (New York: The Gast Lithograph & Engraving Company, 1891), 11, Walter Voigt Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

The horticulturalists grow many things in the garden including Cascade, Nugget, Willamette, and Mt. Hood hops. Mt. Hood appeared the thinnest and least likely to yield a bountiful harvest so they were left on their bines and are still in the Victory Garden.

I asked McCulla for a description of the hops grown and she wrote:

“The hops grown in the Victory Garden provide an incredible opportunity to touch, smell, and even taste the history that my colleagues and I at the American History Museum research and collect. The hops are a living embodiment of the idea that Smithsonian collections and the impact they have extend beyond the walls of any one building or museum, into the world around us.”

Eric Calhoun, Supervisory Horticulturist, added: “Although not a traditional Victory Garden plant, hops, particularly the ‘Cascade’ cultivar, tell a uniquely American story and that is why we grow it here at Smithsonian Gardens. It is  a popular plant with visitors and a favorite to interpret. First of all, the bines growing 20 feet into the air really catch people’s attention, drawing them over to the plants. Upon closer inspection, the cones have a distinctive form that continues to pique curiosity. It’s at this point we can tell visitors how this plant helped kick start the American craft beer movement. Cascade is an American creation (a hybrid of previously existing cultivars) that was used by American brewers to develop delicious and aromatic beer in a time when most household beer was mass produced and lacked any kind of unique fragrance or flavor. Once our visitors discover that this plant is a key ingredient in brewing and American craft they are really drawn in to the plant and its story.  Being able to hold, smell, and then learn about the story of this plant and craft brewing in America really brings the museum experience to life.”

There is noticeably a lack of wet hop beers in the area. We’ve noticed this as somewhat of a sad trend and have covered it over the last several years. But the hops harvested from the garden off Constitution Avenue have gone into a batch of beer brewed by former DC Homebrewers Club President, Omar Al-Nidawi.

Al-Nidawi and I sniffed and rubbed the hops, and were generally most impressed with the aroma of the Willamette variety. Prior to brewing his beer, he steeped all three hops, separately, and made hop teas. By simply pouring half a quart of boiling water over half an ounce of hops he gauged their bitterness.

Photo Credit: Omar Al-Nidawi

Interestingly, to Al-Nidawi’s palate, the Willamette was more bitter than Cascade. Similarly, Nugget also tasted more bitter than the Cascade variety.

Originally planning to add some English East Kent Goldings variety hops in his batch of beer, Al-Nidawi decided to ditch these hops as he thought the Victory Garden trio would provide enough bitterness. His pale ale wound up starting at 1.046 and time will tell where his beer finishes fermentation but one thing is for sure: his hops are the freshest out of any other beers he will brew this year. I will follow up this article with another assessing Al-Nidawi’s brewing efforts after the beer is bottled.

If you are interested in supporting the museum we’d suggest buying tickets to Last Call : ¡Salud! to American Latinos in Beer. At the event there will be breweries (typically out-of-market) like Mujeres Brew House from San Diego, CA, Casa Humilde Cerveceria from Chicago, IL, Dyckman Beer Co. from New York, NY, and DeadBeach Brewery from El Paso, TX. Liz Garibay, founder of the Chicago Brewseum, will moderate the conversation at the museum.