On Wednesday, November, 16, author, beer judge, and brewing historian Ron Pattinson will be at ChurchKey. I’ll be hosting a panel with him and we look forward to seeing you there!
Ron will have on offer his book Armistice! Brewing in World War I, which provides a timeline to this modern and beer history article. The armistice in this case marks the end of fighting between Germany and the Allies in World War I (Ron will have other books available, such as Mild! and Strong! and The Homebrewer’s Guide to Vintage Beer), and I wanted to describe to you, dear reader, what was happening in DC a century ago. We’re coming up on the 104 year anniversary of Armistice tomorrow, Veterans’ Day, yet the headline “The end of brewing in DC!” was likely the biggest news for local brewing concerns in 1917 and 1918.
One 1915 headline declared “D.C. Prohibition Hangs in Balance,” and the opening sentence read “Prohibition for the District of Columbia was hanging in the balance when the Senate met today.” There were four breweries in town in 1915. They were likely brewing, bottling, and selling beer on that day!
Jumping from past to present allows us to reflect on the lessons history can teach us. Think about the news of the leaked draft opinion suggesting the Supreme Court would overturn Roe v. Wade, on Monday, May 2, 2022. That day an Alexandria brewery had just announced their dark lager would release on Thursday May 5. Many brewers, cellar workers, and packaging technicians went to their brewing jobs in Virginia that morning. Someone spent their day packaging dark lager, and thought the rights of those seeking healthcare was secure. I can’t speak for all of the brewers employed in Virginia’s 314 breweries but I have to wonder, did many leave work thinking their right to choice was still going to be protected?
On Friday, June 24, 2022, when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, ending rights to abortion that were upheld for decades, a DC brewery brewed stout. But much more likely on any given day when a brewer was at work and course-altering political decisions were made on Capitol Hill, that brewer was likely cooking up pale ale or IPA. The notion of things not being okay while you go about your day at the brewery extends back to brewers in DC a century ago. In fact, it goes back even further when considering some of DC’s earliest commercial brewers, the skilled laborers, and the enslaved peoples who were in the DC brewing world before the 13th Amendment.
The four brewers in 1915 were Abner-Drury Brewing Company, Christian Heurich Brewing Company, National Capital Brewing Company, and Washington Brewery Company, Limited. The first two breweries were in Northwest, National Capital in Southeast, and the Washington Brewery Company was in Northeast. All of these breweries are gone today but some were replaced by institutions like the Kennedy Center (Heurich), Stuart Hobson Middle School (Wash. Brew. Co.), and Safeway (Nat. Cap.).
While unsure how many barrels the four brewers produced commercially, there were about 300,000 barrels of beer consumed locally in 1917. The same source says that the National Capital Brewery was cranking out 65,000 barrels of beer each year. 65,000 barrels! That’s over four times as much as DC’s biggest brewery and is about two times as much beer as was produced by all of DC’s breweries in 2021. National Capital Brewery employed 50 people which likely meant 50 folks were out of a job when local prohibition started.
When we put those numbers up against the numbers of today we gain history’s lessons. One lesson is that modern DC brewers in the 21st century could produce a lot more beer to meet the historic barrelage.
In addition to DC brewers needing to brew more to hit the historic ceiling, DC breweries would have to take more market share to hit 15% of beer sales in the District. In 2020, about 303,169 barrels or beer were sold in DC. The local production was over 26,500 barrels. That means DC breweries accounted for somewhere between 8 and 9% of overall market share. In 2021, DC sold 324,618 barrels and the city’s breweries produced over 29,500 barrels. That’s just over 9% of overall beer sold in DC brewed in DC.
DC going “dry” in 1917 meant the manufacture and sale of beer was illegal, 3 years before national Prohibition in 1920. DC effectively got steamrolled (what else is new?) in 1917, whereas neighboring cities and states like Baltimore, Maryland, and Richmond, Virginia, fought Prohibition right up until enforcement began in 1920. In some specific cases, brewers didn’t comply with the law at all and thus the “wildcat” breweries–those who operated when they weren’t supposed to–were born.
Fifteen years after the armistice, Prohibition was repealed nationally in 1933, and lager continued to hold a massive presence in America’s brewing landscape. An article in DC’s Evening Star newspaper on May, 5, 1935, was titled “17 Experts tackle task of defining varied beer types.” These types of beer were plain beer, light/pale beer, Dortmund beer, Pilsen beer, Vienna beer, dark beer, ale, sparkling ale, stock ale, porter, stout, cream ale, stock ale, steam beer, and cereal beverages. You’ll notice in this list of beer types there is no explicit mention of pale ale, IPA, double IPA, triple IPA, Berliner, Gose, Saison, Belgian Golden Ale, or any other of the styles you can find produced in DC today. These styles, specifically pale ale, and IPA are the most widely brewed in DC today. How times have changed!
When talking to people about the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, I’ve noticed that many people are familiar with the Anheuser Busch delivery to the White House. It’s a storied notion of Budweiser being delivered to Washington, DC, as a thanks to the president. But this is not unique to the world’s largest brewer. It happened locally, on April 7, 1933, when the Abner Drury Brewing Company sent “real beer delivered to the President early this morning,” driving their bottles of lager to the White House.
The employees spent all day packaging lager and at midnight, it was finally time for lunch. What was for lunch? Why sandwiches and beer of course. Employees sat on wooden cases that touted the brewery’s brands, Royal Pilsen and Old Glory, pale and dark lagers respectively. When the lager wagons were ready, the signs on the trucks read “Here’s to you President Roosevelt, the nation’s first beer is yours” in this case, the nation’s first beers were lager.
Come see Ron and I at ChurchKey on Wednesday, November 16. Ask us difficult questions and we’ll try to provide you with difficult answers. And you needn’t stick to the timeline of 1915 to 1933! We’re happy to discuss beer history, what we know and what’s unknown; have a chat and buy some of Ron’s books.