Photos: Courtesy of the Smithsonian
Photos: Courtesy of the Smithsonian

The Smithsonian Taps Theresa McCulla as Beer Historian

Theresa McCulla knows beer.

The Harvard-educated historian may have little hands-on brewing experience, other than bottling her father’s homemade brews in their garage as an eight-year-old. But the DC native knows beer because it’s ingrained in her family lineage.

Apart from her father, who routinely dabbled in craft creations when she was growing up, she has an uncle in Radford, Va. gearing up for the opening of a microbrewery, and a host of other relatives who either brew or taste beer regularly. In fact, when pressed on who’s the best in the family at concocting tasty crafts, she deflects.

“Oh, I can’t play favorites,” she says with a hint of laughter. “It’s impossible with a family this big and into beer to play favorites.”

It’s fortuitous for our city that beer is so deeply ingrained in McCulla’s personal history; it’s now become a focal point of her career. She just returned to the nation’s capital last December as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History’s newest historian to oversee its American Brewing History Initiative.

The three-year initiative falls under the umbrella of the Smithsonian Food History program. It is meant to collect, document and preserve the history of brewing, in both the craft and mainstream sectors. The museum already has a collection of brewing related print advertisements and radio commercials.

“Right now, I’m surveying the collection that the museum holds, [including] tons of advertisements related to drinking beer, [and] signs and radio spots,” McCulla says. “We even have dance music related to beer consumption.”

McCulla has been in DC for several months sifting through the collection after a months-long interview process. Her return to the city comes on the heels of working toward her doctorate in American studies at Harvard University, where her dissertation focused on race, ethnicity and food in modern New Orleans, and where she was able to put her knowledge of French, Spanish and Italian to the test.

After earning a degree in romance studies, McCulla found herself in DC and her interest in culinary studies took root. From 2004 to 2007, McCulla often found herself working night jobs in various restaurants throughout the District and its suburbs. Now that she’s back as a historian investigating the always evolving craft industry, folks have repeatedly asked her what she’s enticed about most.

“It’s great, it’s extremely exciting,” McCulla says. “People have asked me about what I’m most excited about, and the answer is getting to know all the people involved in the history. We’re planning to talk to brewers and hops farmers and early homebrew clubs who produced newsletters. There’s a range of men and women, from experts to enthusiasts, involved in making this story.”

After sorting through Smithsonian artifacts, McCulla will then begin the bulk of her work by seeking out details about how the “story of craft brewing in America” began, and finding the pioneers of the celebrated activity.

“We are already underway,” she says. “Right now, I’m organizing it regionally. Craft brewing and homebrewing began in California and Colorado, I’m sure I’ll be heading to those parts of the country. This is an activity happening everywhere, and it will all be represented.”

The third and final prong of the initiative is sharing the information with the public through various vehicles, such as the Smithsonian Food History Weekend, which occurs in October. McCulla will also participate in the Craft Brewers Conference & Brew Expo America starting on April 10.

“We’ll be sponsoring a seminar to brief the brewers about what we’re doing. I’ve already heard from several brewing companies who have archivists who work for them, and have maintained their histories.”

Although the Smithsonian has deemed the craft brew industry worthy of archiving now, McCulla is aware that the practice is still undergoing a rise in popularity today. With a history that is changing with every beer brewed, the increasing national interest in craft brewing is why the initiative makes sense at present.

“Even as popular as it is, it’s still a minority of beer consumption,” she says. “We feel it’s a good time to begin this project. The first [wave] of craft brewers and homebrewers are still active and eager to share their stories, so this is a crucial moment to take what they share.”

Without knowing what the museum and McCulla will collect over the next three years, one thing is abundantly clear: the project is in loving hands.

“I do love beer very much. And I would love to hear from other beer lovers, so people are welcome to tweet me on Twitter.”

Follow Theresa McCulla on Twitter: @theresamccu. Learn more about the American Brewing Initiative at www.americanhistory.si.edu and on Twitter: @amhistorymuseum.