Graphic: Smithsonian American History Museum
Graphic: Smithsonian American History Museum

American History Museum Highlights Regional Impact on Beers

How do brewers incorporate local flavors in their products, and how does that impact their profitability and overall image for the American consumer?

This question was discussed this past weekend at the Smithsonian’s Last Call event on November 3, which included an evening of conversation, craft beer tastings and historic artifacts. The event was part of the fourth annual Food History Weekend, held at the National Museum of American History. Each year offers a different theme, and this year’s theme was “Regions Reimagined.”

In a panel moderated by Theresa McCulla, historian of the Smithsonian’s American Brewing History Initiative, four American brewers spoke about the sourcing of their ingredients, what inspired them to dive into the beer industry and more. The panelists included Shyla Sheppard from Bow and Arrow Brewing Company in New Mexico, Jon Renthrope from Cajun Fire Brewing Company in New Orleans, Deb Carey from New Glarus Brewing Company in Wisconsin and Marika Josephson from Scratch Brewing Company in Illinois.

Before the panel commenced, guests were able to view a myriad objects on display related to brewing history in America. There were publications from the Smithsonian Dibner Library that ranged from beer histories to instructional books, some dating as far back as the 1890s.

One was a journal from 1988 by Jeff Lebesch, New Belgium Brewing Company founder and Fat Tire creator. Also on display were vintage posters, photos and business ephemera from the 1870s through 1905, as well as Buffalo Bill’s Brewpub tap handles from the 1980s.

During the panel, each of the guest brewers spoke about their emphasis local ingredients.

“It feels great to be able to highlight some of the special aspects of the culture of the area and the native people in a really authentic way,” Shyla Sheppard said. 

“We get all of our malt from a local maltster,” Marika Josephson said. “We get our hops now all from Illinois, and we hired farmers almost three years ago to help us with our farm, and we were able to give them jobs.”

With this, Josephson added, “I think breweries have a lot of power.”

While guests of the Smithsonian’s Last Call event listened to the panel, they were also able to enjoy samples from each brewery as well as appetizers from the museum’s chef, Stephen Kerschner.

Some of the highlights from each brewery included the tart, fairly floral Blueberry Lavender beer from Scratch Brewing Company; the bright and refreshing Denim Tux Blue Corn Lager from Born and Arrow Brewing; the Big Chief Crème Stout from Cajun Fire Brewing Company, which offered soothing French Vanilla and coffee notes; and the Wisconsin Belgian Red, a very cherry-focused beer from New Glarus Brewing Company whose taste resembled a Jolly Rancher.

“I’m always so grateful for public enthusiasm for beer through the lens of history,” McCulla said. “My job is much easier and fun because the public has a sense of investment in the topic.”

For the future, at some point in 2019, McCulla said the public should expect a refreshed food exhibition on the first floor of the museum in the east wing with a new installation that will focus on brewing history. Some of the items that were displayed in Last Call will be incorporated into the exhibit.

For more information about the Museum’s American Brewing History Initiative, click here