This ball-shaped beer tap knob is made of hard plastic and features dark green lettering “Kooler-Keg Senate Beer” and “Chr. Heurich Brg. Co.” on a bright yellow face. Christian Heurich was the largest, most successful brewery in Washington, D.C., in the first half of the 20th century. This tap knob dates from the 1940s.
Decorative knobs, handles, and pulls identifying the particular brands of beer on tap are now a familiar part of the visual landscape in bars and taverns. Following the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, states took up regulating the sale of alcoholic beverages in their jurisdictions and the beer tap was one common area of concern. Without clear branding, unscrupulous bartenders could serve cheap beer at a premium price, and customers would not have been certain of which beer they were buying. Brewing companies produced distinctive tap knobs, which not only met the requirement to identify the brand on tap, but also helped market their beer at the point of sale.
Christian Heurich, Sr., the brewery’s founder, was born in Germany in 1842. As a young man, he learned to make lager beer from master brewers in Bavaria and Vienna, Austria. In 1866, Heurich left Germany to join his sister in Baltimore, where a thriving community of German immigrants had already established breweries and other businesses. Three years later, he and Paul Ritter, a Baltimore brewer, decided to open a brewery in Washington, D.C. In 1872, they rented a building in downtown Washington and while Ritter handled the books and advertising, Heurich brewed the barley-based lager he had learned to make in Europe. When the partnership fell apart, Heurich bought Ritter’s share and began running the business on his own, making a light lager called “Senate” and a darker brew called “Maerzen” (a style of beer named for the month of March, when it is traditionally brewed).
Twice a widower, Heurich had four children with his third wife, including a son, Christian Heurich, Jr., born in 1901. Heurich and his family were among the leading citizens of Washington, D.C., and as he built and opened a new brewery and bottling plant in 1895, he also built a large home near DuPont Circle. Heurich’s real estate investments helped alleviate the financial impact of Prohibition (which lasted from 1920 to 1933), but he also turned to selling ice, which helped keep his brewery workers employed during the dry years. After Repeal, Heurich reopened his brewery, producing Senate Beer as his flagship brand, and Senate Ale, Senate Bock, Heurich Lager, and Maerzen Beer as well. Other local brewers never recovered from Prohibition and, by 1939, Heurich was the only brewer left in Washington, D.C.
At Heurich’s death in 1945, his son took over the brewery. Although he had been involved in helping his father rebuild after the repeal of Prohibition, Christian, Jr., was a businessman, not a brewer. He introduced an Old Georgetown brand, and reintroduced a lager made from his father’s original recipe. Still, in the 1950s, as competition from large, national corporations increased, small, local breweries were closing across the country. In 1956, the Christian Heurich Brewing Company brewed its last beer.
This beer tap knob is part of a large collection of brewing material donated to the museum in 1967 by former brewmaster Walter Voigt, of Ruxton, Maryland, near Baltimore. Voigt’s collection consists of objects and archival materials reflecting the history of brewing in the mid-Atlantic region between 1870 and the beginnings of consolidation and large-scale, industrial production in the 1960s. His correspondence reveals an interest in preserving the history of brewing in America before brewmasters were “replaced by chemical engineers and highly trained chemists in modern laboratories.” Voigt’s papers are housed in the museum’s Archives Center, Collection #ACNMAH 1195, “Walter H. Voigt Brewing Industry Collection, 1935-1967.”
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