Three questions for a brewing historian

By Susan Evans
A color portrait of a woman in a coral shirt and dark blazer. She sits outside.

Last summer, the National Museum of American History announced that we were hiring a brewing historian to join the team working on the American Brewing History Initiative. With its promises of research, documentation, and travel about the history of one of America's favorite beverages, the job quickly became the most sought-after Smithsonian position in America. We were looking for a trained historian with proven experience to lead this project and, after receiving an unprecedented number of applications, announced the new appointment this week. Please raise your glass to our new staff member and brewing historian, Theresa McCulla!

A color portrait of a woman in a coral shirt and dark blazer. She sits outside.

Theresa brings her experiences working in academia (she will receive a PhD in American Studies from Harvard this spring), in restaurants (she has a culinary diploma from the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts), and with the public (she managed two local farmers' markets in Massachusetts). On top of that, she has an inquiring mind and brings her perspective as a cultural historian to this big job of researching, documenting, and sharing the history of American beer, with an emphasis on the home and craft brewing movements of the second half of the 20th century.

A large mug with a lid and handle. It is made from a light colored substance but has carvings with dark backgrounds, including one of a man

Theresa took some time to answer a few key questions about her experiences and the American Brewing History Initiative.

What are you most looking forward to in your new role?

Brewing sheds light on all facets of American history, and American history is all about people. I'm most looking forward to the people I will meet who have created the story of craft and home-brewed beer in America, in conjunction with that of the larger beer industry: brewers, entrepreneurs, farmers, teachers, journalists, collectors, and more. From experts to enthusiasts, so many men and women have played a part in shaping the breadth and depth of American beer today.

Tell us about one of your research projects that has shaped your understanding of the field of history.

Through my book project on the New Orleans food industry I've discovered an incredible array of objects that make the city's food culture come alive. French Quarter souvenirs, restaurant menus, gumbo recipes scrawled on index cards: these pieces of material culture were used by real people as they experienced—and tasted—the world around them. The same is true for brewing history, which can be understood through items as varied as neon signage to recorded radio ads to microbrewery equipment. Telling the history of taste requires us to move beyond documents. Fortunately, that is exactly what the National Museum of American History does best.

a long, rectangular ad portraying an industrial city at night. A woman sits on top of a globe looking down and on the other side, an angel floats next to a bottle of beer and holds a wand up that broadcasts the name "schlitz" over the town

What can beer tell us about American history?

Beer, like other food and drink, makes tangible so many abstract ideas about American history and culture. Through brewing we can understand stories of immigration, urbanization, agriculture, and technology. Beer shows us how innovations in advertising and evolving consumer tastes have always gone hand in hand. The museum holds rich collections of beer advertisements dating to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as this ad for Schlitz beer. The image touts Milwaukee's Schlitz as "famous for purity," yet simultaneously the product of modern industry and linked to a specific geographic place. Many of the same themes recur in ads of later eras. I'm so excited to bring that story, among many others, forward to the present day.

The Brewing History Initiative will also feature two public events annually. Both the initiative and brewing historian position have been made possible through the generous support of the Brewers Association, the not-for-profit trade association dedicated to small and independent American brewers.

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Susan Evans McClure is the director of Smithsonian Food History programs at the National Museum of American History.