The Nation’s Beer Historian is Taking Stock

Theresa McCulla is stuck at home like the rest of us. She’s traded an office view of the National Mall in Washington for a modest glimpse of Connecticut Avenue. And she and her husband now share a desk—while working around their 3-year-old’s schedule, no less.

As curator of the American Brewing History Initiative, a program at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History that is sponsored by the Brewers Association, McCulla is tasked with chronicling craft beer’s winding journey through the American experience.

It’s a story told through well-worn homebrewing spoons, improvised equipment, fascinating oral histories and more, which has often sent her jetting around the country to collect (and, naturally, share) its tangible testimony. The present crisis, which McCulla considers “the greatest challenge to small brewers in the U.S. since Prohibition,” may have grounded her for now—but it has also made her job more essential than ever.

“This moment,” she says, “must be documented.”

Photo courtesy of Adam Durant

“There are so many obstacles that craft breweries now face that simply were not present prior to COVID-19,” adds Julia Herz, craft beer program director at the Brewers Association, “craft beer sales, retention of workforce, loans and funding issues, mental and physical health and more.” While Herz and the BA are raising relief funds and other resources for the brewing community, McCulla complements their efforts by recording the everyday struggles of breweries to simultaneously aid their communities, support their staff, and save their businesses.

To help accomplish this, she has called on brewers to reach out with stories, ideas, and objects that could help the Smithsonian, and the rest of us, look back one day and better understand how the industry endured calamity. Her “wish list” includes anything that tells a brewery’s COVID-19 story—packaging labels, photos of socially-distanced staff at work, media copy, delivery menus, makeshift signs, or homemade masks. “Maybe it’s a particular cloth mask that a brewer wears in their delivery truck,” she muses, “or maybe it’s a tablet that is suddenly the new way of fulfilling an order, as opposed to pulling on a tap handle.”

McCulla invites breweries to contact her at with any questions, concerns, or materials they may have. And for those who need to put survival before posterity right now, she encourages them to just keep pandemic-related mementos somewhere safe until the clouds part. Small, easy steps like snapping photos or tossing objects in a corner box “provide an anatomy of this pandemic’s effect from all different kinds of angles… take photos of things as they happen. Keep them. Don’t throw them away.” There will be time to take stock later, and something that looks trivial now might well become iconic down the road. 

At its heart, the task of saving these stories feels like returning a favor as much as a job. “We are all trying to encourage beer lovers to support their local breweries,” McCulla says. “We rely on breweries… to make our Friday happy hour better, for moments of celebration and relaxation. This is the time to return the love, to pay it back, and to support these businesses and these people however we can.” 

Today that means acts of compassion, support, and advocacy, but someday it will converge into one simple imperative: to remember.

Brian Alberts is a Seattle-based historian and writer trying to show that beer is more American than apple pie. An advocate for historical preservation, he has covered the topic for Good Beer Hunting. Find him on Twitter.

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