Freshly Tapped spotlights one recently released beer, whether it be a flagship, one-off, seasonal, or modified recipe.
Today, our beer the Heurich House’s Senate Beer, a 4.7% post-Prohibition lager brewed with flaked corn and Nugget, Cluster, and Fuggle hops.
On Saturday, the District of Columbia will welcome back a long-lost friend: Senate Beer.
First produced over 130 years ago, the lager was a central brand of The Christian Heurich Brewing Co., the area’s largest brewery in the decades before and immediately after Prohibition. But despite its popularity, Senate Beer would eventually go the way of the brewery, which shuttered in 1956.
Over the past decade, a greater appreciation of the brewery’s legacy and its founder Christian Heurich has been rekindled, based primarily on the efforts of the the Heurich House Museum (which inhabits Heurich’s well-preserved Dupont mansion) and its Executive Director Kimberly Bender. (Full disclosure: I have moderated events at the Heurich House, but we have no financial relationship.) Bender has been the driving force behind bringing back Senate Beer. And it has been a long road.
The story starts in early 2014, when historian Pete Jones shared with the museum a 26-page laboratory report on Senate Beer that he discovered in the National Archives. Four years later, Bender returned to those reports (and some further research and conceptualization she had commissioned from Jones and his Lost Lagers partner Mike Stein) in the wake of acquiring a large collection of Christian Heurich Brewing Co. artifacts from a private collector. Recreating Senate Beer was conceived as part of a larger campaign to promote the collection (dubbed HOME/BREWED) and generally raise awareness for the museum.
Unlike the museum’s previous venture into brewing – Heurich’s Lager, a 2015 collaboration with DC Brau and Lost Lagers – the new Senate Beer was to be as literal a recreation as possible. (The popular Heurich’s Lager drew inspiration more loosely.) But Bender didn’t know how exactly to do that.
“When these kinds of things happen, I usually have a period of waking up at 3:00 a.m., spinning a problem over in my head,” Bender told me recently. “So, I started surfing Twitter and doing some exploring about university departments that focus on beer, and I found Tom Shellhammer’s lab at Oregon State University. I emailed him in the middle of the night last August, and he wrote me back first thing in the morning and said, ‘Let’s do it.'”
Shellhammer is a Professor at OSU’s Fermentation Science Department. Working with Pilot Brewer and colleague Jeff Clawson, the two set about analyzing the laboratory report from 1948 to recreate the beer. Almost a year later, the duo sent two slightly different versions of the beer to the Heurich House in June. The museum then solicited input from the brewing community and, working with OSU, finalized a recipe.
On July 17, that recipe was brewed at Right Proper Brewing’s Shaw brewpub by Lead Brewer Bobby Bump. And after a healthy amount of conditioning, the 4.7% lager – brewed with flaked corn and hopped with Oregon varietals faithful to what was available in the 1940’s – came out of tank earlier this month.
Prior to the beer’s debut at the Heurich House this weekend – part of its annual Oktoberfest celebration, also featuring Crooked Run, Silver Branch, Red Bear, ANXO, and Sankofa – I further discussed the past, present, and future of Senate Beer with Bender.
Let’s lead with the big question: Why bring back Senate Beer?
The simple answer is: Because we had the recipe! Which made it a no-brainer. We don’t have a complete recipe from the original source for any other Heurich beer (that we know of so far). We are bringing it back now because it seems like the right way to honor our new Heurich “breweriana” collection that we acquired in November of last year.
The long answer is: For people who don’t deal with old paper on a regular basis, it’s hard to communicate the pure magic that happens when you are doing historic research in an archive and you stumble upon a really important thing seemingly at random. Historian/homebrewer/Lost Lagers founder Peter Jones was doing research for a client in the National Archives’ Korean War tin rationing appeals files and stumbled upon a 26-page set of laboratory reports outlining the Chr. Heurich Brewing Co.’s post-Prohibition Senate Beer recipe in detail.
Basically, in the late 1940’s, brewery consumers started complaining in unison about the musty, funky taste of Senate Beer, which caused sales to drop enormously. Chris, Jr. (who by this point had taken over his father’s brewery) had some big name labs come inspect his brewery and brewing process, and their detailed reports ended up in the files when used to prove why sales had dipped but were now growing again (and why the brewery needed more tin).
How does this beer differ from 2016’s Heurich’s Lager, both as a beer and as a project?
While we are really proud of the delicious Heurich’s Lager revivals that DC Brau brewed in partnership with us and based on Lost Lagers’ research, there were limits to what information was available to reconstruct the recipe. The final formula for Heurich’s Lager was based on historic information gleaned from old ads and an overall understanding of brewing techniques for the time, and the rest was art.
For Senate Beer, the detail of the lab reports and the scientific expertise of OSU’s Fermentation Science Department allowed us to get as close to the original recipe as could ever be possible. The differences between the original Senate Beer and this revival come down to things like water chemistry and extinct yeast strains. People will be drinking as close to Christian Heurich’s Senate Beer as they ever could in 2019.
What can you say about Senate Beer as a brand historically? What was its standing in The Christian Heurich Brewing Co.’s portfolio?
Senate Beer was arguably the Chr. Heurich Brewing Co.’s most important brand; not only was a beer named “Senate” brewed for the whole 83 years the brewery existed (Senate Ale, Senate Beer, Senate Bock, and more!). It would have been a household name in DC.
Having curated the Heurich House’s HOME/BREWED exhibit earlier this year, what insights do you have about how the original Senate Beer was marketed? Did those past advertisements inform how you wanted to market the 2019 revival?
The bulk of our newly acquired collection of over 1,000 objects of Heurich “breweriana” (like beer bottles and cans, coasters, advertisements, and employee appreciation awards) is weighted towards Senate, especially our more modern post-Prohibition pieces.
We are still at the beginning of our research about these objects, but it’s clear that Chris, Jr. (who steered the business’s brand identity after Prohibition) was really into the “Mad Men” advertising innovations of the 1940’s and 50’s. We have many examples of his colorful and exciting campaigns in our HOME/BREWED exhibit up in our carriage house. Senate was also heavily advertised in relation to local sports teams and performance venues, in print and later on the radio, linking it closely to the day-to-day lives of Washingtonians for nearly a century.
When Mike Van Hall and I discussed him creating the brand the museum’s Senate revival, we both agreed that it was important that it be a modern interpretation of the original brand, a way to freshen it up, not recreate it from scratch. One challenge was that the Senate brand’s visual identity had evolved so many times during its 83 year run. I sent Mike about 10 different versions of the Senate Beer label, and he came up with our final brand, which was immediately nearly perfect. [Editor’s note: Pictured at the top of the article.] He’s very good at what he does!
On the brewing side, what were the biggest challenges you faced in recreating Senate Beer?
It was very important to us that we brew Senate Beer (and really, any Heurich brand revival) within the boundaries of the District of Columbia. The Chr. Heurich Brewing Co. was DC’s hometown brand, and one of museum’s core values is to serve our local community. Plus, we are also the HQ for the DC Brewers’ Guild. So, one main challenge was to find a way to brew it locally in a way that it could continue to grow if the brand grows.
Another was how to brew this complicated lager accurately when it was originally brewed in an enormous facility with a 500,000 bbl per year capacity, and test brewed at a sophisticated brewery lab with expensive state-of-the-art equipment and serious scientists. The truth is, we don’t have a facility in DC that could brew this in the exact same way Heurich did. But Leah Cheston and Bobby Bump at Right Proper were still eager to help and take this on.
The recipe had to be altered (i.e. shortened lager time, adding flaked corn instead of double mashing), and we just have had to give up some level of precise accuracy. I mean, there’s no way to replicate the water that existed in DC in the late 1940’s. We can time travel only so close to the original.
Oregon State sent two, slightly different pilot batches of Senate Beer to the Heurich House in June. What were the takeaways from taste testing those batches internally and with the brewing community? How did that inform the final Senate Beer produced by Right Proper?
The only difference between the two pilot batches was the yeast. There were no records of yeast strain used for the Senate Lager, so OSU chose the most widely used lager yeast strain in the world, Weihenstephan Bohemian lager yeast, but from different vendors. There was a very clear winner from the start, and both the brewers and drinkers had the same preference.
What are your plans for the brand? Will it be available only at the museum? Have you considered canning it in the future?
The beer is “launching” at our Oktoberfest celebration on September 21, and then we will serve it at the museum through the end of the year (or until it runs out). The most consistent time for visitors to find it would be during our Thursday garden happy hour event called 1921, and during our Christkindlmarkt holiday craft market in early December.
The simple launch is our way of testing the market (we are, after all, a museum and not a brewery), but we plan for this beer to be consistently available onsite going forward. I am very hopeful that we will expand production in the future so people can also drink it out around DC or take it home.