100 years ago, Dupont Circle was the hub for for the District’s gentry. Duncan Phillips and Marjorie Acker amassed a staggering collection of modern art, Larz and Isabella Anderson hosted lavish parties at their mansion, and Cissy Patterson allowed Charles Lindbergh to crash on the couch. The well-heeled elite thrived in the opulent neighborhood. Each new home was more extravagant than the last. Take a walk up and down Mass Ave sometime, and check out the embassies. Most of the hundred-year-old mansions were built not as embassies, but as private homes.
However, amid the rowhouses, mansions, embassies, and restaurants, there’s one home that sticks out like a sore thumb; a dark, grey-stone castle at New Hampshire and 20th, complete with a turret, atrium, garden, and fireproof walls. The castle was once home to brewmaster, father, orphan, immigrant, and job-creator, Christian Heurich.
Heurich (pronounced “Hi-Rick”) came to the States in 1866, arriving at his sister’s doorstep in Baltimore. Twenty years earlier, shortly after both his parents died in 1846, he set out traveling through Europe, picking up skills along the way. This was not uncommon for European youths to do when they came of age; the word the Germans used for this trip was Wanderjahre (literally “wander year”). It was considered a rite of passage for a youth to travel after their studies have concluded, so they might decide what line of work to go into.
Young Heurich tried his hand at a number of tasks during his travels. He wasn’t much of a baker, or butcher, or carpenter. However, he almost immediately displayed a knack for brewing beer. As he honed his skills, he dreamed big about opening his own brewery in the States. In 1866, he arrived in Baltimore with the clothes on his back, and $280 to his name. By 1872, he had a lease signed for a brewery. By 1878, he had his own operation, with a staff of 20.
As most brewmasters hold, the process of brewing beer hasn’t realistically changed much in the past thousand years. It’s still just water, malt, yeast, hops, heat, all in varying degrees and amounts. Yes, we’ve refined the process, and yes, we’ve got access to a bunch of different ingredients, but the process of fermentation is still the same. Even when Atlas brews their Saison de Brett (What my buddy, Josh tells me is a dark saison-style brew, aged in brettanomyces-infected French oak barrels for a year), they’re still using the same process handed down by their predecessors.
Heurich hit the ground running once he arrived to the United States. He found work at breweries in Baltimore, Saint Louis, and Ripley, Ohio. He even worked as a sailor for a short stint in the Caribbean, aboard his brother-in-laws boat. He never stopped learning, acquiring skills, and figuring out the absolute best way to open his own operation.
Returning to Baltimore in 1870, he partnered up with Baltimore brewmaster Paul Ritter, another beer fan with big dreams, and went into business together. By 1872, they secured a partnership with Schnell Brewery, brewing their own weiss (wheat) beer at 20th and M. Heurich was 26 years old, and had been in the States for all of 8 years.
While this story might sound like something that could have happened in any city in the contiguous United States, Washington, D.C. was carefully chosen by Ritter and Heurich as their prospective ground zero for a brewery. The 1870’s brought unprecedented change, development, and growth to the city. City Boss Alexander Shepherd took on widespread public works projects, planting thousands of trees, opening dozens of parks, and began to cultivate the District into something close to what we see today.
D.C. of the 1870’s has a lot more in common with our current city than we think. It was new, it was something different from over-crowded New York, or crumbling Baltimore. And at the center of the 19th-Century version of “#NewDC” was a German immigrant, whose name became synonymous with beer in the District.
Over the years, Schnell died, Ritter moved on to other ventures, Heurich married, was widowed, then re-married, then was widowed again, then re-married again, but all the while building his beer empire in D.C. He built his castle just West of Dupont Circle. The design is a gaudy mish-mash of old-world gilded palatial appointments, and sturdy, fire-proof construction. Much of the work was done on-site, and much of it done by craftsmen from Europe. Heurich wasn’t interested in antiques; he wanted functionality.
The Brewmaster’s Castle is now a museum dedicated to Heurich’s life and work, and regularly has events that feature the work of local crafty-types. First Fridays are an open house-style series featuring tours of the space, and a chance to interact with local artisans and musicians. These events are free, and open to the public.
In 1894, after years of success and growth, Heurich opened a massive, brand-new facility along the banks of the Potomac, at 26th and D. This brewery flourished and thrived for 25 years, brewing beer for the District, and surrounding states. Prohibition spelled the end for a number of breweries in the region, but Heurich and a few employees were able to survive the rug being pulled out from under their feet. One of Heurich’s more ingenious additions to the brewery was an ice house, producing ice to keep the beer cold. Most breweries at the time would have gone through a delivery service. Heurich decided to cut out the middle-man, and streamline the operation. He and his company never crossed the line of legality; during Prohibition, they quit making beer, and stuck to making ice.
They never quite bounced back after Prohibition’s repeal, though. By the 1950’s, the Heurich Brewery was getting out-done by larger national brands, like Coors and Anheuser Busch. The brewery shut up shop in 1956, and sold the land to the United States. The Kennedy Center stands at the site of the former brewery. Early programs at the Kennedy Center featured a series of concerts in the still-standing brick buildings. At its peak, though, the sprawling Heurich Brewery was the second-largest employer in the District, out-done only by the Federal Government.
My dearest Brightest Young Things, please let that sink in for just a moment. At a time when the United States was still recovering from a Civil War, in a city going through unpredictable and unprecedented growth, a young immigrant was given the chance to build something that not only made himself rich, but also created more jobs in this city than anyone before him.