Toasting Smithsonian's First Brewing Historian, Theresa McCulla

By Matt Blitz |
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Courtesy of the Smithsonian

For Theresa McCulla, the first few weeks on the job as Smithsonian's first official brewing historian have been intoxicating. From delving into the museum's archives full of old beer ads to handling century-old home-brewing equipment, McCulla loves being suds deep in the history of America's favorite alcoholic beverage. However, the one thing that she doesn't get to do a whole lot of is actually drink any of her subject matter. "My tastings will be occasional and judicious," McCulla says with a laugh when asked how often she will get to imbibe. After all, beer isn't allowed in the museum archives.

With the country still riding the craft beer wave, beer culture and history have had a resurgence of public interest. Acting upon this, over the summer, Smithsonian's National Museum of American History announced they were looking to hire a "professional historian/scholar" for their new American Brewing History Initiative (made possible by a donation from the Brewers Association). In McCulla, the museum may have found the perfect candidate to take on what was called by some the "best job ever."

First of all, she's a certified culinary historian. In 2010, McCulla earned her culinary degree from the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. Over the last decade, she has also directed Harvard's Food Literacy Project, run two local farmers' markets and earned a Masters degree in history from Harvard. In addition, McCulla is currently writing a book about the intersection of race and food in New Orleans and will receive her doctorate in American Studies from Harvard University later this year. She's also well-versed in all things beer. Her father's family is from Milwaukee and he was a homebrewer himself, often recruiting his kids to help. "He fermented beer in a container in our shower," says McCulla, "My siblings and I helped him cap the bottles on bottling day in the kitchen." Today, besides McCulla's own work, she has several relatives who are in the brewing business, including an uncle who is opening a microbrewery in Radford, Virginia and another one who works at a homebrew supply store.

Related Video: The Right Way to Pour These 3 Different Beers

McCulla believes studying our country's relationship with beer is important because it can help with a better understanding of other elements of the American experience. Says McCulla, "Through beer... we can very much understand the history of immigration in America, the history of transportation, urbanization and the history of advertising."


Courtesy of the Smithsonian

These intersecting histories are also bubbling up in popular culture, including this past weekend when Budweiser aired a poignant and controversial (and fictionalized) Super Bowl commercial that depicted one of its founder's journey to America.

For the last few weeks, McCulla has been mainly spending her days digging through Smithsonian's current collection of beer artifacts. This includes sifting through turn-of-the-20th-century beer ads, beer-making equipment from the 1800s and 1940s sound recordings of drinking songs.


Courtesy of the Smithsonian

Soon, though, she's going to shift gears and start focusing on capturing the more recent history of beer through research trips where McCulla will conduct oral histories with brewers, hops farmers and others who are part of the American beer story. The public will be able to keep up with all of her work through the museum's Twitter handle, Facebook, Instagram (using #beerhistory and #smithsonianfood) and their blog. Plus, the beer initiative will have a prominent role in October's Smithsonian Food History Festival.

As for her favorite beer, McCulla says it's hard to play favorites. So, instead, she answered the question with one of her most cherished locations to sip a cold one. "The Memorial Union Terrace... at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. It's a gorgeous terrace on the shores of Lake Mendota... you can eat ice cream.. you can have a bratwurst and you can have a Wisconsin-brewed beer. It's a wonderful place to spend time with friends. And beer is usually crucial part of that."

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