Right Proper Brewing & Heurich House Museum Revive a Classic Lager
With over 8,000 breweries operating coast-to-coast and everywhere in between, there has never been a better time than today to be a beer drinker in the United States. The energy and creativity of the craft beer movement is undeniable. Breweries are producing elaborate takes on venerable beer styles and creating new styles as well. Whether you like Milkshake IPAs or an Italian Pilsner, there is a beer for you in your local brewery. Craft beer is an undeniably popular beverage. However, beer was even more popular in the US before the catastrophe of Prohibition nearly wiped out the alcohol industry from 1920 to 1933.
Lager beers were the mainstay of the U.S. brewing industry prior to Prohibition, much like they dominate the macro-brew market today. However, these pre-prohibition Lagers were made from higher quality ingredients and were much better beers than their macro descendants. Breweries have been releasing “pre-pro” recipes more often in recent years, perhaps none as remarkable and true to historic form as Washington D.C.’s Senate Beer.
Echoes of Forgotten Breweries
On the eve of Prohibition in 1919, there were approximately 4,000 breweries in the United States, in a population of about 106 million people. That equates to a significantly higher number of breweries per capita than today’s golden era of craft beer. Most of these breweries were nano- or micro-sized by today’s standards. However, many large cities had at least one dominant regional brewery.
Names like Pabst, Schlitz, Ballantine, Lone Star and Olympia echo through the decades and are still familiar to many beer fans today. In our nation’s capital of Washington, D.C. the hometown brewery was undeniably the Christian Heurich Brewing Company. Heurich closed its doors forever in 1956 after many decades of production. It brewed DC favorites like Heurich Lager, Old Georgetown Ale and the flagship American Lager called Senate Beer.
A Beer Rediscovered
Recently, the Heurich House Museum in Washington, DC partnered with DC- based Right Proper Brewing Company to revive Senate Beer. A talented team of researchers, historians and brewers worked together to bring this almost-forgotten classic back to vibrant life. Its triumphant release in late-2019 marked more than 60 years since it was last brewed by the old Heurich Brewing Company.
The Heurich House Museum is based in the house that brewery owner Christian Heurich owned and lived in. This stately mansion in the Dupont Circle neighborhood exists “to explore the questions of the American dream, using the Heurich family and their brewing business as our medium,” according to museum director Kimberly Bender. Visitors learn how Christian Heurich rose from very humble immigrant beginnings to build a sprawling brewery that was a cornerstone of Washington DC for many decades.
The Senate Beer revival began when independent historian Peter Jones of Lost Lagers discovered a 1946 lab report hidden away in the National Archives. This report contained detailed data about Senate Beer’s ingredients and brewing process. Jones discovered it by chance as he was researching how Korean War-era wartime rationing of metals affected the beer industry in Washington, DC. Jones and his partner Michael Stein had previously worked with Heurich House on a revival of Heurich Lager and brought the lab report to the museum’s attention.
Recreating a Classic Lager Beer
The museum enlisted the support of Dr. Tom Shellhammer and Jeff Clawson from the Fermentation Sciences Department at Oregon State University to recreate a pilot batch of the beer using precise historic ingredients and chemically acceptable modern substitutes. OSU has one of the premier fermentation sciences programs in the United States, with graduates holding a variety of positions in major breweries and wineries in the U.S. and abroad.
The team at OSU reached out to Rahr Malting Company to identify the precise Senate Beer grain bill. Rahr is a family-owned maltster in business since 1847 that did business with the Heurich Brewing Company. To recreate the cereal mash represented by corn portion of the grain bill, they used gelatinized corn flakes rather than producing their own in a cereal cooker. This was to address the challenge that very few modern craft breweries use a cereal cooker and was a “perfectly defensible technological work-around” according to Shellhammer.
Further research identified Weihenstephaner Brewery’s Lager yeast as the best match for the original yeast. They selected Fuggles and Cluster hops. Oregon farmers commonly grew these hops in in the 1940s, and Heurich Brewing Company used them in their Lagers.
All that remained was to brew a batch of the beer in OSU’s state-of-the art Pilot Research Brewery. OSU and Heurich House staff sampled the pilot batch and judged it a resounding success. It faithfully replicated the flavor, appearance and mouthfeel of the original Senate Beer. Then Heurich House reached out to Right Proper Brewing to collaborate on a production release. The museum only considered Washington D.C.-based breweries for the project. According to Bender, the beer “had to be brewed in Washington, D.C.”
A Beer Reborn
Right Proper Brewing Company is “a hyper-local brewery” according to owner Thor Cheston. It serves the D.C. community from locations in the Shaw and Brookland neighborhoods. Its strong presence within the city and community focus made it a natural fit the project. Cheston and team brewed the first few production batches of Senate Beer at their Shaw brewpub location. They took advantage of D.C.’s very Lager-friendly and mineral-laden water to yield an even closer match to the historic recipe.
At first, Senate Beer was sold only at the Right Proper Brewpub and the Heurich House Museum. Due in part to overwhelmingly positive customer response Right Proper quickly decided move production to their larger Brookland brew house. Senate Beer is now one of their top three sellers and is part of their core beer lineup.
From day one, Senate Beer was a runaway success with Right Proper customers. Cheston said that “the first week we advertised it on our website and on Instagram it broke the internet. The response was overwhelming.” He humorously described some customer reactions as “ohhhh, this is what the style is supposed to taste like.” That is not a bad description at all. Pre-prohibition style American Lagers are indeed far superior in quality to their watered-down macro-brew descendants.
Senate Beer pours a brilliant straw gold with a generous and fluffy white head. It’s delicate spicy and floral aromas are reminiscent of a quality German Pilsner. It presents a delightfully well-balanced and clean flavor of light malt notes and crispy hop notes expected of this style of lager beer. It has a light to medium mouthfeel with a slightly creamy aspect from the corn in the grain bill. Overall, it’s a very refreshing lager and an easy drinker at 4.7% ABV.
A City Made Whole
So how has this straightforward American Lager beer become such a huge success? How does it stand out in a market dominated by Pastry Stouts, Kettle Sours and Hazy IPAs? Cheston thinks that “people are challenged all day long. At the end of the day, they don’t want to be challenged anymore. They want a good easy drinking beer.”
Stein from Lost Lagers thinks that Senate Beer “is about people, regardless of status, coming together for a beer,” which is particularly resonant in a powerful and otherwise very status-conscious city like Washington, D.C. Jones adds in the Heurich-era “D.C. didn’t just make laws, we made a lot of beer” and that bringing Senate Beer back is an “important part of D.C. to bring back”
Bender adds that both the museum and the beer “give people continuity and a connection to the city. In these tough times it gives people something to hold onto, and that matters. It’s therapeutic.”
Whatever the reason, Washington D.C.’s longtime flagship local Lager is being embraced by a new generation of beer aficionados. And with that come stories old and new; stories that are curated at the Heurich House Museum and poured from the taps of Right Proper Brewing Company. Stories of the bonds that build communities and of the unlikely but triumphant revival of Senate Beer.