A historic beer is making a comeback in D.C. over 60 years since it last appeared on shelves. Heurich House Museum, owner of the Brewmaster’s Castle near Dupont Circle, has been able to bring to life the historic Senate Beer, which was decades ago one of the most popular beers in the city.
Heurich Brewing Company was once the largest non-governmental employer in the city and had a massive brewery where the Kennedy Center now stands. The company survived Prohibition, operating continually from 1873 to 1956.
Senate Beer was one of its most popular brews and it was the official radio sponsor of the Washington Senators baseball team.
Despite its popularity, the company ran into hard times as national brands like Budweiser and Miller took over the market.
Then, a series of fires destroyed many of the archives that the company kept, including the recipes for Senate beer. After the last beer rolled off the line in the 1950s, it seemed Washington had permanently lost its local flavor.
But that changed in 2014, when local researcher and beer enthusiast Pete Jones stumbled across an old Korean War-era document, from when Heurich Brewing Company was competing with the military for tin. The document contained lab reports from the '40s that detailed much of the process of creating Senate Beer.
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Jones sent the report to Kim Bender, the executive director of the museum since 2012. She had known about Senate Beer through the museum's collection.
"That was a really interesting find and very rare," Bender said. "Basically there are no recipes that have been passed down that we know of."
She kept the reports for several years, waiting for the right moment to dig into them further. When the museum acquired a massive new collection of local beer memorabilia, Bender knew it was time to call the experts.
"We’re really interested in creating this beer in the most academic way possible so it can be as close as possible to the original," Bender said.
Bender teamed up with Tom Shellhammer, a professor of brewing science at Oregon State University, Jeff Clausen and other members of Oregon State’s fermentation science program to gather the most historically accurate ingredients.
"Raw materials were kind of like the big issue," Shellhammer said. "We had a bunch of chemistry data on the beer itself so we knew a target that we wanted."
From the original lab report, Shellhammer noted that the malted barley used came from Rahr Malting, which still operates today. Shellhammer and malting expert Pat Hayes were able to talk to Rahr and understand what kinds of barley were being used at that time in history.
From there, Shellhammer dug through the university’s hops and beer archives and spoke to the Oregon Hop Commission to find another prime beer ingredient, hops.
There were just two types of hops grown back then, fuggle and cluster, Shellhammer said. The report didn't divulge which were used, so the brewers used a bit of each.
Without recipe guidance on the yeast, the brewers said they went for the most commonly used lager strain in the world: Weihenstephan.
Once they had the ingredients, the scientists at the fermentation lab were able to begin prototyping and testing the beer. Shellhammer says that one of the advantages of reviving a beer is that once you know the core components you can piece together a good approximation.
"Those raw materials might vary over time but the style and the recipes don’t and so it allows you to make the same beer over and over again and sort of dive into time," Shellhammer said.
The process took several months and got to a taste test in June as the museum and researchers worked together to fine-tune the recipe.
"It’s really fun," Shellhammer said. "It's a little bit like tasting history."
Finally, the museum commissioned Right Proper Brewing in D.C. to create its initial batch. The beer was officially unveiled at the museum’s Oktoberfest event on Sept. 21.
The Heurich House Museum plans to offer the beer at its Thursday happy hours while supplies last. Bender says the beer’s run could be extended if there’s enough interest.
"We are hoping that after this round of the beer that’s only on draft and only available here we will be able to increase production and hopefully have it available in other locations around the city," Bender said.
She hopes that Washingtonians will come to see Senate Beer for the hometown brew it is, and support a beer that's been a part of the city's culture since long before Home Rule.
"I think there’s something really special, especially as we're moving toward trying to be the 51st state here, to have hometown pride in something that was the original brand of Washington," Bender said.