Six months after announcing the job we all wanted, the Smithsonian has finally revealed its choice for the National Museum of American History’s beer historian. Over the next three years, Theresa McCulla will research America’s brewing history and share her findings with the public. From this historian’s perspective, they’ve made a good choice.
McCulla will soon receive her doctorate in American Studies from Harvard, and you can read about her on her website. Her dissertation, which she’s preparing for publication, looks at food in New Orleans and its use as a tool of racial exclusion, and her other research shows a real appreciation for the ways food connects people on ethnic and community levels. Add in an MA in History and a culinary arts degree and McCulla seems like a well-rounded pick.
Good, because there’s a lot riding on this position. As I’ve said before, the Smithsonian’s appointee will probably set the tone for beer-related research in the United States for years to come. McCulla’s voice and viewpoints will manifest not only in her own statements and research but in the ways she shapes the Smithsonian’s beer collections. She’ll be compiling artifacts and documents as well as conducting oral histories around the country. These materials, right down to the way they are arranged and described under her direction, will become one of the chief resources that other beer researchers rely on for years to come. This is critical, as beer scholarship is currently a small (relatively speaking) and wide open field. In other words, her choices matter.
Even so, I’m not worried. I think McCulla’s appointment is cause for optimism. She’s a fresh academic voice who seems to understand that beer, like other foods, often serves as a nexus where many political, cultural, and historical threads collide. For example, she said:
“We really feel quite strongly that beer is a very effective lens into much bigger questions about American history. If you look at the history of beer, you can understand stories related to immigration and industrialization and urbanization. You can look at advertising and the history of consumer culture and changing consumer taste. Brewing is integrated into all facets of American history.”
This is music to my ears as a historian, and not just because I’m working on a dissertation of my own, using lager beer to examine German immigration and industrialization in the Mid-19th century U.S. This suggests we’ll be getting more than brewery histories and past
barrel counts. It suggests she’ll be working to help scholars better connect beer to historical questions about consumerism, ethnicity, reform movements, revolutions, industrialization, government regulation, socioeconomic relations, technology, and more.
McCulla also highlighted other historical threads visible through beer:
“One common stereotype about American beer is its identity as largely, if not exclusively, masculine,” McCulla said. “But the history shows us that the very first brewers were women and enslaved peoples who brewed beer in the home.”
This is absolutely true. One of the most common sources of beer before the 1840s was “small” or “table” beer, a weaker beer (usually 2-3%) drank at every meal and brewed at home by early American women. And whenever someone mentions that Thomas Jefferson brewed beer at Monticello, what they really mean is that he arranged for one of his slaves, Peter Hemings, to be taught the art of brewing. Race and gender-focused beer scholarship would be a very welcome addition to a field which often mentions these factors only in passing.
It really means something that McCulla understands and appreciates beer as a lens toward deeper historical understanding. Beer scholarship has begun steadily exploring these conceptual frontiers over the last five years or so, and a Smithsonian pick who aligns with this trend promises enormous momentum.
Alright, but there’s still a downside. McCulla’s primary background lies with food and culinary studies, and her appointment as the Smithsonian’s beer historian will also be her first time specifically studying beer. She’s playing catch-up right now while a scholar who’s already entrenched in the study of beer could hit the ground running.
The craft beer community itself could also be a slight issue. With the Smithsonian’s directive to prioritize post-1960s beer, as well as its partnership with the Brewers Association, McCulla’s primary research goal will undoubtedly be the rise of craft beer. A scant prior background in beer might lead the tight-knit craft beer community to view her as an outsider.
But craft brewers and drinkers also have a reputation for friendliness, and I hope McCulla is welcomed with open arms. When an American brewer feels confident enough to literally rename its product ‘America,’ beer clearly carries enough cultural and historical significance to warrant serious inquiry. With her credentials, McCulla has earned her shot at the best job ever.