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Theresa McCulla: The Smithsonian's Indiana Jones of Beer History

June 19, 2018

By Tina Caputo, June 19, 2018

When Theresa McCulla landed the job last year as the craft beer historian for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, I thought she had to be the luckiest person alive. I later learned that her appointment had little to do with luck and much more to do with her impressive pedigree. McCulla’s background includes a laundry list of degrees and experiences that led her directly to the Smithsonian’s door.

McCulla grew up with a home brewer father from beer-loving Milwaukee, and her large extended family rightly considered beer to be an essential component of all social gatherings, especially Green Bay Packers games. By age seven, she was a reluctant recruit in her dad’s home brewing operation. “I remember helping him cap bottles in the kitchen with my siblings,” she says. “I thought the process smelled terrible and, on days that he was brewing, I really would have preferred to run outside and be in the backyard.”

Her appreciation for beer as a field of study—and a beverage—came much later.

As an undergraduate at Harvard University, McCulla studied romance languages, which sparked a passion for exploring cultures and cuisines. That led her to the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts to hone her cooking skills, and then back to Harvard for graduate school and later a doctorate. Her focus was the gastronomic history of New Orleans with an emphasis on the ways that race, ethnicity and gender relate to food and drink.

She was just finishing graduate school when she heard about the Smithsonian position—the first of its kind in the museum’s history. While she never dreamed that such a job existed, it was almost as if it was created just for her. “What they really wanted,” McCulla explains, “was someone to ask big historical questions using beer as a lens.”

And who better qualified to do that than her?

The original brewers in America were certainly indigenous people, and in our early history as colonies and as a nation, it was often women and enslaved people who were the brewers in the household.”

When McCulla joined the Smithsonian in January 2017, her first major task was to survey the museum’s beer-related collections. She spent untold hours in the archive center and storage rooms inspecting brewing equipment, documents and advertising materials. While the items she found there were rich and interesting, she noticed their scope was limited.

She began filling in the historical gaps and set about creating a new collection to chronicle America’s modern brewing history, starting in the mid-20th century. Her efforts are part of the American Brewing History Initiative, a three-year project set up to build a collection of artifacts related to 20th-century home brewing and craft beer, funded by a gift from the Brewers Association.

“Most of us are familiar with the image of the immigrant German entrepreneur who arrives in America and begins to brew lager beer,” she says. “To a certain extent, that’s where our collective memory of brewing history begins. But the original brewers in America were certainly indigenous people, and in our early history as colonies and as a nation, it was often women and enslaved people who were the brewers in the household. Brewing was very much a domestic chore, and there was nothing glamorous about it.”

Using that information as a backdrop, McCulla is tracking America’s more recent beer history—a period she views as pivotal in sparking the country’s craft beer revolution. “It’s really during the 1960s that we see a return to enthusiastic home brewing,” she explains. “That’s the critical link between the somewhat homogenous nature of mid-20th Century beer and the great diversity of craft beer that we enjoy today.”

To help bring that history to life, McCulla joyfully embarks on road trips around the country in search of artifacts and stories. It’s her favorite part of the job.  

“It’s so energizing to go out and meet brewers, growers, teachers and writers—all the different kinds of people involved in the industry—and learn about their careers and what influenced them along the way,” she says. During each trip, McCulla sits down with her subjects and records formal oral histories that become part of the museum’s archives.

Her interview subjects range from relative newcomers to rock stars. During last spring’s tour of Northern California, McCulla met two of America’s legendary modern brewing figures: Fritz Maytag, who rescued and revitalized San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Company, and Dr. Michael Lewis of UC Davis, developer of America’s first four-year brewing degree in the early 1970s.

National Museum of American History Smithsonian Institution/FlickrCharlie Papazian's "Charismatic Spoon"

McCulla doesn’t just collect stories. She also brings back donated treasures and documents for the Smithsonian’s growing collection—like the wooden spoon used by home brewing guru and Brewers Association founder Charlie Papazian during his decades of teaching. “He called it his ‘charismatic spoon,’” McCulla says of the worn stirring tool. “It doesn’t look very charismatic—it’s this beat up old wooden spoon—but I think it’s an awesome reflection of the extent to which this object was used by him and his students. We see it as a precious historical artifact.”

She also scored Maytag’s personal microscope, given to him by his father when Maytag was a teenager. “He wasn’t initially drawn to brewing for brewing’s sake, but the science side of things really appealed to him,” McCulla says. “When he bought Anchor in 1965 the brewery was struggling partly because it was having profound sanitation issues with its beer, so he brought this microscope into the brewery and figured out what was going on.”  

Lest you think the job of craft beer historian involves precious little beer drinking, McCulla regularly samples fascinating regional brews during her travels. “I have little favorite breweries all over the country,” she told me. Among them are Albuquerque’s Marble Brewery and Bell’s in Michigan.

Once McCulla is back at the museum, she looks for creative ways to share her research discoveries with the public. Last October, as part of the Smithsonian’s Food History Weekend, McCulla brought together four diverse brewers—one Vietnamese, one African American, one Jamaican-born Chinese and one German—for a sold-out discussion about the effects of immigration and migration on American brewing. And yes, it included beer tasting.

“My job entails a wide variety of tasks,” McCulla says. “And they’ve all been totally fantastic.”

Perhaps she is a little bit lucky after all.

Illustration by Remo Remoquillo

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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