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How Historian Theresa McCulla Is Preserving This Year in Beer

August 27, 2020

By Bailey Berg, August 27, 2020

When Theresa McCulla, curator of the American Brewing History Initiative at the National Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian, does an interview with beer professionals she always concludes the conversation by asking what changes they foresee happening in the industry over the next five to ten years.

While their answers have run the gamut, ranging from new techniques to emphasis on certain styles and a shift in the demographics of consumers, McCulla said, "No one could have predicted 2020." 

Whenever there are society-wide experiences, occasions that cut across all industries and reach all corners of the American existence, the museum looks for ways to collect artifacts from those events. It’s important in helping explain what this time was like to future generations. McCulla's job is to look at how beer is relevant and interwoven in the current moment—particularly the coronavirus and social justice movements—and determine how history will remember this pivotal time through the lens of beer.

"In terms of thinking about the future, the first step here is to think, 'What could help us preserve this?'" McCulla explained.

Pre-pandemic, McCulla spent much of her time traveling throughout the country, meeting with brewers, bartenders, maltsters, teachers, writers, and others within the brewing community to gain an understanding of craft beer's growth in recent decades. Now many of those experiences, like sitting elbow-to-elbow with strangers in tap rooms, are out of reach.

Because museum employees are currently working remotely, it’s added a layer of difficulty to sourcing materials. Usually curators, like McCulla, think in terms of 3D objects—things organized on shelves and cataloged in boxes spread throughout multiple rooms. Lately most of the pieces she receives are digital PDFs. Collecting something now might be as simple as downloading the open source recipe for Black is Beautiful or saving a picture of a poignant  label.

Not that she doesn’t still plan to amass physical pieces. It's just that she’s had to ask donors to save materials for later inclusion. "The physical distance between the curator and the potential donor has been really interesting," McCulla said. "Museums think in material terms to preserve the history of the moment. But that's not available to us right now."

The kinds of objects McCulla hopes to receive relate to businesses’ responses to the year and how they’ve sold beer as well as how their customers are consuming those beers. It’s an evolving conversation with potential donors, and an object’s place in the collection isn’t official until deed of gift is signed. Some pieces might include special can labels—like those from the All Together IPA mass collaborationcans with beer names or art that comments on the year, signage that indicates social distancing or increased safety measures, brewery merch like hand sanitizer and face coverings, take-out menus, and even photos of how the brewery or taproom set-up changed to meet CDC guidelines.

"There are a lot of aspects of this moment that right now seem simple," McCulla said. "They have little monetary value, are things people might throw away when a city goes to a new phase and the sign on the door is no longer relevant. I asked people to set those aside—I think as you look at something in the fall you’ll realize you see something from March that already has resonance in a different way." 

McCulla said the Smithsonian's mission is to preserve items that are critical to national history, things that will be kept and made useful to scholars of the future. The times we’re living through are, indeed, unprecedented—the Brewers Association did a survey in April that found 58 percent of small breweries would have to permanently close if social distancing measures remained equally strict for a period of one week to three months and two-thirds of brewery employees had been laid off.

When there are more people who are included, the beer industry can only be better.”

But while the entire country is undergoing changes and challenges, different cities and states are having dissimilar experiences. Having partners in various communities, McCulla said, is important in making sure she's able to represent as much of the country as possible.

"The craft brewing industry is so large right now and my effort has been to get a cross section of regions," McCulla said. "I love to talk to brewers who have been in this for 25 years and have seen lots of change. I also love to talk to people who recently opened and are seeing the competitive nature of this time in a different way."

In the past, certain voices, including women, people of color, the disabled, and the LGBTQ community weren't always permitted to be a part of those archives, a practice McCulla says left a hole in the historical collection she inherited (and something she’s worked to correct since her appointment in 2017). It’s something that’s only become more apparent in 2020 thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement.

"It behoves curators to work to build archives that are inclusive and reflect the full diversity of those voices and opinions," McCulla said. "Going forward those are really important causes to pursue."

A big part of saving those voices is just listening to them. McCulla is planning on continuing recording oral histories with those who have historically been excluded, ranging from Black-owned breweries to activists who are working to bring these issues to the forefront. She hopes those interviews will aid in making the brewing community more inclusive.

Other artifacts she hopes will make their way to the Smithsonian are physical materials from breweries that have supported protestors, as well as labels and graphics associated with the Black is Beautiful collaboration brew and similar projects, though it’s likely she won’t know the full range of possibilities until the museum reopens.

"When there are more people who are included, the beer industry can only be better," McCulla said. "There can only be more creative business models, flavors, styles and wonderful taprooms that come from an industry that is fully inclusive. So I'm optimistic that's the future of American beer."

Given the interviews she’s conducted and the pieces she’s flagged for collection, when McCulla thinks about how the brewing industry will change in the next five to ten years, she said there's no question that there's enormous work to be done to create a spot at the bar for everyone. But, she thinks we’re already moving in that direction.

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