Why Is the Smithsonian Collecting 50 Years’ Worth of Beer Artifacts?

Earlier this month, the Smithsonian announced an ambitious new research project aimed at retracing 50 years of American beer and brewing. Megan Krigbaum talks to the museum's Director of Food History Programs about how brewing can tell a larger story about American history.

Earlier this month, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History announced that it was embarking on an epic three-year beer project, documenting American brewing history from roughly 1960 to today.

At the helm of this endeavor is Susan Evans McClure, the Smithsonian’s Director of Food History Programs. With a Master’s degree in arts education in from Harvard, several years as Marketing Manager at Vermont’s Magic Hat brewery and six years under her belt at the Smithsonian, McClure is uniquely positioned to head up the project.

For the past 20 years, the Smithsonian has been pursuing an ongoing study of the history of wine in the United States. Now, in collaboration with the Brewer’s Association, beer will get its chance in the spotlight, too. Here, McClure talks about the impact of agriculture on beer, how technology fits into the picture and how a grassroots home brewing movement has greatly improved brewing in America.

What historical objects related to beer or brewing does the Smithsonian already have in its collection?
We have the collection of a former brewmaster from Maryland [Walter Voigt] dating mostly from 1870 to 1960. He personally collected a lot of advertising material, glassware, patent papers, beer steins, bottle openers—and oh gosh, beer trays, beer trays all day.

Why do you, and the Smithsonian, think that the time is right for this project?
A lot of the changes that have been made since the 1960s in the brewing industry are changing again now. There’s enough to look back on in our rearview mirror… What we’re excited to do is really bring stories of brewing history into our collections so that they can help us tell a broader story of American history. So, we’ll be looking at advertising, agriculture, industry, business history, community and all of these strands that people might not even think are related to brewing. I’m particularly interested in the agriculture stories of brewing. How does the farmer who feeds spent grains to his cows relate to the fact that Americans are drinking more craft beer? That, to me, is a much more complex story of American history.

Where do you even start with a project of this magnitude?
That’s a great question that we are asking, too. We don’t go into it saying, “We want this thing.” We’re going into it saying, “What’s the most important part of this story? And what’s the object that tells that story for our audiences?” So, the first step is research; before we ever go out to talk to anyone or collect anything, we build a research base. What were those major changes from 1960s to today? What were the technological changes? What were the agricultural changes? We’ll lay that all out and then go into the field and interview people who have worked in the industry and document oral histories. We actually go into it with a very open perspective because it will become obvious in those conversations what material objects best represent the stories.

Who do you plan to talk with for these oral histories?
It will be brewers, but it will also be farmers and beer business people and consumers. One of the things that we’re interested in, from a community perspective, are these groups that grow up around brewing. Today, people are so committed to this brand identity around beer. How did that happen and what does that mean for American history? When I worked at a brewery, people used to send me pictures of their tattoos of our labels that they’d put on their bodies. So even way outside of food and drink, throughout American history, what is the thing that people have been that committed to that they’ll tattoo it on their body? Having it as a part of a broad American history story allows us to look at where else this is happening and where it came from.

[For example], in our food exhibition, we have a section about the Good Food movement, so post-1960s, back-to-the-land, farmers markets, food coops—that story. Being able to look at brewing in comparison to that is fascinating to us. Was that happening at the same time? How were the beer and food movement talking to each other—or not?

What role will current brewers play in this project?
We’re documenting history and history is happening every day, so we’ll be trying to find a good balance of people who were kind of the post-1960 beer revolutionaries up to the people who are doing the work today.

Others around the country are trying to document brewing history right now, too. Oregon State University has the Oregon Hops and Brewing archives and they’re doing really interesting work. We’re hoping to find other archives and museums around the country that are doing this and to see how we can collaborate. A lot of local areas look through a local lens, which is very important when we’re looking throughout all of the U.S.

Aside from breweries, who or what else will you be looking at?
We will definitely be looking at industry and how technology has impacted how beer has been made [from the 1960s to today]. The museum has what we call our Division of Work and Industry collection and that looks at how things are produced and the technology that goes into that. That’s a story about brewing that I don’t think most people who drink beer really think about. Even in the time since I started working in a brewery and in the four or five years that I was there, the whole process became automated. That’s a huge technological shift. So, when did that start? There are still people that are brewing on systems that are not digital—what does that mean?

You mentioned that agricultural history will be a big part of this. What, specifically, will you be investigating?
We’re really going to look at the impact that agricultural innovation and workers and production have had on brewing—and that brewing has had on production and agriculture. Hops production is a very interesting aspect, too, especially as hop farms are expanding beyond Washington State—you know, there are some in Virginia and Vermont… and so we’ll be looking at that.

How does advertising, or even political history, fit in?
The way Americans have used graphics and ads to sell product is a great American history story. And being able to include some of the brewery advertising, post 1950, will again help us tell a broader story of the world of American advertising.

The federal regulations piece is another thing. The impact of Prohibition on every alcoholic beverage industry today is still very strongly felt. Every state has different rules; there federal rules and state rules. We’re going to be looking at the impact that homebrewers had on craft beer industry—it was illegal to homebrew until not too long ago—and how changing laws and regulations have allowed brewing as an industry to change.

The impact of homebrewing on beer history is interesting. Is that something that you plan to delve into?
You can’t to talk about the craft brewing side of beer now without talking about the impact of homebrewers. A lot of the people who started the first craft breweries started as homebrewers. The homebrew community has been very supportive of the craft brewing community—and vice versa. We’ll look at that, first because we have to because it’s part of the story, but also because we want to. Our theme for the museum this year is America Participates—so we’re looking at how Americans shape their democracy through voting and community participation and civic organizations and clubs. If you look at it from that angle, homebrewers are participating everyday. There are homebrew clubs across the country and homebrewers have been working to change laws about brewing for a long time.

[A lot of this research will often take us] way beyond beer. You start out with beer and somehow end up in a field somewhere arguing with a senator.

This interview has been edited and condensed.