Heurich’s Lager: Bringing Beer Back From The Dead in DC

All photos by Phil Galewitz.  When Mike Stein was a graduate student at George Mason University in Northern Virginia a few years ago he wrote his thesis paper about beer history in Washington D.C. But after graduating he wanted to turn his research into something real. So combining his homebrewing and historical research skills, in 2013 he helped recreate one of the more popular beers sold in Washington nearly a century ago: Heurich’s Lager.

Because the recipe for the beer had been lost, Stein used a treasure trove of brewery’s invoices, such as orders for hops and malts, as well as clues from the brewery’s advertising, to recreate the ale. “I knew I wanted to make something of my research and not just have it live on a page,” said Stein, 33, president of Lost Lagers, a beverage research firm that’s focused on reviving interest in old beers that have been off the market for decades.

When Heurich Brewing Co., began in 1872, it was the largest brewery in Washington before Prohibition and it was the District’s last production brewery of the 20th century to close in 1956. The building along the Potomac River was razed in the mid-1960s to make way for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Washington had no breweries until DC Brau opened in 2011, which ushered in a new era of beer making in the nation’s capital. Today’s the District has seven breweries and more on the way.

Stein initially brought his libation to the Heurich House Museum, the beautifully restored Victorian home of Christian Heurich who ran the brewery for over 50 years. The home, known as the "Brewmaster’s Castle", is just off busy Dupont Circle. The museum’s operators loved the beer and more importantly how it helped find a new way to honor the legacy of its founder.

"When Christian Heurich's brewery operated in the District from 1872-1956, he was a household name," says Kim Bender, executive director of the Heurich House Museum. "We love how this project honors his legacy, and gives modern DC a taste of its past."

With the museum’s support, Stein has collaborated with DC Brau to scale up a version of the Heurich’s lager from five gallons to over 1,8000 gallons. And this past summer they canned the beer and are selling it across the city until supplies run out.

For DC Brau owners Jeff Hancock and Brandon Skall, bringing back the old beer was a “no brainer.” Both have tried to pay tribute to DC’s long beer history as the brewery makes its own.

“For all intents and purposes, our Heurich’s Lager is a traditional pre-Prohibition lager that differs slightly due to the fact that it incorporates both flaked rice and flaked corn,” Hancock said. “The mild sweetness of the corn is noticeable but plays well with the malt-forward base of this strong lager, and a substantial amount of hops are present and identifiable, but not overwhelming.”

Hancock said the hops add a strong level of bitterness to balance the malt character and aromatically give the beer a rustic, herbal note with a mild spice profile.

Hancock suggests trying the 7% ABV lager warmer than serving temperature to experience all the nuances of the beer, like Christian Heurich would have done. However, he says, “If that’s not your cup of tea — or beer – then enjoy it in the manner of how most traditional lagers are served, cold and crisp.”

The beer was the first pre-Prohibition style I’ve ever tried. I was expecting bland, but instead its warm, sweet and only modestly-hoppy style was a pleasant surprise. And for the record, I liked it cold.

This was the third year that DC Brau has made Heurich’s lager and its making the biggest batch so far, a sign people like the brew and the history behind it. “We love bringing back old labels,” said Stein, who did research at the Washington DC Historical Society and Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History to learn more about Heurich and recreate what was once his flagship beer.

Lost Lagers has also worked with Lake Anne Brew House in Reston, Va. to make Praize the Maize, a beer almost identical to one made by a Pennsylvania brewery in 1913. It has also brewed “Polish Porter,” a lager first mentioned in print in 1847 in Warsaw, Poland made by Brewery Warsaw.  Stein brewed the beer at the oldest brewpub in D.C., the District Chophouse.

(L-R) Mike Stein, Peter Jones and Joshua Grubner of Lost Lagers
(L-R) Mike Stein, Peter Jones and Joshua Grubner of Lost Lagers

Stein and his partners Joshua Hubner and Peter Jones at Lost Lagers also produced “Colonial Panic,” a porter made with colonial ingredients such as sorghum molasses, a staple in George Washington’s 1757 beer recipe. It was brewed at Pen Druid Brewing in Sperryville, Va. They have also made beers recreated from old brews in Florida and Massachusetts. Stein said his goal is to remake beers from all 50 states.

In 2014, Pabst Brewing brought back Ballantine IPA. Ballantine was the first India pale ale (IPA) brewed in the United States, dating back to 1878. “Historical beers are hot and in vogue,” Stein said. “The challenge is to sell the story along with the beer,” he said.

Stein notes that Heurich’s Brewery was the largest private employer in the District in the first decades of the 20th century. He thinks Christian Heurich would be proud of the lager that he helped make. “It’s something I think he would like,” he said.

The new Heurich’s lager can is based on a 1930s label from the Heurich House archive."The history of the beer and the existence of the historic beers are really important to us,” said Bender from the museum. “We're trying to make history interesting to people, more than just walking through a museum. Heurich's Lager is living history."

Note: On the third Thursday of every month, the Heurich House museum hosts local craft beer tastings and beer-centric house tours called History & Hops. For this and other museum information, go to www.heurichhouse.org.