Running For Senate: A 19th Century D.C. Beer Is Back On the Ticket
Heurich’s most popular brew is being resurrected by beer scientists
As the United States celebrates Independence Day this week with the traditional fireworks over the Washington Monument, a beer from the District of Columbia’s past has just beeen reborn. Senate Beer was first made in the 1880s by the district’s largest and longest-operating brewery, The Christian Heurich Brewing Co. I was lucky to try the remade beer in June at Heurich House, the 19th century mansion-turned-museum known as The Brewermaster’s Castle, near Dupont Circle. The original brewery was located along the Potomac River between Georgetown and downtown Washington from 1895 until 1956. It was razed in the early 1960s to clear the way for one of D.C.’s most famous landmarks—The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
That’s why whenever I visit the center with its grand foyer and red carpet, my thoughts inevitably turn to beer.
Senate Beer was Heurich Brewing’s flagship beer for most of its brewing life. Now, a team of Oregon State University’s beer experts have brewed a batch of Senate Lager based on a recipe found in the National Archives. Senate is typical of a beer style from the 1940s: a classic American lager, but with a hint of bitterness. It’s a light, highly drinkable beer with a 5% ABV.
A successful run in Washington
First introduced in the 1890s, Senate enjoyed a golden age unlike any other brew of its time and was the star in much of the company’s marketing and advertising. The Senate label was Heurich’s mainstay before and after Prohibition, and survived until the brewery closed in 1956. The brewery’s legacy has been kept alive by the staff at Heurich House.
In 2013, the museum partnered with DC Brau (Washington D.C. Brewery of the Year in the 2019 NY International Beer Competition) to recreate Heurich’s Lager. That recipe was based off informed guesses by Pete Jones and two other local brewers based on the brewery’s invoices for materials and Heurich’s tastes.
This time, Heurich House had something much better to recreate an old Heurich brew. Washington D.C. Beer historian Pete Jones came across records in the National Archives. It was an appeal by Heurich brewing in 1948 asking for an increase in tin rations to use for canning beer. The appeal contained lab reports detailing the recipe and brewing process for Senate Lager, one of the brewery’s flagship beers.
Jones brought the report to Kimberly Bender, executive director of the Heurich House. Bender, who has helped bring the beer maven’s rich heritage to life with tours and special events, then contacted beer experts at Oregon State. The school’s Fermentation Science Department, which specializes in developing beers for industry, has its own fully automated research brewery. The department had never tried to re-engineer a historical beer, but armed with the ingredients and chemical markings of Senate beer, it was ready to give it a shot.
To hear Jeff Clawson, pilot brewer at Oregon State, describe his work resurrecting Senate Beer sounds much like the scientists in the movie Jurassic Park figuring out how to make a dinosaur from a handful of strands of its DNA. Clawson found the type of hop clusters Heurich used for his lager but had to take educated guesses to mimic the malt style which had long since gone out of fashion. “We pieced things together to try to get the right alcohol and sugar content,” he said. Instead of corn grits that were used in the original recipe, Clawson’s team used flaked corn. They also added some caramel malt to help get the right color of the beer.
Four kegs of the new Senate beer were brewed and shipped to Washington, with the first served at the special happy hours on June 13. The beer was served inside a special exhibit called “Home/Brewed”, which includes a rotating exhibit of 1,000 items such as bottles, cans, signs and other branded objects from the Heurich Brewing Co.Attendees taste tested two styles of the new Senate beer, made similarly but with different yeast strains that gave one a more flavorful and modestly hoppier tone. For a century old beer, the new Senate tasted fresh and balanced.
Bender said the results from the test will go into helping Oregon State develop a more refined batch of Senate beer that it will serve at a special Octoberfest celebration on Sept. 21 at Heurich House. Eventually, Bender has hopes to collaborate with a brewery in the district to make Senate beer on a larger scale and possibly put it in cans and bottles like back in its heyday. “It’s a way of bringing some beer history to life,” she said.