Brewing in the Archives

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has launched an effort to document America’s craft beer renaissance!

Per this article from Business Wire:

Beer and brewing have been an important part of the American experience since before the nation’s founding and into the present day, and beer production for the past 30 years has been connected to significant social, cultural, economic and environmental movements across the country.

They join the Oregon State University Special Collections and Archives in collecting and preserving brewing history.

Beer’s Role in the Discovery of Carbonation

In 1767, Joseph Priestley, a curious minister and tinkerer, popped over to a brewery. He had lately been tinkering with air, and the brewers allowed him to tinker with the air above a batch of fermenting wort. Because the yeast were secretly* doing their work, the air above the wort was full of carbon dioxide. Priestly and the brewers knew this as “fixed air.”

Priestley must have been well-liked, because the brewers helped him conduct various experiments with their air for the next several years. In 1772, Priestley announced an exciting discovery: soda water, a.k.a. seltzer. He’d managed to carbonate a bowl of water just by letting it sit in the area just above a batch of fermenting wort, and found that his friends liked to drink it.

L0000729 Joseph Priestley's Chemical apparatus. 18th C

Joseph Priestley’s Chemical apparatus. 18th C Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 

Priestley is now most famous for his contributions to Chemistry, not for his frequent visits to a local brewery. That’s a shame, especially when you consider that those 8 a.m. college Chemistry classes would be much more popular if classes were held at local microbreweries. Who knows what serendipitous discoveries are being prevented?

*Yeast’s role in fermentation was not understood until 1857.

Beer Brewing Nuns

In the 12th century, Hildegard von Bingen, a German Benedictine abbess, wrote that the bitterness of hops “inhibits some spoilage in beverages to which it is added, making them last longer.”

Fast forward to today, Sister Doris Engelhard of the Mallersdorf Abbey in Germany brews 80,000 gallons a year of hyper local craft beer, brewed to her expert taste. Sister Doris took charge of the brewery in 1975, shortly after becoming a brewmaster and taking her religious vows (the Mallersdorf Abbey has been brewing since 1881). In interviews, she expresses her support of drinking fresh beer and reveals that she herself enjoys about a pint a day.

The tradition of brewmaster nuns may be dying out in Europe (Sister Doris believes that she may be the last), but at least one order of American sisters are looking to get into the business. The Illinois-based Fraternite Notre Dame are seeking to build a brewery, and depending on the results of a lawsuit filed in 2015, they may be able to do so.

Further reading:

Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica: The Complete English Translation of Her Classic Work on Health and Healing (Google Books) 

The Meditations of Europe’s Last Brewmaster Nun (The Atlantic)

Nuns sue over thwarted plans for brewery, nursing home, in McHenry County (Chicago Tribune)

Drink Your History


On nearly every brewery tour that my husband and I have taken, the tour guide quizzes the group. They ask, “What are the ingredients in beer?”

Some tour guides tout their brewery’s adherence to the Reinheitsgebot, the German Beer Purity Law (prohibiting anything other than water, barley, and hops to be used to brew beer).* These guides will then often ask the group, “What are the 3 ingredients in beer?”

Calling back to the Reinheitsgebot is a logical way for American breweries to connect themselves to the history of brewing. Although some ales were consumed in the colonies and in the early years of the nation, beer as we know it today was introduced to America by German immigrants. Their legacy lives on in the Pabst, Miller, Budweiser, and other brewing companies of American origin.

Calling back to the Reinheitsgebot has also had the unfortunate side-effect of prompting a level of snobbery when it comes to what we now call “adjuncts.” The German tradition of brewing only with water, barley, hops, and yeast originated in efforts to control both the quality of beer and the price of grain. But modern beer quality is no longer a guessing game (Master Brewers are scientists, not artisans) and the price of grain is controlled by modern law and market forces, so there is no reason to shun beer brewed with various grains, fruits, spices, honey, pumpkin, etc. These brews harken back to an even older tradition of brewing, when women (alewives) dominated the industry and used a variety of ingredients for various effects (beer was brewed not only as a safe beverage but also as a medicinal one).

The current explosion of American craft beer brewing owes a great deal to brewers’ willingness to experiment with adjunct ingredients. I’ve tasted brews that were spiced with jalapeno, brewed with blueberries, flavored with coffee, and infused with bourbon. A three ingredient beer, while enjoyable, is only one facet of a tradition that dates back to ancient Sumeria.

*the Reinheitsgebot pre-dates the discovery of the existence of yeast.

Outreach Win: Teaming up with Craft Beer

Here is a fabulous outreach strategy: teaming up with the craft beer industry.

The Bostonian Society, which, among other things, preserves Boston’s Old State House, invited the Blue Hills Brewery to conduct a beer tasting in that historic building.


Come to the Old State House to taste beer, hear talks about pubs and drinking in the 18th century and listen to Master Brewers speak about their craft. Each admission includes 3 beer tokens.

In so doing, they grab the attention of the craft brew community, who love to taste beer and hear about its production and history (for proof, check out a local brewery’s tour). The beer will draw an audience, and the Bostonian Society gets the chance to convert these beer-lovers into historical preservation supporters with a modest presentation on beer in early American history.

This seems like a winner, and I hope it catches on with more organizations. Beer, wine, and spirits all have a rich history that people would love to hear, especially while drinking.

Archives in Pop Culture: Adventure Time

Season 2 Episode 14 “The Silent King”

Finn, the new king of a goblin kingdom, is given a tour of the royal facilities, which includes a Royal Game Archive, complete with controller hats!


+1,000,000 points for accuracy, as a true game archives would enable users to play the games in the collection.

Archives in Pop Culture: H.P. Lovecraft

From The Shadow Out of Time by H.P. Lovecraft

Now and then certain captives were permitted to meet other captive minds seized from the future—to exchange thoughts with consciousnesses living a hundred or a thousand or a million years before or after their own ages. And all were urged to write copiously in their own languages of themselves and their respective periods; such documents to be filed in the great central archives…

The archives were in a colossal subterranean structure near the city’s centre, which I came to know well through frequent labours and consultations. Meant to last as long as the race, and to withstand the fiercest of earth’s convulsions, this titan repository surpassed all other buildings in the massive, mountain-like firmness of its construction.

The records, written or printed on great sheets of a curiously tenacious cellulose fabric, were bound into books that opened from the top, and were kept in individual cases of a strange, extremely light rustless metal of greyish hue, decorated with mathematical designs and bearing the title in the Great Race’s curvilinear hieroglyphs. These cases were stored in tiers of rectangular vaults—like closed, locked shelves—wrought of the same rustless metal and fastened by knobs with intricate turnings. My own history was assigned a specific place in the vaults of the lowest or vertebrate level—the section devoted to the culture of mankind and of the furry and reptilian races immediately preceding it in terrestrial dominance.