Christian Heurich’s Lager: From Wien to Washington


On April 23, 1933 the Evening Star in Washington, D.C. published a long article by John Clagett Proctor, “Gardens and Picnics in the Old Wet Days“.

This article is a sub-genre of the Prohibition Repeal coverage widespread in 1932-1934. It can be defined as a generally fond retrospective on pre-Repeal “wet” days. Journalists reminded readers of the beer customs of yore, what saloons were like, what growlers were, and the like.

The pundits speculated what might return under the reformed regime brought in by F.D.R., and what might change.

Sometimes the stories are tinged with caution, as in, the good old days are back but don’t take it too far or Uncle Sam will pull up the reins. This fit well with the family image most newspapers wanted to project.

In general, the genre tended to the sentimental and benign, as did Proctor, focusing on liquor’s good side, on how many of its producers were successful, upstanding men (or women, he cites the case of one brewery continued by a founder’s widow).

Beer was a natural ally for this journalism given its family and sportive associations. Beer never quite had the devilish reputation that attached to whiskey everywhere until recently (now it is a high-class drink admired world-wide).

The German communities around the country suited a cheery, cozy, essentially harmless image of pre-Prohibition beer given the Germans’ well-known social customs as detailed by Proctor.

Thus, he devotes much space to Washington’s singing clubs and “shooting” picnics frequented by generations of German-Americans and, clearly, other ethnicities as well, occasions often moistened with the ichor of Gambrinus.

The article deals with beer generally though: first a potted world history is offered, then Proctor takes a close look at brewing history in Washington. He focuses on Christian Heurich whose business lasted from 1872 until 1956 most of it, amazingly, under the tutelage of the founder.

Heurich is a titan in American brewing history, having created a brewery that lasted in his lifetime through three international wars (Spanish-American, WW I, WW II). Not only was the sturdy patriarch past 100 at his death in 1945, he was still running the brewery!

There is a fair amount online about Heurich, some which I mentioned in tweets today, and I learned that a biography was written which I will buy soon.

In tweeting about him I mentioned he had worked for Anton Dreher in Vienna. He therefore represents an unbroken line from a cradle of lager to c.1945 by which time the industry was greatly automated and hi-tech. What a run.

I was asked why I stated a Dreher connection. It appears from this quote in Proctor’s article:

It was not far from the brewery of C. Coningham & Co. that Christian Heurich, many years later, erected considerable of a plant. However, he began the manufacture of beer at 1229 Twentieth street northwest, on rather small scale in 1872, a year after he came to Washington. According to an old sketch of him published in 1884, nearly half a century ago, we are told he is a native of Germany, where he was born September 12, 1842. When he came to the United States in 1866, he first obtained employment at his trade as a brewer in Chicago, later going to Kansas and then Baltimore before coming here.

When he left Europe, he was an overseer in the world-renowned brewery of A. Dreher, of Vienna, and had learned the manufacture of the malted beverage from the ground up. As far back as 50 years ago the people of Washington were consuming over 50 000 barrels of his beer annually.

Mr. Heurich is one of the vice presidents of the Association of Oldest Inhabitants, and at nearly 91 gives every indication of being with us for some years to come. He is as straight as an arrow, still has a beard and a good suit of hair, which is still more black than white, and although he is not a regular attendant at the monthly meetings, yet rarely misses those of a patriotic character.

John Procter (1867-1956) must have known Heurich, judging by the detail in the article and his own background. In any case, the Dreher reference is too precise to admit of any doubt.

In an listing for one of Proctor’s books he is described as follows:

… historian, poet, genealogist and writer, Dr. Proctor earned a law degree from National University Law School in 1893 and lived his entire life in Washington, DC, where he was active in numerous organizations, including the Masons, the Columbia Historical Society, and the Society of Natives.

As a lawyer, that training surely as well added to the credibility of the article (smilicon).

One of Heurich’s beers was revived by a local brewer, DC Brau. The alcohol is 7% ABV which would not have been usual for lager before Prohibition. It uses some grain adjunct as well although most American lager before Prohibition did so, so this aspect may be historically accurate, unless that is Christian Heurich was an all-malt brewer (of that I’m not aware).

Regardless, some pains were taken clearly to offer a pre-Prohibition taste and I’m sure I’d enjoy tasting the beer.

Ads in the D.C. press for 1933 advertise an impressive six months’ aging for Christian Heurich’s post-Repeal beer.

One was called Maerzen, most appropriately given his training in the birthplace of Vienna lager brewing.

Note re image: The image above and quotation were sourced from the digitized newspaper article linked in the text, via Chronicling America. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.