If you cracked open a beer this Fourth of July, history might not be the first thing on your mind. But for Theresa McCulla, the first brewing historian at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, the story of beer is the story of America.
"If you want to talk about the history of immigration in America, or urbanization or the expansion of transportation networks, really any subject that you want to explore, you can talk about it through beer," McCulla says.
Since taking the job earlier this year, she has combed through the Smithsonian's archives and pulled out treasures that show beer's part in American history — whether that has to do with advertising, technology, gender roles or even popular entertainment.
Pointing to some sheet music in the collection for a song called "Budweiser Is a Friend of Mine," she explains that the tune premiered on Broadway at the Ziegfeld Follies in 1907.
"The lyrics of the song tell the story of a man who goes out drinking in a bar and sings about how he prefers his Budweiser to his wife, because his beer does not talk back to him," McCulla says. "But the song concludes with his wife pouring him a schooner of Budweiser at home so he does not need to drink elsewhere."
You can't truly tell the American story of beer, though, without talking about immigration. More than 1 million German immigrants came to the U.S. in the second half of the 1800s — and they were beer drinkers.
"They brought new kinds of brewing yeast, they brought different kinds of brewing methods, and suddenly they produced this lager beer — a very light, crisp brew that became very popular with Americans," McCulla says.
Those immigrants transformed the kind of beer Americans drink and established a new industry in the process. The drink evolved from heavy, English-style ales to the cold, quaffable style that's common today. And instead of homebrews, by 1900 many cities had entire neighborhoods full of breweries.
McCulla says one of the most interesting aspects of the story of American beer is that it has come full circle: from the early days of homebrews to mass-produced beer, through the crash of Prohibition and back to a resurgence of microbreweries.