Lager Rhythms: How Homebrewer Mike Stein Revived Heurich’s Lager, a Classic D.C. Beer
A century ago, when friends or relatives would call on Christian Heurich at his austere mansion near Dupont Circle, they might have joined the old brewmaster in his basement, in the parlor he called the bierstube. In this room decorated like a German beer hall (including walls adorned with German drinking sayings like “He who has never been drunk is not a good man”), they could’ve sipped one of the 13 beers the Heurich Brewing Company made over its 83-year existence, brews that had made the company the most recognizable beer brand in the District.
By the time Mike Stein, a 28-year-old homebrewer, amateur historian, and teacher, and his friend Pete Jones visited the Brewmaster’s Castle in February, it had been more than 50 years since anyone had tasted Heurich’s lager, bock, Senate Ale, or maerzen. They were led upstairs to the conference room on the second floor of the home, now preserved as a house museum because of its moody Victorian architecture, handsome furniture, and window into the District of the late 19th and early 20th century.
On this day, it was the guests who’d brought the beer, as well as a detailed PowerPoint presentation: Using a knowledge of brewing and a nose for sniffing through historical archives, Stein had created a so-called “clone” of Heurich’s beer.
Even though the museum is dedicated to preserving the legacy of Christian Heurich, its staff had good reason to be skeptical of the unusual beer tasting. Archaic beers—resuscitated quaffs from breweries that have gone out of business or in styles that have gone out of vogue—have become a popular strain of the craft brewing movement. But with many of these beers, the concept outpaces the drinkability, as Stein himself puts it. The tastes and technologies of 50, 200, or—in the case of Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch—2,700 years ago simply aren’t the tastes and technologies of today.
Assistant Director Rachel Jerome says the staff of the Heurich House Museum had tasted other pre-Prohibition-style beers, which can be oppressively hoppy. But they had no clue what a re-creation of Heurich’s lager made by a guy in his friend’s Logan Circle apartment would taste like. “None of us really knew what to expect,” Jerome says. “And we were like, ‘This is surprisingly good!’”
“They were blown away that homebrew could taste like craft beer,” Stein says.
Now, Stein’s homebrew is craft beer. This summer, DC Brau scaled up a version of Stein’s concoction from five gallons to about 1,000. Following a release party at the Heurich House next Monday that doubles as a benefit for the museum, it will be available on taps at bars across the District.
Of course, Stein has no way of knowing whether his beer, branded “Christian Heurich’s Lager,” actually tastes like Christian Heurich’s lager. Instead, it’s a tribute to the traditions Heurich admired and the ingredients and processes of his time, a sort of idealized Heurich beer. “It’s something I would like and something he would like,” Stein says.
Stein can make that claim with confidence. While Heurich was a fastidious record-keeper, for reasons that mystify the keepers of his legacy, none of his beer recipes survived. In order to make a beer Heurich might have enjoyed in his bierstube, Stein first had to understand him.
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Stein began brewing at home about six years ago, quickly graduating, as many homebrewers do, from kits and recipes to his own creations. His efforts paid off last fall when he and Josh Hubner, another member of the DC Homebrewers group, created Wandering Belgian, a Belgian-style India pale ale, for Lost Rhino Brewery in Ashburn, Va.
If Stein has a niche, it’s combining the patience of a historian with the passion of a homebrew obsessive. He’s on the education committee of the DC Homebrewers, and for meetings he’ll prepare presentations on obscure styles of beer. “I like to say I’m the minister of propaganda,” Stein jests. He and Hubner have a joke mantra: “Beer will cure the future.”
Stein and Jones once dug up historical materials so Baltimore’s Union Craft Brewing and D.C. bar Meridian Pint could create an all-barley Berliner weisse—a wheat beer without the wheat—based on two old Baltimore recipes. At home, Stein has brewed oddities like a horner bier, an oat style once popular in Vienna. “It required ergot, which can literally kill people, like rot them from the inside,” he says. “So I dropped that.”
The Heurich project began with a simple prompt: “What’s D.C.’s indigenous drink?” Stein ruled out trying to find an alcoholic drink from pre-Columbian America, and turned to the 19th century. Stein was impressed that in the beer landscape of pre-Prohibition America, Heurich’s 500,000-barrel capacity was considered small (the brewery’s product was likely only available in D.C. and the surrounding region). That would be a huge capacity for craft beer today.
Stein looked at images of Heurich packaging on the website Rusty Cans, in order to understand how the brewery was marketed. He dove into troves of Heurich Brewing documents in the archives of the National Museum of American History and the Washington Historical Society. There were no recipes, but Heurich did leave behind plenty of receipts for ingredients he ordered. In order to translate those ingredients into a formula for a clean, light lager, Stein reasoned, he’d have to create a sort of psychological profile of Christian Heurich.
Heurich was born in 1842 in Haina, a farming village in central Germany, according to the book Washington History, published by the Washington Historical Society. Heurich’s father was a butcher and a brewer, and after traveling widely around central Europe as a teen, Heurich became a journeyman brewer in Vienna. In 1866 he immigrated to Baltimore, worked in several breweries around the country, and finally settled in D.C., where in 1872 he and a partner leased the Schnell Brewery on 20th Street NW, then one of five breweries in the District. By the next year, the brewery’s owner had died, the partnership had dissolved, and Heurich had re-established the operation as the Christian Heurich Brewery.
As the company, and Heurich’s wealth, grew, the brewmaster prepared to build a new facility in Foggy Bottom, where the Kennedy Center now stands. Fires had damaged the 20th Street brewery at least four times, so the new facility, built in the 1890s, was made of fireproof materials, as was the Dupont mansion Heurich built with his second wife. Today, the Heurich House Museum would be a good setting for a steampunk ball: It’s tricked out with contraptions like a zinc heating cabinet, call boxes and pulley systems, a rudimentary burglar alarm, and an elevator shaft that was never used. (Event rentals, by the way, begin at $1,500.)
Heurich’s penchant for technology—his brewery was one of the first to use pasteurization—was an important clue for Stein, who was aided in parts of his research by Jones. He found orders for grits on receipts, which made sense to Stein, even though corn products were unusual in lagers back then. In beer as in home gadgetry, Stein reasoned, Heurich was ahead of his time.
Stein also looked to Heurich’s frequent travels to Europe, which included a number of trips to the Sudetenland, the German-speaking part of what was then Czechoslovakia. That squared with a passage from one of Stein’s favorite secondhand sources, the 1965 book Brewing in Maryland: “[Heurich] had often said his ambition was to produce a fine light beer, and claimed his beer, and that of other American breweries, was as good as any produced in Germany, with an exception, however, which he admitted, of the Pilsener beer made in Czechoslovakia.” Heurich sold a light lager, and Stein concluded he was aspiring toward the ideal of the pilsner. (Which might also be Stein’s ideal beer: He says the project is partly personal, because his father was born in Prague.)
Other snippets of information helped Stein build his recipe. He found one source that mentioned the Heurich Lager’s gravity, or density relative to water. He also found receipts for different kinds of hops, including “Saazer hops” from Czechoslovakia and other varieties from New York and the West Coast. He also knew Heurich used something called a “fancy malt,” which he took to mean what brewers now call a “crystal” or “caramel” malt, made by drying barley at such a heat that it tastes sweet.
Stein and Hubner, who recently moved to Miami, gathered last winter to make the beer at Hubner’s apartment. They decided to use Saaz hops—a tribute to Heurich’s appreciation of truly Czech pilsner—and “straight-up grits,” Stein says. “We went to Whole Foods and got some organic grits. We were like, ‘we’re going to use the best of the best.’”
That version of the beer—the one Stein and Jones brought to the Heurich House in February—“was really dank, like a cellar or moldy basement” and was about 6 percent alcohol by volume, Stein says. For a second, less alcoholic version, made with Hubner and Jones, they used flake corn instead of grits and Hollertau and Cluster hops in addition to the Saaz.
In line with Heurich’s interests, “the second was a ménage-à-trois,” Stein says. “American, German, and Czech.”
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When D.C. Brau opened in 2011, its owners, Jeff Hancock and Brandon Skall, quickly learned what it meant to operate in a city that hadn’t had to regulate beer in 50 years. Skall says his friends assumed they were the first brewery since Heurich because of some kind of legal obstacle, even though anyone was free to open a brewery in the interregnum. “People asked, ‘What’d you guys do, change a law or something?’” Still, Hancock and Skall worked to update some antiquated laws, like ones that prohibited them from working on Sunday and offering tastings at their brewery. They still can’t let the public in to buy beer on Sundays, but they say that regulation is next on their hit list.
With the emergence of breweries like DC Brau, 3 Stars Brewing Company, and Chocolate City Beer, the District is beginning to build its own beer identity—one that Skall is eager to connect to Heurich. “I think the legacy should be something we should be proud of,” he says. Brewing a tribute to Heurich is “a great chance for us to show the people of D.C. that brewing is not new to D.C.”
To many drinkers in D.C., however, the name Heurich isn’t unfamiliar at all. Beginning in 1986, Gary Heurich, a grandson of Christian Heurich, operated the Olde Heurich Brewing Company, which sold several brands including Foggy Bottom Ale. The operation folded in 2006, and in a statement as bitter as raw hops, Gary Heurich blamed D.C.’s “relative lack of a hometown spirit.”
One problem with the Olde Heurich Brewing Company’s inability to tap into whatever hometown spirit is here: The beer was made at the F.X. Matt Brewery in Utica, N.Y., where Saranac Beer is produced. “I think people saw it was made in Upstate New York,” says Hancock. “Like most towns, but especially here in Washington, D.C., people want authentic stuff, to say it’s from D.C.” Still, Hancock says, the visibility of the craft-brew movement likely played a part, too. “I don’t know if even our brewery would’ve been successful six, seven years ago,” he says.
While Gary Heurich, himself something of a scholar on the original Heurich company, was inspired by his grandfather’s beer, he didn’t use the original recipes, and presumably would have if he possessed them. (He also didn’t respond to several requests for an interview.)
Several people I interviewed hazarded there’s a tiny chance the recipes are in the hands of a Heurich descendant; Stein thinks that’s very unlikely. There were several fires over the half-century history of the brewery, which may have also been scoured for mementos by employees when it closed in 1956, 11 years after Heurich’s death. It’s also possible that when the building was razed, the recipes went with it.
Wherever the recipes are, Hubner doesn’t think they will emerge. “The person who knew the recipe moved on or passed away,” he says. “Or it could be sitting in someone’s attic, and they have no idea what they have.”
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Ten days before the beer is set to debut, Stein stops by DC Brau on Bladensburg Road NE to taste what’s likely the final incarnation of Christian Heurich’s Lager. Although it hasn’t yet been carbonated—as it will be once it’s kegged—the beer is naturally fizzy, and when poured cold straight from the vat, surprisingly sweet. Once the beer warms up a little, Stein says it tastes like the era he was going for: “It’s the lager that predates TV and radio ads.”
Hancock, DC Brau’s brewmaster, took cues from both of Stein’s clones. He used all Saaz hops, but instead of grits, he used a mix of flake corn and rice. As the beer warms up, it begins to take on a powerful, oddly refreshing bitterness. “The Saaz really are out now, they’re really out to play,” says Stein. Later, he adds by email: “It’s really like two different beers once the beer warms up...I keep going back to Heurich’s quote from the article, ‘Whenever Mr. Heurich had a glass of beer he would always set the glass on the radiator to warm it.’ I don’t know that I’d recommend putting the Brau beer on a radiator but it definitely transforms, with the temperature bringing out the Saaz and the oomph from the malt, rice, and corn.”
After the release of Christian Heurich’s Lager, Stein wants to keep researching Heurich’s beers. Hancock has his eye on re-creating one of the brewery’s less successful products: “Champeer,” which was marketed as a Champagne of beer long before Miller High Life became a dive-bar mainstay.
Stein doesn’t stand to profit from the limited release of the beer he reverse-engineered (“I paid no money, and I get paid no money,” he says), but he sees different rewards. His interest in homebrewing, he says, comes from an instinct to understand the authorial intent of the beermaker. Absent a conversation with Christian Heurich himself, sifting through history to bring back lost styles is his best way of communing with the brewmaster. “I want to seek out the guy who made this,” Stein says, “and ask him about it."
Photos by Darrow Montgomery