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Garrett Peck

Garrett Peck is a literary journalist, local historian and author of five books. Capital Beer is his fifth book. A native Californian and graduate of VMI and the George Washington University, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.

Blurbs

"Why'd it take [DC's brewing culture] so long to get back on the wagon? Capital Beer will answer all your questions in the endearing style of your history buff friend who you can't take to museums (in a good way!)."

– DCist,

"Ever wonder what beer was like in Washington before DC Brau brought brewing back to the Capital in 2011? Grab a pint with local historian Garrett Peck."

– Washington Post Express

Richly illustrated with photographs both old and new, as well as a colorful collection of her art, Capital Beer is almost as much fun to read as 'sitting in an outdoor beer garden and supping suds with friends over a long, languid conversation.'"

– The Hill Rag

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Capital Beer

Where Are the Brewers Buried?

07/09/14

Table Ale. Family Beer. Strong Ale. Extra Strong Ale. Porter. Brown Stout. Lager Beer. Bock. Maerzen. Pilzner. Kölsch. What do all of these beers have in common? They’re all brewed or have been brewed in Washington, D.C.

Not a beer fan? More a fan of Aquavit? A teetotaler eh? How about a good narrative thread then?

Picture 23-year-old Catherine Dentz, nee Winkler, who in 1874 helped her husband open and run the Dentz brewery. She was likely Washington D.C.’s first female brewery operator and operate she did.

It had been less than a decade since the end of the Civil War and the business of lager beer was booming. Two years after the opening of the Dentz brewery, Catherine became a widow. If helping her husband run a successful Georgetown brewery was hard work imagine doing it solo, with three young mouths to feed, and still another year before the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company was founded.

What was a 25-year-old to do? Get busy. At this time, it was not uncommon for women to enter into the saloon business but to be a brewery operator was something unique for a woman at this time (it arguably still is today though thankfully that’s changing). Also making Catherine stand out was her status as an independent person, one competent enough to own a liquor retail license. But in the words of the Notorious B.I.G., mo’ money, mo’ problems.

In 1881 she was brought to court for operating an unlicensed bar, the case was dismissed. Later that year she was fined over $100 for selling liquor on Sunday. Not even 10 days later she was in court again, accused of stealing 5 kegs from the George Juenemann Brewery, a much larger lager producer. A year later she was back in the system for selling liquor by the glass (her license allowed her to sell packaged liquor but not by the glass).

In that same year, 1882, she was the victim of a sting operation where two African American men were sent into her establishment to each order a pint of beer. That’s when special license agent Henry Raff and his goons arrived on the scene. They entered Catherine’s saloon to be the harbingers of hairy news and when she saw the goon squad she tried to snatch the pints back. She did in fact grab one of the pints and was able to give one of her unwelcomed guests a beer shower. Hysteria ensued but miraculously no one was injured. The next year she was fined $5 for selling cigars on a Sunday.

The story of Catherine Dentz continues in Capital Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in Washington D.C. Author Garrett Peck sets out to accomplish a task unachieved in the history of DC Beer: to comprehensively cover Washington’s brewing history. Typically books with this aim turn into a dull historical narrative, recounting, or regurgitation. Peck’s book is more along the lines, and informs, the colorful narrative you’ve just read.

The book covers an immense span of time in 10 chapters. The chapters are as follows: Beer Beginnings, The Germans Are Coming! The Germans Are Coming!, Port City Suds, Christian Heurich: Washington’s Leading Brewer, The Beer War, An Open-Air City: Beer Gardens and Tied-House Saloons, The Road to Prohibition, The Fizz Falls Flat, Where Are the Brewers Buried? And finally, The Craft Revival. The book is littered with great finds from Peck’s deep archival dives, some appear in black and white but there is also a beautiful color spread that will appeal to all those with a profound love of aesthetics, archives, and history.

Peck uncovers many firsts in his book and notes, “It may come as a surprise and a disappointment to proud Washingtonians, but the first brewery in the district was not in the City of Washington, but rather across the river in Alexandria. In fact, it opened even before the American Revolution.”

As if the history wasn’t enough, you’ll learn about why Alexandria County was called “The Monte Carlo of Virginia.” You’ll learn about the casinos and brothels that existed not far from the Virginia breweries that were right over the river from the Capital. As gambling was banned in the district it made its way over the bridge to Arlington, then Alexandria County, only a few miles from the Dentz brewery.

Today, it is easier to find great beer in America’s capital then it has ever been. But due to the transient nature of the residents of Washington, most are unfamiliar with the rich brewing past that the city possesses. What Peck has done in Capital Beer is cover both Washington and DC. He chronicles the drinking habits of those who worked on Capitol Hill and those that worked down at the docks.

Peck finds many titillating sources. One stand out is a 1927 article, “Happy Days” from American Mercury. He quotes journalist Raymond Clapper who wrote about Pennsylvania Avenue during Prohibition. “It was an Appian Way of Bacchus, with forty-seven bars to its mile. Probably nowhere in America were there such superb drinking facilities in equally compact form.”

In olden times, D.C. was called “the Sodom of Suds” by teetotalers who felt beer was the work of the devil. More recently D.C. has been dubbed “Cologne by the Potomac” for the ubiquitous availability of a respectable Kölsch, a beer indigenous to Cologne, Germany.

What Peck does in Capital Beer is draw connections between the brewers of yore and those who are making beer in the District today. It’s not an easy task, one which requires many hours spent in archives and time pounding the pavement to track down the sites of breweries—some of which vanished a century (or more!) ago. The 19th century narratives, like the story of Catherine Denz, provide a beautiful backdrop to the stories of the 21st century and the women who are currently kicking ass in the land of DC beer. Peck profiles several women in brewing, notably Kristi Mathews Griner, Director of Brewing Operations at Capitol City Brewing Company.

Peck seizes on important moments in history and livens them with 21st century insight. Take fore example the Burning of Washington in 1814 “One might think that a conquering army would seize barrels of beer as a prize of war, but the British weren’t looters and were remarkably disciplined. After defeating the American militia at Bladensburg, the British occupied the city and torched only the public buildings. It may well be that the breweries escaped damage or looting during the Burning of Washington.”

This kind of historical reimagining is sure to please both lager-lover and teetotaler alike.

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