Born in a small town north of the Bavarian border of Germany in 1842, Christian Heurich grew up working in a tavern his parents operated. When he was orphaned at the age of 14, he became a brewing apprentice and spent the next 10 years traveling around Europe and honing
his trade. In 1866, Heurich immigrated to Baltimore and continued his travels into the west and on sailing ships. In 1872, Heurich and his business partner, Paul Ritter, invested $1000 each to acquire the failing George Schnell Brewery, located on 20th Street NW between M and N. At the time, the brewery was a one-room operation with a biergarten attached, and one of five in the city. The partnership dissolved within one year, probably because Heurich felt that Ritter was taking too much credit for the quality of their beer.
Heurich bought out Ritter and renamed the brewery Christian Heurich’s Brewery. Heurich also changed the style of beer produced by the brewery from weiss beer (a wheat based beer) to a barley-based lager style ale. He began brewing two style of beers, Senate Ale – a lighter, popular American-style beer – and Maerzen – a traditional German-style dark ale. By 1873, Heurich was selling an average of eight barrels (and making about $100) per week. At first, Heurich’s beer was largely sold to the middle-class working people who lived in the neighborhood surrounding his brewery. He quickly began to market his beer to the growing hotel and restaurant industry in D.C. Heurich was devoted to keeping his brewery equipped with the most modern technology. As a result, the original brewery on 20th Street underwent a series of expansions and updates. In 1878 he celebrated the expansion and modernization of the brewery with a party for 1000 people.
In addition to the expansion and rebuilding of the brewery, the 20th Street facility suffered a number of setbacks due to fire. The first was in 1875, caused by a chimney spark, which ignited the roof shingles. The second, in 1883, started in the horse stable by a worker who was smoking. The third fire in the stables severely injured a fireman. The fourth, in 1892, started with an explosion in the malt mill and caused extensive damage to the main structure of the building, but kept the offices mostly intact. After this final fire, the need for a fire-proof structure and increased capacity at the brewery led Christian to commission C.F. Tierney of New York to build a new facility in Foggy Bottom (on Water Street at 26th and D Streets, NW). The new brewery was constructed from 1894 – 1895 and cost $400,000 to build. Heurich opened to great fanfare and hosted a number of days for special guests including “German Day” and “Ladies Day at the Brewery,” where guests were served beer, frankfurters, and salads. The new brewery was built with a capacity of 250,000 barrels per annum and contained an ice plant with a daily capacity of 120 tons.
In its early days, the company brewed three lines of beer: Heurich Maerzen, an amber color malt and hop brew; Heurich Senate, a golden color brew made specifically for hotels and family trade, which became his most popular and most widely distributed brew; and, Heurich Lager, a light straw color brew that most closely resembled the traditional Czech-style lager beer and Heurich’s favorite). Throughout the course of its operation, the brewery would go on to produce 13 different types of beer including: Old Georgetown, Heurich Bock Beer, Congress Lager, Sparkling Stock Ale, and Heurich Champeer (a blend of beer and champagne).
A British syndicate made repeated attempts to purchase the company from Christian Heurich, which he refused, saying that he wanted residents to control the brewery so that the companies’ profits would remain in the district. This led Heurich to incorporate his brewery in 1890 as the Chr. Heurich Brewing Co., the name it held until it was closed. Heurich’s Foggy Bottom brewery operated until 1917, when Prohibition began in Washington, DC. While the threat of Prohibition was looming, Heurich began devising plans to keep his business operating. Although he was in his seventies, and could have gone into retirement at this point, Heurich decided to keep the ice plant at the brewery in operation and supplied ice to Congress and the Supreme Court. By the time that Prohibition was repealed by the 21st Amendment in 1933, Heurich was one of only two breweries in the city to remain. The second brewery, Abner-Drury, closed a few years later due to quality issues.
Heurich ran the brewery until his death in 1945. He reportedly arrived at work every morning at 8:15am where he personally supervised the production of Senate beer. Upon his death in 1945, his son Christian, Jr., took over the brewery and ran it until 1956, when he eventually shuttered the company due to competition from larger breweries with national distribution. Christian’s grandson, Gary Heurich, revived the Heurich beer brand in the 1990’s. His company, The Olde Heurich Brewing Company, was built on the Heurich beer reputation, but it was contract brewed in New York and did not rely on Heurich’s original recipe for beer. The company distributed two different brews: Foggy Bottom Ale and Foggy Bottom Lager. It stopped operation in 2006.
There has been no other production brewery operating within the District until the opening of the D.C. Brau in 2011.
Recently, the Heurich House Museum in Washington, DC partnered with DC- based Right Proper Brewing Company to revive Senate Beer. A talented team of researchers, historians and brewers worked together to bring this almost-forgotten classic back to vibrant life. Its triumphant release in late-2019 marked more than 60 years since it was last brewed by the old Heurich Brewing Company.
The Heurich House Museum is based in the house that brewery owner Christian Heurich owned and lived in. This stately mansion in the Dupont Circle neighborhood exists “to explore the questions of the American dream, using the Heurich family and their brewing business as our medium,” according to museum director Kimberly Bender. Visitors learn how Christian Heurich rose from very humble immigrant beginnings to build a sprawling brewery that was a cornerstone of Washington DC for many decades.
The Senate Beer revival began when independent historian Peter Jones of Lost Lagers discovered a 1946 lab report hidden away in the National Archives. This report contained detailed data about Senate Beer’s ingredients and brewing process. Jones discovered it by chance as he was researching how Korean War-era wartime rationing of metals affected the beer industry in Washington, DC. Jones and his partner Michael Stein had previously worked with Heurich House on a revival of Heurich Lager and brought the lab report to the museum’s attention.
The museum enlisted the support of Dr. Tom Shellhammer and Jeff Clawson from the Fermentation Sciences Department at Oregon State University to recreate a pilot batch of the beer using precise historic ingredients and chemically acceptable modern substitutes. OSU has one of the premier fermentation sciences programs in the United States, with graduates holding a variety of positions in major breweries and wineries in the U.S. and abroad.
The team at OSU reached out to Rahr Malting Company to identify the precise Senate Beer grain bill. Rahr is a family-owned maltster in business since 1847 that did business with the Heurich Brewing Company. To recreate the cereal mash represented by corn portion of the grain bill, they used gelatinized corn flakes rather than producing their own in a cereal cooker. This was to address the challenge that very few modern craft breweries use a cereal cooker and was a perfectly defensible technological work-around.
Further research identified Weihenstephaner Brewery’s Lager yeast as the best match for the original yeast. They selected Fuggles and Cluster hops. Oregon farmers commonly grew these hops in in the 1940s, and Heurich Brewing Company used them in their Lagers. ̌All that remained was to brew a batch of the beer in OSU’s state-of-the art Pilot Research Brewery. OSU and Heurich House staff sampled the pilot batch and judged it a resounding success. It faithfully replicated the flavor, appearance and mouthfeel of the original Senate Beer. Then Heurich House reached out to Right Proper Brewing to collaborate on a production release. The museum only considered Washington D.C.-based breweries for the project.
Right Proper Brewing Company is “a hyper-local brewery” according to owner Thor Cheston. It serves the D.C. community from locations in the Shaw and Brookland neighborhoods. Its strong presence within the city and community focus made it a natural fit the project. Cheston and team brewed the first few production batches of Senate Beer at their Shaw brewpub location. They took advantage of D.C.’s very Lager-friendly and mineral-laden water to yield an even closer match to the historic recipe.
At first, Senate Beer was sold only at the Right Proper Brewpub and the Heurich House Museum. Due in part to overwhelmingly positive customer response Right Proper quickly decided move production to their larger Brookland brew house. Senate Beer is now one of their top three sellers and is part of their core beer lineup.
From day one, Senate Beer was a runaway success with Right Proper customers. Cheston said that “the first week we advertised it on our website and on Instagram it broke the internet. The response was overwhelming.” He humorously described some customer reactions as “ohhhh, this is what the style is supposed to taste like.” That is not a bad description at all. Pre-prohibition style American Lagers are indeed far superior in quality to their watered-down macro-brew descendants