As curator for the American Brewing History Initiative at the Smithsonian Museum of American History, Theresa McCulla is used to people telling her she has the coolest job on the planet—and she doesn’t dispute the sentiment. “I am incredibly fortunate to travel around to amazing breweries around the country and in my backyard,” she says. “Brewing is a very inspiring business.”
McCulla’s career path started back in high school when her language studies (she speaks French, Spanish and Italian) led to global travels where she gleaned culture through the culinary. She attained a B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. at Harvard and a Culinary Arts Diploma from the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, has worked for the CIA as a European media analyst and managed the Food Literacy Project for Harvard University Dining Services for three years.
Her doctoral dissertation on the cultural impact of New Orleans’ food and drink industry piqued the interest of the Smithsonian, who brought McCulla on staff three years ago to collect and curate the stories of homebrewing and craft beer in the U.S. and share how that narrative weaves into American history as a whole. Since she came onboard, every day has been different. Early on, she gathered resources related to 19th-century brewing, including advertisements and sheet music for beer-drinking songs. Recently she’s trained her focus on the country’s homebrewing and craft beer scene since 1960, traveling across the country recording oral histories from maltsters, brewers and teachers of brewing science.
Her research has culminated in “Brewing a Revolution,” a new section of the American History Museum’s permanent exhibit FOOD: Transforming the American Table, where visitors can peruse artifacts, archival materials and photos related to the nation’s current brewing scene. “Americans feel such a strong tie to beer, often with a personal or family history with it,” she says. Her family is originally from Milwaukee, and McCulla recalls her own father’s homebrewing projects when she was growing up.
The burgeoning NoVA beer scene is dynamic and diverse, she believes, thanks in no small part to 2012’s SB604, legislation that gave breweries the ability to serve their beer on-premise and a retail license to let guests take it home. Farm breweries like Dirt Farm and Hillsborough are exciting and interesting, as are spots like Falls Church’s nanobrewery Settle Down Easy and the woman-led 2 Silos in Manassas. “A taproom is a different and unique type of social space,” she says.
As far as trends, McCulla foresees brewers moving away from over-hopped IPAs and toward more sessionable, lower-alcohol styles, experimenting with artisanal malting and gluten-free grains, like millet and buckwheat, and increasing diversity and inclusion among both producers and beer fans.
And just in time for your next brewery outing, the Harvard-educated wunderkind does have a few tips on sounding more intelligent about beer. “Sample widely and try to get a sense of what you like and speak with brewers, who will be over the moon to be asked about what they are experimenting with,” she says. When you travel, taste something unique to that location, and also get accustomed to the notion of seasonality with beer, like opting for a heavy porter in winter and a refreshing hefeweizen in summer. “The more you read and taste, you might find you’re pulled toward a particular style.”