100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall

Christian Heurich's 100th Birthday Celebration at the Brewery

September is a month of celebration at the Heurich House Museum.  September 12 marks the date of what would have been Christian Heurich’s 173rd birthday.  Heurich’s birthday is significant partly because it is a reminder of his longevity, that he lived to be the world’s oldest brewer and celebrated his 100th birthday in 1942 at the brewery he was still managing.

On September 19, the museum celebrates the first day of the traditional Bavarian Oktoberfest celebration, which is sponsored by the newly formed DC Brewers’ Guild.  The Guild’s creation is an important milestone in the DC beer industry, which was devoid of even one brewery only 5 years ago.DSCN1297

'EMPLOYEES TO STAGE BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION' form Heurich Employees Association News Magazine. Featured Item, Heurich House Collection
‘EMPLOYEES TO STAGE BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION’ form Heurich Employees Association News Magazine. Featured Item, Heurich House Collection

The celebration will be staged in the brewery yard outside the main office, mantled with suitable shadow-killing flood lights for photographic purposes, and all who are interested are invited to bring along a camera.

A committee, working on the particulars of the ceremony have outlined a program you can be assured will befit the grand occurrence.  A scroll bearing the signatures and well wishes will be presented to the Centenarian, and there will be a huge cake, especially prepared for the birthday of birthdays. Another feature of the festivities will be the presentation to Mr. Heurich of 100 of each brand of bottle beer his Brewery produces.  A beer glass suitably engraved will be presented to each employee as a memento of the occasion…-Paragraphs 3-4

Heurich’s long-lived brewery enterprise and life, and the formation of the modern brewers’ trade association are not unrelated concepts.  Heurich, the “King of Beer in the District”, did not become successful only because of good fortune and luck.  He was a shrewd businessman and part of a network of other brewers and breweries that organized themselves into factions and associations.  Having working relationships with other breweries aided his enterprise, whether because of their assistance or as a result of actions taken to oppose them.

Heurich was a member of the United States Brewers Association, a trade association which started as a campaign against government taxes on barrels of beer (bbls) to fund the Civil War.  The first president of this Brewers Association was Frederick Lauer, from Reading, PA.  (An example of how interconnected and interdependent breweries were and are, Lauer sometimes sold his beer to George Schnell, a brewer and tavern-keeper in Washington, D.C.  Heurich leased the declining Schnell brewery when he first moved to DC, and it was that same Schnell brewery located on 20th Street NW between N and M Streets that Christian Heurich purchased in 1873.  Also, Heurich married Schnell’s widow, Amelia, and then later, her niece, also named Amelia.)

03 Entry 1863 Nov 27
November 27, 1863 draft of a letter from George Schnell to Frederick Lauer, a brewer in Reading, PA and the first President of the USBA, Heurich House Collection

Although the historic national Brewers’ Association worked together against the excise tax and other similar issues, their cooperative action did not always yield successful outcomes, for instance, Prohibition.

In times before strong labor protection and anti-trust legislation, these associations not only operated against government action, but also served as a way for companies to create monopolies, stifle competition, and control labor. In his book, Capital Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in Washington, D.C. Garrett Peck  discusses a phase in DC history called the “Beer Wars” (c. 1903-7), which stemmed from a secret compact among 5 local breweries (Heurich included) formed to “assist each other in the event of a labor walkout and also to work together to hash out any commercial issues.”  When the compact expired in 1903, the new proposed agreement would require all signatories to participate in a price-setting scheme.  In 1904, Heurich’s lawyer, Leon Tobriner accurately characterized “[t]he Brewers’ Association [a]s a trust formed for the purpose of advancing the price of beer and dividing the trade among the several breweries so there will be no competition or interference.”  Although the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 had started making progress against corporate monopolies, federal laws against collusion still did not have any teeth.

Heurich did not want to play the Brewers’ Association’s game.  He had lost a lot of business because of the original compact, and had decided not to sign and that he would lower his prices instead. He had half of the DC market’s brewing capacity, and so had the strength to stand alone.  Despite continued pressure from the other four breweries in the compact, Heurich lowered the price of beer from$5.70/bbl to $4.50 and then to $3.00bbl.  By undercutting the other breweries’ pricing, and reducing it even further for saloon owners who had just had their license fees raised, Heurich won the support of the city’s retailers.

Christian Heurich Brewery Company in Foggy Bottom [where the Kennedy Center currently stands] Heurich House Collection
Christian Heurich Brewery Company in Foggy Bottom [where the Kennedy Center currently stands] Heurich House Collection
The DC breweries soon organized the Brewers’ Association of the District of Columbia, which Heurich refused to join.  This new local association used their close ties to the Central Labor Union to put pressure on Heurich: on July 21, 1904, fifteen firemen walked out of the Heurich brewery.  As Peck notes, “They had no grievance over their conditions or wages – they were striking on orders from Timothy Healy, the president of the International brotherhood of Firemen.”  The strike did not really affect Heurich’s operations.  No other unions joined the strike, and Heurich used non-union workers to fill the firemen’s positions.  Other unions spoke out against the strike and its origins, and liquor dealers filed lawsuits against the local brewers’ association.

Heurich’s strong stance during this battle did not seem to hurt him: the striking firemen returned to work after a week, Heurich did not make any concessions on pricing, and he never joined the local association.  The incident may have in fact helped solidify the good opinion of those who bought beer from him.  Although the war continued for a few more years, it was never able to put Heurich out of business or out of the good graces of his clientele.

A Young Christian Heurich in Western Brewer Magazine, 1883, Collection of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.
A Young Christian Heurich in Western Brewer Magazine, 1883, Collection of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.

The Beer Wars and Heurich’s role in it gives insight about a comment from his autobiography about “Trust-Busting” President Theodore Roosevelt: “…he had many enemies; What truly great man has not…”

Christian Heurich was not a member of this local chapter (although he was a member of the National Association)  Later, in 1904, Christian Heurich’s lawyer, Leon Tobriner boldly and accurately stated “The Brewers’ Association is a trust formed for the purpose of advancing the price of beer and dividing the trade among the several breweries so there will be no competition or interference.”  Heurich never joined the local chapter, after all they were bullying him to raise prices, when he wanted to lower them.  Heurich’s brewery had a capacity for 500,000 bbl and clearly had the upper hand on the other breweries.

Close-up of Christian Heurich on his 100th Birthday at the Brewery
Close-up of Christian Heurich on his 100th Birthday at the Brewery

Because of the kinds of action Heurich took during the beer wars, much has changed over the last 100 years to prevent the kinds of price-fixing and collusion that was attempted by the original local Brewers’ Guild.  However, some things have remained exactly the same: the national Brewers’ Guild and the local trade associations are still fighting the same beer excise tax that existed 150 years ago.  In March 2015, the excise tax on a single barrel of beer was $7 for the first 60,000 bbls and $8 for production over that.  The Fair BEER Act, which was introduced in February 2015, would stipulate breweries that produce under 60,000 bbl per year would pay only $3.50 instead of $7, and those making between 60,000 to 2 million would pay $16 per bbl.

Of the seven D.C. breweries in the DC Brewers’ Guild, DC Brau has the largest current production, aiming for around 16,000 bbls this year.  That equates roughly to $112,000 of taxes alone.  The Vice-President and Treasurer of the DC Brewers Guild and Co-Owner of Right Proper Brewing Company, Thor Cheston, explains how the tax affects the modern brewery industry in a recent interview with NPR: “’Our margins are so tight that we’re not counting dollars, we’re counting nickels and dimes,’ Cheston says. ‘Any extra amount of money that we can count on in our annual budgets, our monthly budgets is going to go straight back to the business.’”

We think Christian Heurich would approve of having an Oktoberfest celebration in his garden, supporting local breweries.  With that, let’s all raise a glass–Prosit to Christian Heurich and the DC Brewers Guild!


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