WASHINGTON, DC – She started her career in the shadows working for the CIA, but a historian at a prestigious Washington museum has been thrust into the limelight after the American press dubbed her job researching beer the “coolest in the world.”
Theresa McCulla, 34, emerged from anonymity in January to be hired by the National Museum of American History as its brewing historian. As a woman catapulted into an ultra-masculine, multi-billion-dollar industry, McCulla has had to work hard to prove her credibility.
“It is absolutely a cool job,” she told the Agence France-Presse (AFP).
But she added: “There’s been a sense that you really have to convince people that it’s serious. People say it’s a fun job. It is a fun job, but it’s also a lot of work.”
McCulla – who proudly identifies herself as feminist – is from a middle-class family in the eastern state of Virginia, and inherited her passion for beer from her father, an enthusiastic home brewer.
Growing up in her rural home in the 1980s, as the US began to discover microbreweries and craft beer, she said it was impossible to take a shower as the cubicle was always filled with “fermenting beer.”
She and her siblings had the job of capping the beer bottles. “It was a lot of overwhelming aromas for a seven- or eight-year-old,” she added.
The family is originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the unofficial capital of American beer since the 19th century, when a wave of German immigrants arrived in the city on the shores of Lake Michigan.
But it was as a university student in the same state that beer really began to interest her. Before long though, she was off to Harvard for a master’s degree in languages, including French, and in 2004 she bagged a job with the CIA as a European media analyst.
“While I was there I became interested in working in food. I wanted to do something more creative. I wanted to get out of a boxed-in environment,” she said.
After three years, McCulla left US intelligence to devote herself to her passion, and in May she received a doctorate from Harvard, having specialized in the culinary traditions of New Orleans.
Then last July she – along with the nation’s media – spotted the unusual job offer at the museum. The PR team there joked that the position could have been tailor-made for her. Three months after taking up the job, she began to criss-cross America, helping to build an archive for the museum on the history of beer.
Part of everyday life
For the moment, it’s the West Coast that has her attention. Before a trip to Colorado in early May, she went for a few pints in northern California with the founders of the craft brewing movement.
McCulla sees in California the new American El Dorado of beer, modeled on what that state’s Napa Valley has become to wine. The winemakers of the region have even lent brewers some of their equipment.
McCulla thinks the National Museum of American History has done well in documenting the history of food and wine.
“But beer is overdue to have its space physically and in the collections,” she said.
Beer and its history have been such a large part of everyday American life, she told AFP, that it could “allow (us) to ask questions about immigration, labor, consumer taste, advertising… You can look at any era of history and use beer as an engaging lens to look into it.”
Although the trend in the United States is clearly toward craft breweries, the market is still small compared to giants like multinational brewing company Anheuser-Busch InBev (makers of Budweiser, Corona and Stella Artois), which accounts for almost half of total beer sales in the US, according to Nielsen data.
But with small, independent brewers seemingly opening on every street corner, the market may have radically shifted by the time her three-year mission at the museum draws to an end.
“Gosh,” she said, contemplating the task ahead. “It could be a lifetime project.”