- - Thursday, July 11, 2019

The National Arboretum Beer Garden isn’t a Bavarian-style setting featuring suds and sausages, but it does offer all the ingredients for a good brew.

A display of hundreds of plant varieties, the Beer Garden includes stands of wheat, barley, hops and other oats and flowers that brewmasters use to craft a draft.

The exhibit, which runs through October at the arboretum in Northeast Washington, was inspired by the International Herb Association’s Herb of the Year for 2018: hops.

“These exhibits most definitely lay the groundwork for brewing culture to grow in the D.C. area,” said Michael Stein, president of Lost Lagers, a beer history consultancy. “Its growth is organic, inspired by customers who are willing to pay a premium for a product they consider tastier than commodity beer. The notion that beer is a commodity, like toilet paper, is being countered by products made by local brewers.”

The region’s brewing landscape was dominated by crafters in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia for more than 50 years after the Christian Heurich Brewing Co. in the District closed in 1956.

The District reentered the scene in 2009 when Jeff Hancock and Brandon Skall founded DC Brau Brewing Co. The downtown business sparked interest and investment in local craft breweries.

“With a dozen breweries now located in D.C., that’s the most we’ve ever had in this city since the 1870s, immediately following the Civil War,” Mr. Stein said.

“While the brewers in the city have had some difficulties, the beer culture doesn’t stop fermenting,” Mr. Stein said. “I’ve been told less than 5% of D.C.’s mileage is zoned for commercial production, so there’s not a ton of room. That being said, there are some incredible brewers operating in less than optimal square footage.”

The beer historian said the National Arboretum Beer Garden display — with fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers found within the city’s borders — offers unique lessons about the District’s past.

“Here in the nation’s capital, beer is most definitely culture, and we honor the brewing culture that’s been here since D.C. started,” Mr. Stein said. “That was primarily women and enslaved peoples during Colonial and pre-Colonial times.”

Piper Zettle, assistant curator of the National Herb Garden, said the Beer Garden also connects the process of brewing to international and scientific communities. The exhibit, she said, showcases hop varieties developed and released by the Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service to highlight the successes of its breeding and research programs.

The plants in the Beer Garden are grouped by factors such as flavor, aroma and coloring, as well as by the Agricultural Research Service’s conservation and research programs, she said.

“I chose 15 different hop varieties to represent the popular characteristics hop is grown for: flavoring, aroma, bittering, ornamental, heirloom and medicinal,” Ms. Zettle said. “When it came to selecting plants to accompany the hop varieties in the exhibit space, it only seemed natural to feature other plants that have contributed to the fascinating history of beer, from 11,000 years ago to the present, from Egypt to the Andes.”

Thor Cheston, a co-founder of the Right Proper Brewing Co. in the District, supports the showcase of ingredients that go into a single beer.

“I just think [the exhibit] is so cool,” he said. “The arboretum has created an in-depth look at what it takes to make a beer. This is a real appreciation for land and plants which takes it to another, deeper level of education. It’s brilliant.”

Mr. Hancock said such tangible displays give consumers access to the process of making beer by showing the ingredients brewers use on an industrial scale.

“Maybe the next time someone raises a glass, they will salute the plants in their beverage and the people that made it all possible, with a hearty ‘Cheers,’” Ms. Zettle said.

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