One September evening in 1985, in the lower level of an aged-looking hotel off DuPont Circle in Washington, D.C., that charged $60 nightly for a room, a schoolteacher from Bethesda, Maryland, named Bob Tupper stepped to a microphone and told those assembled about the first beer of the night: Tsingtao from China.
Thus commenced a phenomenon in American beer: a tasting that people had paid for, one that food accompanied and that deliberately, pretty much exclusively, showcased the beers.
There had surely been other ticketed tastings to that point—the Great American Beer Festival was four years old in 1985—but the beer dinner in D.C.’s Brickskeller 30 years this fall was an unintentional watershed, making the venue itself a nexus for such events and showing others how it could be done.
The location of the 1985 tasting was no accident. Felix Coja and his son, Maurice, had launched the watering hole, along with the Marifex Hotel upstairs, in 1957. Under Maurice Coja, his daughter Diane and her husband, Dave Alexander, the Brickskeller evolved into one of the best beer bars in the United States in terms of variety, with literally hundreds of different beers on the menu at any one time.
The bar was a natural choice, then, for the local wing of the Cornell University alumni association, which wanted to incorporate a beer tasting into its meeting. Maurice Coja turned to Bob Tupper, a history teacher at a private school in Bethesda and a regular at the Brickskeller. Tupper had an encyclopedic knowledge of beer, born of research and travel, and no fear of public speaking due to his academic role.
Tickets to the event were $15 a pop. That entitled an attendee to sample as many as 10 beers alongside a buffet—and, crucially, to hear Tupper talk about each beer as it was served. The tasting’s organizers picked the beers largely to illustrate different styles and tastes; and most, if not all, appear to have been from outside the U.S., mostly from the United Kingdom and what was then West Germany.
As unremarkable as this all might seem with a generation’s hindsight, here are two anecdotes to bear in mind about beer in America in 1985.
No. 1: For a subsequent ticketed tasting at the Brickskeller—many would follow the inaugural one in September 1985, with guest speakers that included Fred Eckhardt and Michael Jackson—Bob Tupper had his mother-in-law put three cases of the newfangled Samuel Adams Boston Lager in a nondescript brown box and put that box, fare paid, on a Greyhound bus south to D.C., where the beer was difficult to get.
No. 2: The tastings themselves served a dual purpose for the Brickskeller. The Washington City Council around that time was considering new restrictions on establishments that served alcohol. As Dave Alexander only half-jokingly put it: “If we did have to justify our existence, we could say we were here for the education.”
Tom Acitelli is the author of The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution. His new book is a history of American fine wine called American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story. Reach him on Twitter @tomacitelli.