Sunday, July 29, 2012

History on Tap: Needs Longer Fermentation and More Lagering

The show at Mission Mill, History on Tap, is mostly pretty great.  There's lots of beer history that most folks probably don't know about. 

Perhaps the best part is the look at the Temperance movement, its relation to early feminism, and an ironic underscore on women's suffrage's first act:  Prohibition.  As soon as women got the vote, they banned alcohol.  We would not want to go back to denying anyone the vote, but at the same time, the expansion of suffrage here didn't necessarily result in winning policy.  In this centennial of women's suffrage, it's great to see some of the ambiguity and ambivalence discussed. 

If there's a problem with History on Tap, it is that it sometimes looks like a beer collection in search of a curator. There's too much collectible stuff presented as "artifact," and not enough theme and thesis on the significance and context of the collectible. In particular, the relation of beer and hops to Salem's politics, economy, and culture isn't always explored as it could.

Sometimes the commentary is reading maybe not fully fermented and thought-through. We're not sure what Samuel Adams has to do exactly with the "new brewing companies" on the "west coast" in the 1980s. As an east coast company, Sam Adams is a little out of place.  Sierra Nevada would have been a much better illustration - but lacks the punny relation to "revolution" in the subhead. Sam Adams is also a contract brewery, more a sales and marketing firm for a brand than a manufacturing facility - it doesn't have the there there so much.  What "heritage" it has is mostly hype and hoopla, a triumph of branding over substance.  We look to the Mill and its exhibits for more of a critical eye on authenticity.*

Much of the time there's a glorious excess, a positively Victorian treatment of wall and space.

Sam Adolph's Tomb
The wall of our Sam, Sam Adolph, is grand, but not everything relates to Adolph, and the omission of a discussion of his house and of the commercial block on State Street is notable for a Salem museum.  He was also at the center of an important early community of Jews in Salem.  There are more dots that could be connected!  More ties to local history and place. 

Sam Adolph House
How about more on the Mayors of Salem whose fortunes, political and financial, derived from beer and hops? What about all the buildings?

As important and visible Salem landmarks, Mahonia Hall and the Livesley Building would have made for a great center to the show - but if they were mentioned in any detail, we missed them.

The show we would have liked to see would start with the the buildings, the visible and enduring big physical artifacts, even infrastrucure, funded by hops and beer fortunes, and then work its way down to the beer collectibles, the brewiana. (Your mileage may vary, of course.)

For us the show is a little upside down, and in this and other parts it feels underfermented and underdeveloped.

Instead, we get more Portland history - too much on brewing statewide and not enough on the history of Salem and Marion County.  Sometimes it looks like materials were developed elsewhere at a different museum.

In the end is it worth a visit? Absolutely! But is it all that it could be? Well, it could do with a good bit more depth and analysis of local significance.

We give it a half-full pint.

Have you been? What did you think?

*At the same time, this illustrates a problem with the concept of "heritage." So often the word heritage implies a myth of origins and not sober history, warts-and-all. We worry sometimes that the "Willamette Heritage Center" will have a new focus on local boosterism and that we will lose the focus of "Mission Mill" and the "Marion County Historical Society" on actual history. The bit on women's suffrage and the Temperance movement is a good counter to the sometimes gauzy celebration of "the ballot" in 1912, and we hope there is more of this to come!


  1. I overheard the Sam Adams execs on a red-eye from Beantown in the mid-80's. They were tabulating west coast sales and fretting over a marketing plan. I finally asked what was up and they were putting together their pitch for brewing at Weinhards. I chuckled when they explained that the boston brand was brewed in Pittsburgh. They sealed the deal and Blitz got the whole west coast distro.

  2. How funny! At least Full Sail has the Henry's contract now, so that brand's not dead and it's brewed by somebody legit.

    Now if we could just get a new "Salem Beer"!