THE BOOZE BIN
By Daniel Walsh
On Thursday of last week, President Barack Obama pleaded to the Democratic National Convention his case for another four years in the White House. His rhetoric, though necessarily more measured in the context of our current frustrated political climate, seemed to achieve its intended effect. He reminded many voters of the ideals for which they elected him in in the first place.
But that same week, Mr. President made the American people privy to another recent project – the brewing of a White House Honey Ale and Honey Porter. The President purchased a beer-making kit in early 2011, and has been working on the pair of brews ever since. In the blog post “Ale to the Chief”, a forgivably clever pun, the White House staff revealed their concoctions, both of which make use of honey from the First Lady’s apiary. Despite it being the first time brewing beer for everyone involved in the project, the results have been apparently quite delicious. After being petitioned by several curious home brewers under the grounds of the Freedom of Information Act, Obama has made the recipe available online, so that admirers may be inspired to making their own beer.
This is a telling moment for the craft beer industry in the United States. American beer was once a point of ridicule. As the old joke goes, “Q: What does sex in a canoe have in common with American beer? A: They’re both effing close to water.” But no longer. Fellow Booze Bin contributor Jill Haapaniemi recently wrote an excellent piece on the growth of the micro-brew industry. I want to take a closer look, however, at the increasingly prominent role that beer seems to be taking in the political theater.
First, a little history. Some may recall the first summer of the President’s term, during which time Obama hosted a “Beer Summit” to reconcile tensions between Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., and police Sergeant James Crowley, who mistakenly arrested him. As is often the case with the most trivial matters, the beer choices of Obama, and Gates, and Crowley were subject to somewhat ridiculous public scrutiny. The attendees respectively chose Bud Light, Red Stripe, and Blue Moon, a selection that was lambasted by the U.S. beer industry for being dominated by foreign interests. Ironically, both Budweiser and Blue Moon are thought of as distinctly American beers by many (and Red Stripe, though entirely Jamaican, is simply delicious). Indeed, Bud and Blue Moon both originated in the United States. But the reality of a global economy means that both of these iconic brands are either partially or entirely owned by non-US multinational corporations. Despite the globalist trajectory of the alcohol industry as a whole, micro-brewed domestic beer has flourished partially because of its association with a growing American tradition.
Thus, a seemly innocuous detail like beverage choice holds potential political charge. This is not the first time that booze has been featured on the diplomatic stage. FDR advocated another American beverage tradition – the Martini – and famously introduced it to Stalin. The mustachioed dictator felt so-so about the simple cocktail, finding it “cold on the stomach.” I can’t say with absolute certainty how much this incident contributed to the Cold War.
In terms of more recent history, last summer featured a particularly amusing moment when Queen Elizabeth, in an effort to uphold the poise and elegance of the British monarchy, declined a diplomatic drought of Guinness during the Crown’s reconciliatory visit to Emerald Isle. Obviously, this minor footnote of an event did not spark a crisis, but the gesture was noticed, which provides a good indicator of the surprisingly delicate relationship between politics and booze. The Queen’s unimpeachable composure is admirable, but her unwillingness to “lower” herself for a pint indicates a culture gap. To return briefly to our discussion of globalism, it is worth noting that Guinness is owned by Diageo, a British multinational beverage company. While some Irish may take offense to the Queen’s old-fashioned behavior, there is an interesting economic relationship behind these cultural tensions.
In this context, the discriminating reaction to the U.S. beer summit back in 2009 seems a bit less crazy. Perhaps criticism of the “Beer Summit” is the true inspiration behind our President’s brewing practices. But according to Obama, he is simply entering the ranks of a great American tradition. A decade ago, beer-making was the definition of a niche interest. Now, it is practically mainstream. I can imagine few other activities that are as likely to interest a Brooklyn artist and an Indiana farmer in equal measure. Whatever the outcome of the election in November, perhaps afterwards we can all come together over a frosty pint and celebrate a new cultural tradition at which we most definitely kick ass.