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Are presidential homebrews a political edge? 

They're brewing beer in the White House. The Commander in Chief has pronounced White House Honey Ale and White House Honey Porter "tasty stuff."

Inspired by an especially productive beehive near the South Lawn vegetable garden, President Obama took up the suggestion that the honey might add a distinctive note to presidential homebrew.

Although the White House ales appeared almost two years ago, it may have been the news that Obama travels with a case or two on the campaign trail that set the homebrewing community abuzz this past summer. One bold citizen-brewer submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for the "secret" recipes. Finally, in response to a 25,000-signature petition, the recipes were released last month, along with a video of brewing operations in the White House kitchen.

Homebrew shops have rushed to package White House Ale kits, containing the necessary ingredients to replicate the presidential brews. For a professional assessment, The New York Times approached Garrett Oliver, the well-known brewmaster at the Brooklyn Brewery, to test one of the recipes in a series of video installments. In the first episode, Oliver diplomatically glossed over the fact that the recipes call for malt extract—a syrup that beginning homebrewers use in lieu of "from scratch" brewing with grain only—by noting that the recipe is customized with malted grain in addition to the extract, as well as two varieties of hops. In other words, these are respectable brews.

Obama is often seen in public enjoying a beer: It's a convenient political shorthand to convey a man-of-the-people air. In 2008, the predictably asked and vacuous polling question, "Which candidate would you rather have a beer with?" presented a real choice for respondents; John McCain owed his wealth to his wife's stake in a beer distributorship. This election cycle, however, Obama is by default the poll winner, since his opponent shuns alcohol as part of his Mormon faith.

Seizing the brewing advantage, Democrats gave beer a role at their national convention last month in Charlotte. Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, the country's only commercial brewer to occupy a governor's mansion, delivered a speech about the value of cooperation and community—lessons he learned while struggling to open the Wynkoop brewpub in Denver. Later, Bill Butcher, founder of Port City Brewing Co. in Alexandria, Va., spoke on behalf of small business owners, which most brewers certainly are, making a valuable pro-business point for the president.

Politics and beer have always been companions, if not always close friends. The colonists fomented revolution in New England taverns over pints of ale. Presidents have since cozied up to beer when it suited them.

George Washington was partial to porter beer, and brewing went on at Mount Vernon—not unusual for a large household at that time, when beer making was still in part a domestic activity. The fact, however, that we have a recipe for small beer (a weak table beer) in the first president's own hand suggests a more than passing interest. It calls for three gallons of molasses for the 30-gallon batch, demonstrating that the use of additional sweeteners isn't unique to Obama ale.

James Madison appreciated the economic potential of brewing, and the danger of a nation dependent on foreign ale. He proposed the creation of a national brewery and a cabinet position for a Secretary of Beer, which, sadly, never came to be.

Like many of his contemporaries, Thomas Jefferson appreciated beer as the drink of moderation, wishing "to see this beverage become common instead of the whiskey which kills one third of our citizens and ruins their families."

The nation lost that common-sense view of alcohol as the prohibitionist movement took hold in the 19th century, culminating by the 20th century in the disaster that was national Prohibition. Faced with the economic calamity of the Great Depression and the lawlessness that Prohibition engendered, Franklin Roosevelt made its repeal a central plank of his presidential campaign.

The repeal of Prohibition permitted home winemaking, but homebrewing remained illegal until 1978, when Jimmy Carter brought this popular hobby out of the shadows. For legalizing the activities of America's kitchen brewers, Carter deserves a share of the credit for the craft beer revolution.

With only a few weeks of presidential campaigning left, beer drinkers have emerged as a possibly critical voting bloc. In a survey conducted by Scarborough Research, 47 percent of independent voters drank a beer in a 30-day period this fall, compared to 40 percent of Republicans and 39 percent of Democrats. Philadelphia beer journalist Don Russell points out that, in 2008, "every one of the 25 most densely brewed states [breweries per square mile] voted for Obama," and craft breweries make up a lot of those numbers.

Craft beer consumption is likely a proxy for something else: A willingness to experiment? A rebellion against the mainstream? It's impossible to say—but it can't hurt Obama's chances to keep the White House brewery hopping.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Ale to the chief."


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