When Anthony Bourdain sat down with President Barack Obama in Vietnam for dinner and a beer in late 2016, the President admitted that he rarely slips out of the White House for a beer. That might be so, but instead of those beers at the bar, Obama has something else: White House homebrew.
Americans love leaders who look like someone they’d get a beer with — no matter how ambiguous that description is. So it should come as no surprise that the history of presidents and beer is as intertwined as a field of hop bines. For Obama is just one in a long line of American leaders who appreciates a good beer.
It all started with George Washington. On the back page of a military notebook Washington kept on him while serving as a colonel in the Virginia militia in 1757, he recorded his recipe for “Small Beer.” It was a beer meant for sustenance, and for every man, woman, and child to keep hydrated throughout the day. The recipe survives to this day, thanks to the New York Public Library, which uncovered the handwriting, identified it as Washington’s, and then published it for the world to see.
“To make Small Beer,” Washington’s instructions begin, “take a large sifter full of bran hops to your taste. Boil these 3 hours. Then strain out 30 gallons into a cooler, put in 3 gallons molasses while the beer is scalding hot or rather drain the molasses into the cooler & strain the beer on it while boiling hot. Let this stand till it is little more than blood warm. Then put a quart of yeast if the weather if very cold, cover it over with a blanket & let it work in the cooler 24 hours. Then put it into the Cask. Leave the bung open till it is almost done working. Bottle it that day, week it was brewed.”
Brewers at Blue Point Brewing on Long Island saw the recipe and recreated the beer as close as possible. The result, a 3.6 percent alcohol by volume beer called Colonial Ale, is the closest taste people can get to to the beginning of the relationship between presidents and beer. The Colonial Ale is dark in color but light in flavor. Added juniper adds a bit of a bite, but it’s not the type of beer you sit down and think too hard about. It’s the type of beer you drink throughout the day, just like Washington did. As Blue Point founder Mark Burford told me while he raised his glass for a toast, there is no need for flowery language about the Colonial Ale, because beer is for drinking.
The nation’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, took up the beer mantle after Washington. His love for wine was evident while he was in office, stemming from his time as the minister to France. He left office in 1809, and he paid increasing attention to beer. Five years later, he owned a personal brewhouse.
Jefferson’s successor, James Madison, believed in American beer so much he tried to create a national brewery and install a secretary of beer to protect the interests of the young brewing culture in the country.
So the presidential tradition continued. Presidents didn’t keep it all to themselves, either. They shared the wealth of beer as they gently “persuaded” voters with free beer and hard cider. That’s not to say the love for beer was universal, or universally expressed, however. When the temperance movement started gaining steam in America, presidents started trying to hide their consumption. Rutherford B Hayes, who lost the popular vote but still won the presidency in 1876, banned all alcohol, smoking, and profanity in the White House. Warren Harding, who was president during the early Prohibition years of 1921 to 1923, held bi weekly, semi-secret, booze-filled poker nights in the White House.
Prohibition put a damper on beer, and all alcohol for that matter. Then Franklin Roosevelt came to save us all. “I think this would be a good time for beer,” Roosevelt famously said on March 12, 1933, just months after taking office. He quickly signed a Beer-Wine Revenue Act to allow 3.2 percent beer and wine in April of 1933, then in December, helped push through the 21st Amendment that once again made it legal to drink.
Beer lovers in chief have had a resurgence in recent years. There was Jimmy Carter, who legalized home brewing in 1979. Then there was Ronald Reagan, who had such love for a particular Irish pub that the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library built a replica inside the building. George W. Bush had his wild beer drinking party days and was the embodiment of the president people would like to sit down and have a beer with.
Which leads us back to Obama and his home brew. Obama purchased a homebrewing kit in 2011 with former White House chef Sam Kass. They consulted the local homebrew store as well as other homebrewers in the White House. The result was a House Honey Ale and a House Honey Porter made with honey from the White House’s South Lawn beer hive. It was (historians believe) the first beer actually brewed inside the White House. The recipes for the beers were released in 2012 after a petition on the government website We the People called for Obama to release the recipe “so that it may be enjoyed by all.”
Obama will have more time to sneak out for a beer now that he is out of office. He can enjoy those beers closer to home, instead of in Vietnam for a TV show, without the weight of America’s future on his mind. With the end of Obama’s term, however, the long history of presidents and beer will take a hiatus. President Donald Trump is a teetotaler.