By Gary Dzen, Globe Staff
On a recent campaign stop at a coffee shop in Knoxville, Iowa, President Barack Obama chatted with a salesman for a beer distributor and found a common interest. The salesman, Bradley Magerkurth, brews his own beer, something the Obama White House has also been doing. Magerkurth introduced himself to the president, then told him his friends and business clients call him "The Beer Guy."
"It's a little speech I've been giving for 15 years," said Magerkurth, who's been trying to expand his portfolio of craft beer sales across the Midwest. "Beer is like bread. It's a staple. And I've found that even in a tough economy, people aren't going to give it up."
As the White House recently learned, beer can also stir up deep and sometimes angry passions. After weeks of refusing to release the administration’s official beer recipe, even as a petition for it gained momentum and reporters repeatedly asked for it, beer enthusiasts got their wish Saturday. The recipe for White House Honey Brown Ale, which is believed to be the first beer brewed on the grounds of the White House, was released. (Aficionados out there will note that it is a fairly standard concoction of light malt extract, amber crystal malt, honey, gypsum, yeast and corn sugar.)
The whole brew-haha started that day when Magerkurth was talking to Obama, and offered to send the president some beer he'd made. Obama turned the offer around.
"He said, 'You know Michelle [Obama] and I brew a beer at the White House, we brew a honey beer'" recalls Magerkurth. "And then he said, 'You know what? I should get a beer for you.'"
Obama shook a few more hands, then came back to Magerkurth, who had assumed the president was just being nice when he offered him a beer. Obama handed Magerkuth a bottle, which an aide had retrieved from Ground Force One.
"I want you to review this," Magerkurth recalls Obama saying. Obama's
aide, Eugene Kang, handed Magerkurth a business card. "Tell me what
The president's home-brewed beer instantly became a topic of conversation. Then another homebrewer, Dan Wieringa, filed a freedom of information request with the White House to request the recipe for the beer, then posted about what he'd done on the website Reddit.com. His actions were for naught -- the White House is not subject to freedom of information requests -- but his request got the attention of other thirsty brewing fans, who filed a formal petition on the Obama administration's "We the People" website. The administration initially said it would not release the recipe, then changed course when press secretary Jay Carney tweeted on Aug. 23, " Got a Q today on
@wethepeople petition asking us to share WH beer recipe: If it reaches the threshold, we'll release it."
The petition is still well short, but the White House released it anyway (Here is a video showing the White House kitchen in action). White House official Eric Schultz confirmed last week that the beer was brewed by a White House chef, but he declined to say which one. Schultz said there were light and dark varieties of the honey ale, and that the honey "does indeed come from the beehive near the White House Kitchen Garden on the south lawn." He stressed that the Obamas paid
for the brewing equipment and any ingredients used to brew the beer
Home-brewing has been legal in the United States since 1978, and it is legal in the District of Columbia. George Washington was known to brew beer at Mount Vernon, but Schultz confirmed that Obama is the first president to brew beer at the White House. Beer has played a role several times in Obama's presidency. When Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested outside his home by Cambridge police Sgt. James Crowley in July of 2009, Obama invited the two men to the White House for a beer summit.
The beers of choice that day on the White House patio: Bud Light for Obama, Sam Adams Light for Gates, Blue Moon for Crowley, and nonalcoholic Buckler for Vice President Biden. Obama later hosted Medal of Honor winner Dakota Meyer for a beer at the same location.
Home-brewed beer at the White House, however, is a relatively new development. The first time home-brewed beer is known to have been served at the White House was at a Super Bowl party the Obamas hosted in February of 2011. Schultz confirms that about 100 bottles of the home-brewed beer were served that day, and also confirms that the
honey ale was the beer drank by Obama and Meyer. The president's enthusiasm for the beverage has been evident, and it coincides with a national trend. There are more than 2,000 breweries in the United States today, the highest number since the end of Prohibition.
"I was pleased to learn that President and Mrs. Obama were homebrewers," said Jim Koch, founder of Samuel Adams. "Of course, the President’s current position isn’t permanent, so he may be preparing for a future career in brewing."
The White House is being cautious with the image of Obama The Homebrewer. Beer is an everyman's drink with a less-than-sophisticated reputation. On one hand, Obama has used the beverage to appeal to the average American on the campaign trail. But the secrecy around the recipe struck some as an odd stance to take.
"It is strange, but given the hyper-political and partisan times we live in, maybe not so much,"said Boston University political science professor Tom Whalen. "I suppose the White House fears the Republicans will charge their beer as being 'less filling' as opposed to 'tastes great.'"
Northeastern University political science professor Bill Crotty, author of a book on the Obama administration, agrees with the assessment but also thinks Obama is targeting the most extreme beer fans with the homebrew as a prop. Wieringa, the Reddit petitioner and homebrewer, said in an e-mail that it was "amazing" Carney even took the time to respond to a request for the recipe.
"They are using the beer bit as a campaign tool, to get aficionados and the curious to 'Vote for the Beer Candidate,'" said Crotty. "I see it as completely within the context of micro-targeting in the presidential race by the Obama election team."
Another potential reason for the administration being tight-lipped is that there may not be as much demand for the recipe as the online movements to release it would suggest. After three weeks the "We the People" petition gathered just 12,000 signatures. Obama was asked a question about the beer during a Reddit.com chat on Aug. 29 and
responded, "It will be out soon! I can tell from first hand experience, it is tasty."
Magerkurth has not yet opened his beer -- he's saving it for a special occasion with friends -- but we can gather at least some details of the it through his description of the bottle. The brown bottle is of the standard, long-necked variety. The attachment of the cap suggests the beer was "bench-capped", a slightly more expensive option than many homebrewers might have themselves. The beer Obama gave Magerkurth was not labeled, suggesting it was beer Obama or his staff intended to drink themselves rather than give away.