Jay R. Brooks
For the Bay Area News Group
Early in Barack Obama’s term as president, he presided over a decidedly unusual meeting — a “Beer Summit” in which people sat down over beers to discuss disagreements and search for solutions. The way the media covered it, you might have thought it was the first time beer had been served in the White House.
Obama most certainly is one of the craft beer-friendliest presidents in recent memory. His White House chefs have even brewed their own beer, including a White House Honey Ale made with honey from the White House hives.
But beer has a long and venerable history with our political leaders. So as Presidents Day approaches, here are just a few presidential parables and potboilers about some of our Beer Drinkers in Chief.
The Founding Fathers
Our first president, George Washington, was a beer lover. His favorite style was porter, and he even had a favorite porter maker, Philadelphia brewer Robert Hare. Washington’s aide Tobias Lear wrote to Hare at one point with a special favor, asking, “Will you be so good as to desire Mr. Hare to have if he continues to make the best Porter in Philadelphia 3 gross of his best put up for Mount Vernon? As the President means to visit that place in the recess of Congress and it is probable there will be a large demand for Porter at that time.”
In 1737, Washington also made a diary entry explaining in detail how to make small beer, prompting some historians to believe he was a homebrewer, as well.
Washington also seems to have presaged modern locavore notions when he wrote the following to the Marquis de Lafayette in 1789: “We have already been too long subject to British Prejudices. I use no porter or cheese in my family, but that which is made in America.”
Thomas Jefferson also took to homebrewing on his estate, Monticello, after he retired from political life. Before that, his wife, Martha, brewed 15-gallon batches every two weeks on their Virginia estate. But in his 70s, Jefferson hired English brewer Joseph Miller, and the pair built a dedicated brewing room and beer cellar at Monticello, where Jefferson malted his own grain. He bottled most of his beer and sealed the bottles with corks.
During his time in office, James Madison tried to get a National Brewery started that would have been government-run. He proposed a new cabinet post — Secretary of Beer — to promote a domestic beer industry and enacted the Tariff Act of 1789, which he hoped would give the advantage to American brewers and encourage “the manufacture of beer in every State in the Union.”
The Civil War
When the Civil War began, the North needed money to fight the Southern states. At that time, there was no income tax, so for the first time people had to start paying taxes to fund the war. When that proved insufficient, Congress began levying excise taxes on a number of goods, including beer, distilled spirits, cotton, tobacco, carriages (the automobiles of the day), yachts, pool tables and even playing cards, to name a few. Abraham Lincoln signed the new taxes into law on July 1, 1862, and they took effect that September.
Lincoln is also responsible for one my favorite quotes by a politician: “I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts, and beer.”
Even though the 18th Amendment made beer illegal in 1920, many wealthy Americans had stockpiled alcohol before Prohibition took effect — and that included several presidents, too. Woodrow Wilson took his own private stash of alcohol with him when he left office, and the next president, Warren G. Harding, moved his private collection with him to the White House when he was inaugurated. While Harding and his political allies continued to drink in the White House — he was known for all-night poker games — Harding was responsible for laws making it tougher for the average citizen to have a beer.
As time wore on, Prohibition proved increasingly unpopular, especially in big cities. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran for president in 1932, his campaign promises included a pledge to end Prohibition. When he signed the Cullen-Harrison Act in March of 1933, which amended the Volstead Act and allowed the brewing of beer that was 3.2 percent alcohol by weight or 4 percent by volume, he is reported to have said. “I think this would be a good time for a beer.”
He got his wish the next day, when Anheuser-Busch sent a team of Clydesdales to deliver a case of Budweiser to the White House.
The modern era
After Prohibition, home winemaking became legal again but homebrewing remained illegal, supposedly because of an inadvertent omission. It took another 45 years to correct that typo — and it was due, in part, to our 39th president, Jimmy Carter. In late 1978, he signed H.R. 1337 into law, along with an amendment by California Sen. Alan Cranston authorizing adults to legally brew in the home.
Legalizing home brewing had a profound effect. Many homebrewers went on to become commercial brewers, starting hundreds, if not thousands, of craft breweries.
So take a moment this Presidents Day to toast your favorite president with an American beer. He’d join you, if he could.