On a recent campaign stop at a coffee shop in Knoxville, Iowa, President 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 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 has 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 home-brewed 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 Ale, believed to be the first beer brewed on the grounds of the White House, was released. (Aficionados will note that it is a fairly standard concoction of light malt extract, amber crystal malt, honey, gypsum, yeast, and corn sugar.)
The brouhaha started when Magerkurth met Obama and offered to send the president beer he had made. Obama turned the offer around.
“He said, ‘You know Michelle and I brew a beer at the White House, we brew a honey beer,’ ” Magerkurth said. “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 and handed him 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, gave Magerkurth a business card. “Tell me what you think.”
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 seeking the recipe for the beer, then posted what he had done on Reddit.com. The White House is not subject to Freedom of Information requests, but his request got the attention of other 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 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 only about halfway to the 25,000 threshold, but the White House released it anyway, along with a video showing the brewing in action. White House official Eric Schultz said that 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 said the Obamas paid for the brewing equipment and ingredients.
Home-brewing beer has been legal in the United States since 1978, and is legal in the District of Columbia. George Washington was known to brew beer at Mount Vernon, but Schultz said 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 Sergeant James Crowley in July of 2009, Obama invited the two men to the White House for a beer summit. The beers consumed 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.
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 in February 2011. Schultz said about 100 bottles of the home-brewed beer were served that day.
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.
“It is strange, but given the hyper-political and partisan times we live in, maybe not so much,”Tom Whalen, a Boston University political science professor, said. “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, agreed. He said 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 firsthand experience, it is tasty.”
Magerkurth has not yet opened his beer — he’s saving it for a special occasion with friends — but his description of the brown bottle is revealing. It is 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. And the beer Obama gave Magerkurth was not labeled, suggesting it was a bottle Obama or his staff intended to drink themselves rather than give away.
Recipe for White House Honey Ale
2 ( 3.3 lb) cans light malt extract
1 lb light dried malt extract
12 oz crushed amber crystal malt
8 oz Bisquit Malt
1 lbWhite House Honey
1½ oz Kent Goldings Hop Pellets
1 ½ oz Fuggles Hop pellets
2 tsp gypsum
1 pkg Windsor dry ale yeast
¾ cup corn sugar for priming
1. In an 12 qt pot, steep the grains in a hop bag in 1½ gallons of sterile water at 155 degrees for half an hour. Remove the grains.
2. Add the 2 cans of the malt extract and the dried extract and bring to a boil.
3. For the first flavoring, add the 1½ oz Kent Goldings and 2 tsp of gypsum. Boil for 45 minutes.
4. For the second flavoring, add the ½oz Fuggles hop pellets at the last minute of the boil.
5. Add the honey and boil for 5 more minutes.
6. Add 2 gallons chilled sterile water into the primary fermenter and add the hot wort into it. Top with more water to total 5 gallons.
There is no need to strain.
7. Pitch yeast when wort temperature is between 70-80°.
Fill airlock halfway with water.
8. Ferment at 68-72° for about seven days.
9. Rack to a secondary fermenter after five days and ferment for 14 more days.
10. To bottle, dissolve the corn sugar into 2 pints of boiling water for 15 minutes. Pour the mixture into an empty bottling bucket.
Siphon the beer from the fermenter over it. Distribute priming sugar evenly. Siphon into bottles and cap. Let sit for 2 to 3 weeks at 75°.
Gary Dzen writes the 99 Bottles beer blog for Boston.com.
Follow him on Twitter at @globegarydzen. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction: Due to a reporting error, the original version of this article misstated the university affiliations of Tom Whalen and Bill Crotty.