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Tapping into a golden political tool

Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff/file 1983

He drank beer. Still drinks beer. Likes beer. Fully embraces drinking beer. He wants to know about you, Senator, do you like beer?

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh mentioned beer some 30 times in his Senate testimony last week, during his impassioned defense against an allegation of sexual misconduct when he was 17.

“Yeah, he likes beer; I did pick that out of his remarks,” deadpanned Paul Gatza, director of the Colorado-based Brewers Association, which represents small and independent craft brewers.

Politicians have long used beer as a badge of down-to-earth authenticity, a sign of fellowship with ordinary folk. It’s an image that holds up, specialists say, even in the age of nano-breweries and pricey designer beers with tasting notes as grandiose as anything the wine industry can boast.


In 1983, President Reagan made an indelible impression on Boston when he dropped into Dorchester’s Eire Pub and hoisted a pint.

George W. Bush wouldn’t say it because he’s a non-drinker, but the notion hovered over his campaigns: Who would you rather have a beer with? It is still political shorthand for judging a candidate’s charisma and popular appeal.

In 2009, President Obama famously hosted his “beer summit,” knocking glasses with Harvard professor Henry Gates and the Cambridge police officer who arrested Gates at home, smoothing out an early controversy during the Obama presidency.

President Barack Obama (right) and Vice President Joe Biden (left) had a beer with Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. (second from left) and Cambridge, Mass., police Sgt. James Crowley in the Rose Garden of the White House in 2009.Alex Brandon/Associated Press/file

“Beer is something pretty well immersed in our culture as the alcoholic beverage of moderation,” Gatza said. People know that beer generally has less alcohol than wine or spirits, and it is “consumed differently” than hard liquors, he added.

“A lot of times people think of spirits as something you can do in a shot when you’re consuming all that alcohol at once,” he said. “It takes a while to get through a beer.”

Even the way we talk about our drinking says something about us, said Travis Bell, multimedia journalism instructor at the Zimmerman School of Advertising & Mass Communications at the University of South Florida, who has researched beer and its cultural significance.


“If I’m just a ‘beer drinker,’ we connect to that in certain way,” he said. “Someone who’s a ‘wine aficionado,’ who knows the tones and all of the different elements that go into swirling a wine glass around to get all of the aroma — there’s a [different] person you can picture who looks like that. I do think it is a way to try to humanize himself, in a way.”

Kavanaugh is already a high-powered judge, on the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. His repeated mentions of beer were a way to say, “I am a regular guy even though I went to Yale and I have done these levels of things,” Bell said. “I think there is an identity marker in there that is different from, ‘I am a whisky drinker’ or ‘I am a wine connoisseur.’ ”

This week, the FBI is investigating allegations made by Christine Blasey Ford, a psychology professor in California. Ford asserts Kavanaugh pinned her to a bed and tried to strip her clothing during a house party in the early 1980s. She claims Kavanaugh was drunk at the time. Kavanaugh has denied assaulting Ford or any other woman.

Much of last week’s Senate committee hearing focused on the judge’s drinking habits as a teenager and young man. An implication in the questioning — one rejected by Kavanaugh — was that he may have assaulted Ford but was too drunk to remember.


Memory loss and blackouts are a dark side of drinking too much alcohol, but beer specialists don’t believe allegations against Kavanaugh will hurt the beverage’s image.

“I have yet to [talk] to anyone who is a brewer or an aficionado or a researcher who says ‘this is terrible for what we study or do,’ ” said Adam Tyma, professor at the University of Nebraska Omaha, College of Communication, who has edited a book on beer culture. “I don’t think it is going to affect it one way or another. If anything it will perpetuate the stereotype of high school and college beer-drinking males, which is already entrenched in American culture. That stereotype has been around a lot longer than Brett Kavanaugh.”

One of the world’s most accomplished beer drinkers, Steven Petrosino, suggests that the expanding world of craft beer may be beginning to undermine the stereotype of beer as the “blue-collar” beverage.

Petrosino, 66, of Ohio, holds the Guinness World Record for beer speed chugging, which he set in 1977. Petrosino drank 1 liter of beer (about 33 ounces) in 1.3 seconds. He chugged it from a special pilsner glass, designed from a friend’s research on fluid dynamics. The beer, he recalls, was Miller High Life (“The Champagne of Beers”).

His record “has never been broken in 41 years,” he said, in a Globe interview Wednesday.


Petrosino, a retired US Marine who works in the pharmaceutical industry, said that when he set the record, beer drinkers skewed young or blue collar because beer was cheaper than wine and liquor.

“Today, I don’t think you can make the same distinctions,” he said. “You can spend a lot of money on a bottle of beer today.”

He has become largely a wine drinker, these days, and says there is no way he could approach his record beer chug time now.

“First of all,” he said, “I wouldn’t try.”

Mark Arsenault can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark.