Three Presidents Get My Vote

Magic Hat's special-release Participation Lager will be sold through Election Day.
Magic Hat's special-release Participation Lager will be sold through Election Day. (Magic Hat Brewing)
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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

"Who would you rather have a beer with?"

In presidential politics, that simple question has become a litmus test for a candidate's likability and, it follows, his likelihood of getting elected.

In 2004, according to a Zogby/Williams Identity Poll, 57 percent of undecided voters said they would rather toss back a beer with President George W. Bush than with Democratic nominee John Kerry (even though Bush doesn't drink). During last spring's Democratic campaign, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama chugged beer to counter charges of elitism. (Obama made one Raleigh, N.C., bartender very happy by tipping $18 for a $2 glass of Pabst.) More recently, blogger Chris Cillizza called Obama running mate Joseph Biden "the kind of guy voters can imagine themselves having a beer with."

I'd have a beer with any of them. The real question is, which beer?

John McCain's wife, Cindy, is chairwoman of an Anheuser-Busch distributorship, so an appropriate tipple for him might be Budweiser American Ale, the St. Louis company's latest attempt to court craft-beer drinkers. Bud American Ale is more middle-of-the-road than maverick, with caramel malt dominating the flavor, a crisp, dry finish and a touch of fruity hops. It's pleasant enough, but the PR material goes a bit overboard in asserting that "Budweiser American Ale defines a new standard of ale -- The American Ale." That will come as news to the brewers of Liberty Ale and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, who set the parameters for American-style pale ale a generation ago.

Ad hype, like campaign speeches, shouldn't be taken too seriously.

Obama has his own beer connection. In Kenya, his father's birthplace, drinkers of a cut-rate brand called Senator Keg have unofficially renamed it "Obama Beer" to celebrate the Democratic candidate's rise to prominence. Senator Keg isn't exported here, but you can buy another Kenyan brand, Tusker. This European-style golden lager honors George Hurst, co-founder of Kenya Breweries, who was gored to death by a bull elephant. The name is almost an omen for Obama, who will have to dodge another elephant, the GOP pachyderm.

Let's extend this fantasy game further. Suppose you could have a beer with any U.S. president, living or dead. Who would be your barmate?

My one criterion: The president must enjoy the beer as much as I do. That narrows the field to three: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Grover Cleveland.

Washington was a home-brewer. One of his recipes, for a molasses-based brew, is preserved in the New York Public Library. Later in life he acquired a taste for porter, ordering up to "three gross" bottles at a time from a Philadelphia brewer named Robert Hare.

Jefferson was an oenophile, but when the War of 1812 cut off supplies of European wines, he turned to beermaking with an unbridled enthusiasm, producing up to 200 gallons a year of a wheat-based ale at Monticello. His brewer was a slave named Peter Hemings, older brother of the more famous Sally Hemings.

Williamsburg AleWerks, a microbrewery in the former Virginia capital, brews a Washington's Porter, full of roasty and bittersweet chocolate flavors, and a spritzy, golden Colonial Wheat Ale. Brewery manager Charles Haines acknowledges that these are not re-creations of old recipes. He says his porter, brewed with seven malts, is more complex than the versions Washington would have quaffed (and it contains no molasses). As for his wheat beer, Haines explains that golden-colored ales brewed with lightly toasted grains were unknown in Jefferson's era: "They roasted grain in ovens, they did it in skillets. Everything was brown."

Does Haines think Washington or Jefferson would have appreciated his beers? "Everybody liked beer back then!" he replies.

Grover Cleveland was our only president to serve non-consecutive terms (1885-1889 and 1893-1897). While rising through the political ranks in Buffalo, he was a frequenter of bars and a prodigious consumer of lager. He groused of the White House fare: "I must go to dinner. I wish it was to eat a pickled herring, a swiss cheese and a chop at Louis' [his favorite saloon] instead of that French stuff I shall find."

If I were clinking glasses with Grover today, I'd choose a pre-Prohibition-style lager, maybe Participation Lager from Magic Hat Brewing in South Burlington, Vt. It's brewed with 20 percent flaked maize for extra smoothness, but it has a firm malt body and a landslide of flowery Hallertau and Columbus hops. This special-release brew is available only in the Participation Variety 12-Pak, on sale through Election Day.

Suitable for any chief executive is Capitol City Brewing's Election Ale, a crisp, drinkable golden ale to debut Sept. 24 at the local brew pub chain's three branches. After Election Day, head brewer Mike McCarthy says, he'll add an extra ingredient (probably honey) from the winning candidate's home state to create Inaugurale, which will linger until the cheering is over on Jan. 20.

Greg Kitsock's Beer column appears every other week. He can be reached

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