Beer: Inauguration Libation

By Greg Kitsock
Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Obamamania has gripped the beer business.

As of press time, two Washington brew pubs planned to offer presidential-theme beers through inauguration week. A local wholesaler was stocking brands popular in Hawaii and Chicago. And federal regulators denied a New York microbrewery the right to call its newest release "Obamagang."

Capitol City Brewing, which operates two sites in the District and one in Arlington, has been offering InaugurAle since shortly after the Nov. 4 election, and head brewer Mike McCarthy said he expected the supply to last through the hoopla. InaugurAle is a crisp, moderately hopped pale ale with a faint floral aroma from a dollop of Illinois wildflower honey (McCarthy uses 60 pounds of it per 15-barrel batch). Plunk down $8 for a pint, and you get to keep the etched souvenir glass.

Meanwhile, at the District ChopHouse & Brewery, head brewer Barrett Lauer was tossing final hops into his Barack Bock, a strong amber lager that he predicts will clock in at 7 percent alcohol by volume. Tapping is set for tomorrow. Lauer describes the beer as "clean and malty, with a little bit of a citrusy note" from American Simcoe and Amarillo hops.

If Barack Obama finds himself pining for Hawaii, Premium Distributors is happy to supply a taste from his birth state. The District wholesaler has received a special order of 120 cases of Primo Beer in 12-ounce bottles.

The Primo label dates to 1898, according to brand manager Kyle Wortham, and once held a 70 percent market share in the islands: "It's a part of Hawaiian culture." But Schlitz bought out the Honolulu brewery in 1964 and eventually moved production to the mainland. The declining brand was acquired by Stroh and was discontinued in the mid-1990s. Pabst revived Primo last year, reformulating the golden lager so it's made from 95 percent barley malt and 5 percent Maui cane sugar. The brewery reportedly taste tested the new recipe with a group of surfers and watermen to make sure the beer retained the light, refreshing quality of the original. Jessica Muskey, marketing manager for the distributor, says Primo will be available at the Hawaii State Society Inaugural Ball and a few select retail outlets.

Another Hawaiian brand has quietly established a beachhead in the area. It has no formal plans for Obama-related promotions, says Kona Brewery's director of brewing operations, Rich Tucciarone, "but that could change in a week." Kona markets three labels here: Longboard Island Lager, a malty golden brew; Fire Rock Pale Ale, dominated by caramel malt, with a slight toastiness and citrusy hops; and Pipeline Porter, a dark ale with coarsely ground Kona coffee added post-fermentation for a bracing black-coffee aroma.

A caveat: None of these is made in Hawaii. Pabst contract-brews the bottled version of Primo at Miller Brewing's Irwindale, Calif., plant. Kona brews its beers for the mainland at Redhook Ale's brewery in Portsmouth, N.H. (It would make no sense to ship raw materials to Hawaii and transport the finished product back again, Tucciarone says: "You'd pay $30 a six-pack for stale beer.")

For Obama's Chicago following, Premium is distributing 420 cases of Heileman's Old Style Beer, a light American lager not usually offered here. Old Style hails from Wisconsin but has built a following in the Windy City as a result of its Chicago Cubs sponsorship.

Purists who want a beer actually made in Chicago should check out Trader Joe's. Goose Island Beer in Chicago brews several house brands, including Stockyard Oatmeal Stout, for the specialty grocery chain. Frankly, if I had to name a beer, I'd want to conjure images of clinking steins rather than bellowing cattle en route to the slaughterhouse. But this is a first-rate stout, with a creamy tan head a la Guinness; a smoky, bittersweet chocolate flavor; and a coffeelike finish, albeit from roasted malts, not coffee beans. At $6.50 a six-pack, it's also a bargain.

Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, N.Y., had hoped to mark this historic inauguration with a single-batch brew called Obamagang, but federal regulators at the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau told them it was a no-go. "They said you can't use anybody's name for commercial purposes without their permission," said marketing director Larry Bennett. The brewery has decided to rechristen the beer Inauguration Ale and plans to parcel out 600 kegs of the draft-only brew among select bars in Washington, Philadelphia, New York and other urban areas.

Inauguration Ale is in between a porter and a stout, with a little chocolate and a bit of kriek (a Belgian cherry ale) blended in. If the beer doesn't clear regulatory hurdles by Jan. 20, it should be out by Presidents' Day, Bennett said.

Suggestion: Visit CommonWealth in Columbia Heights this week to try its Obama Flight. The sampler includes mini-drafts of Primo, Old Style, Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA (from Vice President- elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.'s home state of Delaware) and Yuengling Light (from Biden's birth state of Pennsylvania). Or drop by Rustico in Alexandria for a pint of Ale to the Chief, an aggressively hopped "presidential pale ale" from Avery Brewing in Boulder, Colo.

Greg Kitsock can be reached at

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