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‘Politics is divisive. Beer is not’: Is home-brewing the key to harmony on the Hill?

The trophy for the first Hill Staff Homebrew Competition was inspired by Schoolhouse Rock's "I'm Just a Bill" cartoon. (American Homebrewers Association)

The latest battle in Congress was fought between the offices of a Republican senator from Louisiana and a Democratic representative from Northern California. But it wasn’t over free trade, or military budgets, or a bridge to nowhere: It was the finals of the first-ever Hill Staff Homebrew Contest, a challenge launched by the Brewers Association, a trade group for craft brewers, and the American Homebrewers Association.

As Katie Marisic, Brewers Association federal affairs manager, walked the halls of Capitol Hill, attending meetings and visiting congressional offices to discuss legislative priorities for breweries, she says staffers would regularly tell her, “Oh, I home-brew.” Some even shared their creations with her. She talked with American Homebrewers Association Director Gary Glass, Marisic says, and they decided to turn that previously untapped love of political home-brew into an interoffice contest, complete with a trophy.

“As you know,” Marisic adds, “Washington is a very competitive town.” (Still, she also pointed out that home-brewing is, for many, a collaborative project, even with differing experience levels. “It’s something they could do on teams: Get together and brew a beer.”)

And it’s a good time for home-brewing in Washington, with the opening of the Arlington Brew Shop in Rosslyn this year and the continued growth of the D.C. Homebrew Shop at 3 Stars Brewery in upper Northwest.

Twenty-five Hill staffers signed up for the contest, though only 14 ready-to-drink beers were delivered last week to the 3 Stars taproom, where a team of eight certified national and local beer judges waited to evaluate them. The contenders’ levels of experience were all over the map, says John Moorhead, who took a break from directing the National Homebrew Competition, the largest beer competition in the world, to organize this contest. “One guy has been brewing for 20 years. Another told us this was his first competition, which is really cool to hear.”

The quality of the beer also varied widely: For every delicate lavender saison, there was a wheat beer that just didn’t taste right. That’s not unusual at home-brew competitions, but Moorhead says he was surprised by the submissions themselves: “More Belgian-style beers than IPAs, which is not the way the National Homebrew Competition entries have been trending.”

In the end, the judges narrowed the field to two beers: a malty bière de garde created by Noah Oppenheim, a Sea Grant Knauss Fellow working in the office of Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.); and a double IPA brewed by Chris Anderson, a legislative assistant for Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), and his frequent brewing collaborator Matt Buckham, who now works for the Heritage Foundation after leaving the Hill. By a consensus vote, a trio of judges picked Tapdancing Fezziwig, the big, pleasantly bitter double IPA dry-hopped with Apollo and Columbus hops.

Anderson and Buckham picked up the award — shaped like the star of Schoolhouse Rock’s “I’m Just a Bill” cartoon but labeled “Beer” instead of “Bill” — at a ceremony in the Rayburn House Office Building on Thursday night. Anderson took the statue back to Cassidy’s office, where it will serve as bragging rights until the 2017 competition, which Glass hopes will be bigger. “At the reception after the announcement of winners, I interacted with a lot of home-brewers who weren’t aware of the competition,” Glass says. The goal is to “build that awareness among the staff, that there are other home-brewers here, and maybe begin more collaborations.”

It may inspire some other staffers to take up the hobby. After all, Glass says, the contest is “a great opportunity to highlight what home-brewing is all about to some very influential people.”

Anderson and Buckham, who brew in Buckham’s Merrifield home, are now considering entering the National Homebrew Competition. “Your friends lie to you” about how good a home-brewed beer is, Buckham says, and Anderson adds that “We decided that, if we win, that adds legitimacy.”

Meanwhile, they look forward to defending their title — and reaching across the aisle. “We brew beers to take a break from where were work,” says Buckham. “Politics is divisive. Beer is not.”

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