They mingled in a stately hall near Capitol Hill, a sea of dark suits and lanyards and sensible heels under glowing strands of white lights. Staffers, journalists and Beltway insiders grazed on elegant appetizers (date-and-gorgonzola-stuffed pears, anyone?) and sipped craft beers created by the night's celebrity brewmasters: nine sitting members of Congress — five Republicans and four Democrats.
It was an oddly festive scene Wednesday night at the inaugural "Brew Across America" hosted by Anheuser-Busch: Just one day after Democrats claimed key electoral victories across the country that were viewed as a referendum on a Republican president, once again exposing the deep divide between and within the political parties, here was a vast crowd of lawmakers and political staffers clinking glasses in seeming harmony.
Then again, it did seem as if everyone on the Hill was ready for a drink.
"I'm feeling great! I'm excited," said Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), co-creator of a fruity IPA dubbed the Oh Beatty Berry Brew, hours before the competition was to take place.
"I've had better nights," said Rep. Scott W. Taylor (R-Va.), whose staffers helped him craft an oatmeal-chocolate-chip-cookie-flavored stout that he said was "sure to be the winner of the competition."
In a capital rocked by scandal, federal investigations, combative tweeting and contentious elections, there are still certain lighthearted, lobbyist-sponsored bipartisan traditions that have carried on seemingly unscathed: The Animal Health Institute's Pet Night reception. The American Meat Institute's hot dog lunch. The International Dairy Foods Association's Capitol Hill Ice Cream Party. And now, an aisle-crossing brewing contest that organizers hope will join the ranks of those annual festivities. The beer conglomerate used the event to help promote one of its favored charities, Folds of Honor, a scholarship fund for relatives of fallen or disabled service members.
Hey, this might be the only safe, shared terrain we have left. Who doesn't like hot dogs? Or actual dogs? Or booze?
Looking for some deeper meaning here? Well, Anheuser-Busch touted a poll it conducted last year that showed that two-thirds of U.S. voters think the political system would work better if lawmakers discussed serious issues facing the country over beers in a friendly setting.
"That's a dreamy idea, right?" said Doug Bailey, the company's vice president of industry affairs. "But that's at our core. Beer is all about bringing people together, and who needs coming together more than folks in Washington, D.C., right now?"
Beatty liked the idea — even if she couldn't resist a jab at the commander in chief.
"If you have a country that's going to be mean-spirited and is going to be controlled by one person without engaging in bipartisan politics, people understand that that's just not right," she said. "So I think events like this, I think they're great. It allows you to see a different side of another member, it allows you to learn about their district and the people they serve, and even the type of beers that they like to drink. . . . And then maybe we can find at least one or two things to work on together."
Taylor agreed, though with a slightly different take.
"Considering the division in the country and the divisive rhetoric on both sides," he said emphatically, "there's probably nothing better than to have a fun event like this, with a little beer."
He paused, then laughed: "Not too much beer, because then it might turn into something bad. But just a little beer, that's great."
By the time the judging was underway shortly before 7 p.m., the hall was packed with staffers sipping beers and snapping selfies in front of banners emblazoned with the hashtag #BrewDemocracy.
Roland Foster, senior policy adviser for Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), stood near a table of hors d'oeuvres with Andrew Dockham, staff director and chief counsel of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, and Joe Donoghue, veteran legislative director for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
"We need more of these things," Donoghue said.
"I think beer is the only thing we have bipartisan agreement on at the moment," Foster said.
"It's much easier to talk about things over a beer," Dockham added.
But Donoghue, a Senate veteran of 30 years, insisted that things aren't really as bad as they're made out to be.
"I have friends who are Democrats and Republicans who I've known a long time, and I'm as close to them now as I was five, 10 years ago," he said. There is plenty of disagreement in Washington, he allowed, but the conventional wisdom about it "is a little overblown, a little overhyped."
Meanwhile, as the judging panel of beer industry savants and journalists (including a Washington Post reporter, but not this one) made its way through the nine tasting stations, Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) raised objections to the gentleman from Virginia's brew branding approach.
"He's trying to buy people's love by giving away chocolate chip cookies," Aguilar said of Taylor's entry. "I disagree with that. I think the beer should speak for itself." The two congressmen laughed and joked together in front of the cameras; the jabs remained focused on the contest at hand.
"So many people think that Washington, D.C., is broken. But what they don't see is that we actually do get along with each other," Aguilar said. "And events like this really reinforce that."
The upshot of this camaraderie? Aguilar hinted that maybe Taylor "can co-sponsor the Dream Act with me." Really? He shrugged. "But that's not the main reason I'm here tonight. And giving him a hard time is just fun."
Ultimately, Beatty's brew came in third place. Aguilar's IPA finished second. And, to enthusiastic applause, Rep. Jason T. Smith (R-Mo.) walked away with the inaugural Brew Democracy Brewing Cup for his "Gateway IPA." The contestants congratulated one another onstage as cameras flashed, capturing a brief glimpse of across-the-aisle cheer.
And then — though the music kept blaring, and the beers were free until 10 p.m. — the crowd gradually began to thin. It was a weeknight, after all. They grabbed their coats and headed for the doors, the fading strains of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin' " trailing behind them into the cold night.