Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) broadcast a live Instagram video on New Year’s Eve that showed her drinking a Michelob Ultra in her kitchen in Cambridge, Mass. “The club soda of beer,” she later said, when a reporter asked her what she was drinking.
The political world rolled its eyes and declared it shameless pandering. Did the ex-Harvard academic (who is, in fact, married to a current Harvard academic, law professor Bruce Mann) really prefer the thin, yellow fizz of Michelob Ultra, especially when her Boston region is home to some of the world’s best producers of richer, tastier IPAs, amber ales and porters?
Warren, the first major Democratic figure to jump into the 2020 presidential race, has yet to comment on the buzz her selection generated. And it’s entirely possible the exercise-obsessed senator really does dig the low-calorie Anheuser-Busch brew. (That low calorie count has been Michelob Ultra’s calling card in countless ads.)
But if Warren was instead using her choice of brands to signal her regular folksiness, it would merely be the latest in a long line of macrobrews-turned-agitprop.
Bill and Hillary Clinton have been longtime fans of Samuel Adams — the former president had it served at his 1993 inauguration. Al Gore was a fan, too. The company proudly displayed a thank-you letter he wrote to the brewery as vice president for dropping off some Sam at his Boston hotel. However, they rarely, if ever, knocked back the craft brew in public.
Former president Barack Obama was a little more forward in his love of richer, more artisanal beers. Photos from his presidency show him drinking what are clearly porters (or stouts) and maybe even the odd IPA. He also had the White House Mess home-brew a honey ale made partially from the fruits of a beehive on the executive mansion’s grounds.
Yet when it came to his famous beer summit in 2009 with Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cambridge police Sgt. James Crowley, it was Bud Light all the way — carefully placed, too, on a table among the three men and Vice President Joe Biden for the benefit of the photographers. It should be noted that Obama’s affection for microbrew became apparent only after he was no longer a first-time presidential hopeful.
Ronald Reagan was even cagier. Loyal Californian that he was, Reagan loved Napa and Sonoma wines. In the White House, he and his wife Nancy even used the same wine merchant they had hired for gubernatorial functions in Sacramento. However, the president kept this oenophilia largely to himself.
On the campaign trail, whether in a tavern, a bar or the local VFW, Reagan invariably hoisted a mug of macrobrew. No way would he have ever held up a nicely balanced cabernet sauvignon. Walter Mondale would have clobbered him!
So, what to make of the enduring appeal of pale, yellow fizz in presidential politics?
Capitalism has something to do with it. For all the meteoric growth in craft beer, or microbrews, during the past few decades, it remains a minority in the American beer market, accounting for about 13 percent of sales nationwide — maybe more in some metro areas. Domestic macrobrews such as Budweiser, Miller, Corona and Heineken account for everything else in the market, worth approximately $112 billion. Drink the job creators.
It also has to do with the city vs. country divide in beer in the United States. That popularity of craft beer is most pronounced in the nation’s bigger urban areas. The San Francisco Bay area, the New York City orbit, San Diego County, Portland (Maine and Oregon), Warren’s greater Boston: These places are where most of the nation’s 7,000 or so craft breweries are located, and where their fans are mostly concentrated. So if you’re trying to relate to what the political media has convinced itself is the prototypical Trump voter, best to imbibe what they do.
Finally, maybe it’s just a generational thing. Until the 1990s, when Pete’s Wicked and Sam Adams became the first national craft brands, beer in America meant Budweiser or its major rivals. This wasn’t necessarily about taste, it was just how things evolved.
The United States was once ale country — as far as the early republic drank beer at all. The most popular hard beverages were whiskey and cider. Then Germans and Czechs arrived en masse in the 1840s and 1850s and started making lager by the oceanful, and soon the thinner, paler lagers from little start-ups like Miller and Anheuser-Busch became the benchmark in the United States. The people preferred them to other available styles like porters and cream ales.
Now, the people prefer just those kinds of beer, produced by more than just a few breweries. Might their politicians someday catch up? Perhaps somewhere among the legions of younger congressional representatives sworn in on Jan. 3 is someone who will one day proudly raise a snifter of Belgian-style barley wine at a campaign event. Maybe it’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who, before her dramatic ascent last year to become the youngest congresswoman ever at age 29, famously tended bar in New York City — a metropolis that now hosts about 40 craft breweries.