Brewing beer is less glamorous than you might think. It involves a lot of sanitizing and a good deal of time spent watching the pot boil.
But that didn’t deter us from making the brew from the White House, which released recipes for two beers in September — a honey ale and a honey porter. We brewed the ale because it’s been served at state events and because it’s a style more familiar to casual beer drinkers. Many who are interested in home brewing have looked at the White House formula. “The recipe is fairly basic,” says Chris Maggiolo, owner of The Homebrew Emporium in Cambridge. “British hops, standard British ale yeast, unspecified crystal and biscuit malts, and some extract. It’s a good recipe for beginning brewers.”
The beer has gotten a lot of attention. At the Democratic National Convention, Bill Butcher, founder of Port City Brewing Co. in Alexandria, Va., wondered if the beer-brewing president would soon be his competition. Four days earlier, the White House had released the recipes, appeasing home-brewing diehards who had filed a formal petition to make the formulas public.
Butcher’s endorsement of the home-brewing effort was no surprise, but an endorsement of the beer itself had yet to be made. Anyone with the proper equipment to brew can make the beer, to more or less the same specifications as the White House. The way to assess the beer’s quality, then, is to make it.
That’s where my friend Javier Torre and I come in. He is a home brewer and I’ve helped him with several batches. We are hobbyists. The American Homebrewers Association estimates that there are about 1 million people like us in the United States. A starter brewing kit can cost as little as $80, and the ingredients to brew a 5-gallon batch of beer should cost less than that. It’s an approachable hobby, which likely factored into the president’s deciding to brew (a White House spokesman emphasized that the Obamas bought the equipment themselves).
In a video on the White House blog, assistant chef Sam Kass walks viewers through the process. The Obamas don’t brew the beer themselves, he explains, though the honey used in the ale comes from Michelle Obama’s bees on the South Lawn.
From start to finish, we brewed the beer in slightly more than three hours. It sat in a large glass vessel for two weeks in my kitchen before I transferred it to bottles, where it sat some more. It’s not a hobby that offers instant gratification.
Because it’s geared toward novices, the recipe simplifies some steps. It calls for canned malt extract, eliminating the need to turn grain into sugars yourself. These sugars are the essence of beer-making and are what the yeast eventually converts into alcohol. Hops act as a flavoring and bittering agent and have preservative qualities that once made beer a popular drink on long journeys.
To make the beer, we steeped whole-grain biscuit and amber malt in a mesh bag to add color, added two bags of dried malt and two cans of malt extract, and brought the pot to a boil. After it cooked for a while, we added two kinds of hops. Five minutes before we turned off the pot, we added the honey. We chilled the mixture, now called the “wort,” before transferring it to the fermenter (in our case a big glass jug) and adding yeast.
Obama is the first president to brew beer at the White House, spokesman Eric Schultz says, but there’s a history of presidents making beer elsewhere. George Washington brewed at Mount Vernon, and in 1757 he left notes in one of his journals on how to brew. Thomas Jefferson brewed at Monticello and by 1814 had his own brewhouse.
A passenger on the Mayflower wrote this in his diary when the elders were considering settling on Plymouth: “We could not now take time for further search or consideration; our victuals being much spent, especially our beer.” While beer may have been a consideration, it’s unlikely to have been the deciding factor. Beer played a bigger role in 17th-century England than it did in Colonial America. “It took a while for Puritans to develop good beer in New England,” says Barry Levy, professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.“I suspect this was because wheat was hard to grow.”
For that reason cider was popular with early settlers, but beer certainly took hold soon enough. Boston College associate history professor Owen Stanwood says, “In the early modern period beer was often considered a safer drink than water, as the brewing process killed off a lot of germs.” Workers would fortify themselves with beer for breakfast before a hard day of labor.
While the early brewing process was crude, by Jefferson’s time it had become more advanced. In one of his recipes Jefferson brews a ginger and honey ale (perhaps the reason the modern president was drawn to honey ale as well).
“I thought it sent a great message that [the president] used honey from the White House beehives,” says Jim Koch, founder of Samuel Adams.
The Jefferson link to the Obama beer is a nice touch, and the use of local honey fits with the attitude of many craft brewers. The timing of when to add the honey during brewing in the White House recipe seemed unusual to us. This was confirmed by Harpoon’s chief brewer Al Marzi. “One concern I have with the recipe is that honey can be a very tricky ingredient to use, and they are adding it in the boil,” says Marzi. “In my experience the honey will ferment all the way out and leave little or no flavor or aroma, and you can end up with a very dry beer.”
You would think that the word “dry” would not be associated with beer, yet a dry beer lacks the depth of flavor that many of the world’s best beers possess.
It was time to taste our handiwork. Once you pop off the caps, the beer pours a beautiful amber with a thick, white head. There’s a decent crispness from the hops, and the flavor is sweet but well balanced. The honey was indeed muted; adding it during fermentation would have given the beer more depth — as Marzi predicted, our brew is a little dry — but it’s an entirely pleasant drinking experience.
Maggiolo, the Cambridge retailer, says that more than half a dozen customers have come into his shop asking for ingredients to make the White House recipe. Some have been shy about sharing their intentions during campaign season. “Brewing shouldn’t be about politics,” says Maggiolo.
The White House beer is a good brew, though it’s unlikely to inspire any commercial success. In an e-mail, Butcher writes that he has no plans to brew the honey ale, but adds that “more and more people are discovering and enjoying hand-made beer with more flavor,” which undoubtedly could only be good for all brewers.
The president’s beer might not put artisans out of business, but it’s certainly good enough to accompany a simmering pot on a chilly night.