Our Fearless Drinkers - Beer and Presidents

Mention the words 'President' and 'beer' in the same sentence these days, and everyone's brain immediately goes to Barack Obama, his White House honey-infused beers and the internet calamity that surrounded trying to get the recipes. But the fact is, the ties between the U.S. head of state and beer reach much farther back in Presidential lineage. Given that it's Presidents' Day, it seems only fitting to take a brief step back in time and explore the history of beer and some of the important leaders that cherished it.

George Washington

As the first President of the United States under the Constitution, George Washington had no choice but to set precedent for things like foreign policy, debt management and...beer? Yep, it's true. While he did not homebrew in the Presidential office, per se, an artifact has been discovered that proves Washington to be  one that enjoys crafting his own beer. A recipe for 'small beer' was found in a notebook dating back to 1757, which Washington kept while he served in the Virginia militia. The recipe, as written:

To make Small Beer
Take a large Sifter full of Bran Hops to your Taste. Boil these 3 hours. Then strain out 30 Gallons into a Cooler, put in 3 Gallons Molasses while the Beer is scalding hot or rather drain the molasses into the Cooler & strain the Beer on it while boiling Hot. Let this stand till it is little more than Blood warm. Then put in a quart of Yeast if the weather is very cold, cover it over with a Blanket & let it work in the Cooler 24 hours. Then put it into the Cask. leave the Bung[hole] open till it is almost done working. Bottle it that day Week it was Brewed.

The recipe may be a bit nonsensical and honestly sounds like it would taste like utter crap (back in 2011, Shmaltz Brewing tried to recreate the recipe as 'Fortitude's Founding Father Brew), but it still shows a pretty fascinating historical interesting in homebrewing from a man who later led our country. And given that his farewell address included strong statements against partisan politics, he may be a shining example of the idea that maybe beer CAN actually make you a bit wiser.

Thomas Jefferson

Though his homebrewing activity took place after his departure from the White House, Thomas Jefferson might have the most prolific brewing past of all the former Presidents. The layout of his Monticello retirement plantation in Virginia included both a brewing room and a beer cellar, and he and his wife Martha would typically brew fifteen-gallon batches of sessionable table beer every couple weeks. There's even a letter from 1813, written from Jefferson to his neighbor (who, coincidentally, supplied his malt) that said "I lent you some time ago the London & Country brewer and Combrune's book on the same subject. We are this day beginning under the directions of Capt. Millar, the business of brewing malt liquors, and if these books are no longer useful to you I will thank you for them, as we may perhaps be able to derive some information from them." So don't worry, homebrewers of today, your problems aren't new; even 200 years ago, Jefferson had friends who borrowed his stuff and didn't give it back.

Jimmy Carter

He may not have been a brewer himself, but President Carter certainly proved that he supported those that wanted to create beer in their home. On October 14th, 1978, Carter signed the bill H.R.1337 into effect, which essentially legalized homebrewing. More accurately, it decriminalized it by creating an exemption from taxation for beer brewed at home for personal or family use (100 gallons per year, per adult, to be specific). Why did this not happen until the late 70's? Conveniently enough, when Prohibition had been repealed, a nifty little clerical error meant that beer was left out of the new law that said home wine-making was legal. As Bob Slydell in Office Space might say, Carter simply 'fixed the glitch.' The downside? The law is only federal, and still left the door open for individual states to criminalize homebrewing, and sadly, some horribly out-of-touch states still take advantage of it. Looking at you, Alabama and Mississippi!

Franklin Delano Roosevelt 

Speaking of Prohibition, how can we talk about beer and Presidency without mentioning the man whose political action allowed us to drink freely in the modern era without having to endure underground beer trafficking and speakeasy passwords? To tackle the misery brought upon America by Congress in 1919, Roosevelt took a couple steps. First, on March 22, 1933, FDR signed an amendment to the Volstead Act, called the “Beer and Wine Revenue Act”, which would allow free sale of alcoholic beverages with a concentration of 3.2% or lower. And then on December 5, 1933, Roosevelt brought out the big guns. The 21st Amendment was completely ratified, which ultimately repealed the 18th Amendment of January 16, 1919, ending the nationwide prohibition of alcohol and allowing for beer to once again flow like wine (well, legally anyway).

These are just a few strong examples of past Presidents who showed clear support for, and recognized the importance of, beer in life. Chances are, a good portion of our past leaders kicked back with a beer now and then. Heck, William Taft probably enjoyed a beer in the tub. And when Lyndon B. Johnson was flying around drunkenly in his amphicar, who knows how many pints he had knocked back previously. Regardless of when or how they enjoyed it, beer has as much of a historical presence as anything in the White House, and this quote from Abraham Lincoln sums it up nicely:

“I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts, and beer.”

Here's a toast to our nation's great leaders. Happy Presidents' Day!

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