How Barack Obama Became the First President to Brew Beer at the White House

The former president and his staff crafted ales featuring honey from the White House garden

Sam Kass explains the brewing process. (Youtube)
smithsonian.com

Who was the first president to brew beer on White House grounds? The tempting answer is a Founding Father or president from the pre-Prohibition era, but home brewers didn’t practice their craft at the White House until 2011. Barack Obama was the first president to host a White House brewing session, and Sam Kass, Obama’s former senior adviser for nutrition policy, was instrumental in making that happen. Tony Cohn, host of Smithsonian’s behind-the-scenes Sidedoor podcast, spoke to Kass to find out more. To hear the rest of the interview, including a tidbit about the Obamas’ favorite drinks, listen to Sidedoor’s bonus mini-episode.

I read that President Obama’s administration was the first that had brewing in the White House. Could you tell me a little bit about that?

That's my understanding. You know, obviously, there could be some beer that we don't know about, but the person who ran the archives for the White House did research and looked through all the records and sort of found no evidence of any beer being brewed, or liquor distilled, on the grounds of the White House.

Washington was distilling various spirits in Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson was making wine in Monticello, but at the White House proper, we don't know of any evidence that there was a president who brewed beer.

Whose idea was it?

I guess I'd give credit to the American people. There's been a transformation in beer culture over the last 15 years. Not only are there thousands of small breweries popping up all over the country, but people are brewing beer in their basements all over the place, and I just thought it would be great to join in that sort of great American tradition––or a budding tradition anyway––and brew some of our own beer.

Beer had a prominent role in this White House administration. There was the beer summit, and Obama was often photographed drinking beer in his travels. Can you help us understand that?

I think there's something powerful about beer. It’s food more broadly, but I think beer really captures the spirit of coming together, of sitting down, of sharing human moments, friendship moments, bonding moments. I mean, we all do it all the time. What’s better than sitting down with some friends or even sitting down with somebody to work something out and saying, “OK. Let me buy a beer. Let's talk this over”? And I think it holds a really sacred part of our culture.

Showing the country that we're part of this ongoing narrative and dialogue that's been going on for centuries––well, it’s quite powerful. It's also just naturally what you do if you're a regular guy and you're a good guy, and that's really what the president is. He's just a decent guy. You know, he's quite smart, but he's not fancy. I think it was quite exemplary of who he was and how he conducted himself.

Did you have homebrewing experience prior to the White House?

None of us did. We had no idea what we were doing. But you just give it a shot. And if you have cooking experience and kitchen experience and you know how to kind of follow a recipe, which we did … as long as you are careful, it's not that complicated. So yeah, no, it turned out great. The first beer we did was honey brown ale, and we used the honey from the White House garden for all of our beers. And so we ended up doing a honey brown, honey blonde in the summer, and then we called it a honey porter, but it really wasn't a porter. It was just really dark, but it wasn't heavy at all, and it was absolutely delicious. Like, that beer will sell anywhere.

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