It might be the most infuriating observation you can make about a politician: I could totally have a beer with them. At such a precarious moment for our nation, we’d like to believe that voters choose their leaders based on something less frivolous. Nonetheless, that phrase has become shorthand in our civic lexicon for relatable, authentic and likable.
With that in mind, the candidates vying for the top spot in the 2020 Democratic Presidential Primaries are raising the time honored pint and huddling next to bartenders for photo ops, all along the campaign trail. For some, the ritual is clearly a chore. Others seem to relish it. And a few notable figures have even made craft beer part of their core political identity.
Looking at the Democrats’ individual engagement with brewing culture can illuminate the cultural totem that is American beer. It can also show the potential peril of a public figure co-opting it.
At a minimum, Americans can expect to see their politicians drinking beer for cameras — the better to show solidarity with some archetypal everyman. Bob Pease, president of the Brewers Association, sees beer as a sort of communal, equalizing force: “Beer brings people together,” he says. “It is THE American beverage. It’s woven its way into the American nomenclature, around elections.”
Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar acknowledged in 2013 that while she avoids eating many deep-fried fairground foods on television, she had no issue sipping a local ale in the morning. Her campaign website sells coozies emblazoned with her critique of Donald Trump’s pharmaceutical price policies: “all foam, no beer.”
Meanwhile, Massachusetts congressman Seth Moulton opined that the potential alien invaders could be pacified with an American burger and beer. As vacuous election talk goes, this ranks pretty high, but Moulton does have some genuine craft connections. He did, after all, cut the ribbon at the opening of Bent Water Brewing in Lynn, MA, in 2016.
The risk of taking a performative swig of beer is that the public won’t buy it. That disbelief inevitably leads to accusations of deception. As Homer Simpson memorably declared of Richard Nixon, “The man never drank a Duff in his life!” Even politicians who evidently enjoy a drink get saddled with reactive skepticism.
An avowed whiskey lover, New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand nonetheless hit up multiple New Hampshire breweries in May. Her spokesman Evan Lukaske said she enjoys “grapefruit-flavored beers,” though it’s unclear whether that means beers using grapefruit-y hops or grapefruit as adjunct. Most famously, she sank a shot in beer pong at Liquid Therapy in Nashua. This widely shared moment almost immediately received more rigorous fact-checking than most legislation. NBC broke that her first shot was short of the cup. The Takeout revealed that the cup was filled with water.
Perhaps no figure’s imbibing has faced more scrutiny in 2019 than Senator Elizabeth Warren. An Instagram livestream where she pointedly paused to “get me a beer” was met with derision, and not only from conservatives inclined to dislike her. One could argue that Americans are inclined to mock Massachusetts politicos when they put on rugged airs. Think Dukakis’ tank ride, Kerry’s cheesesteak with provolone and Romney’s hunting of “small varmints.”
There’s something about the Bay State that compels voters and the media to assume the worst. But Warren’s social media has so much beer drinking with friends and family, it’s a stretch to assume she’s running the long con on voters. Especially when she’s pretty self-deprecating about her beer tastes. Asked in January about her favorite beer, she wryly replied, “Michelob Ultra – the club soda of beers.”
It’s worth noting that this beer-authenticity policing is reserved for two prominent female candidates with combative reputations. Certainly, every public figure is open to criticism, but there’s something reflexive about the public skepticism of their simply enjoying a brew.
The craft beer taproom has become nearly as ubiquitous for politicians as the factory floor or the county fair. Shirtsleeve-rolling opportunities abound, and photographers love the image of a politician raising a pint (maybe one they even poured themselves). More than that, though, craft brewers are more ideal local business-leaders, offering campaigns the chance to talk economic revival and entrepreneurship.
“It’s where the voters are,” Pease says of breweries. “People are relaxed in that environment. They’re generally welcoming to families, more so than a traditional bar.” He continues, “The visual imagery of breweries. You see stainless steel. You see equipment. It says manufacturing, small business, job creation.”
Texas representative turned Ted Cruz foil Beto O’Rourke is known for leaping onto tabletops to address crowds, and he has done so recently at breweries in Greensboro, NC, Charleston, SC, and Conway, NH. Indeed, Politico reported in March that proprietors hosting Beto events were making sure counter space was clear for him to hop on. During his improbable near-victorious Senate run last year, he saw Austin’s Circle Brewing release Beto Beer, a pale ale. It was a fine homage, though perhaps dubious given his fraught history with alcohol.
Similarly, Tech entrepreneur and universal basic income proponent Andrew Yang has hosted events at a surprisingly eclectic list of breweries, including Charm City Meadworks (Baltimore) and Rhinegeist (Cincinnati). At a June soccer tailgate event listed on Yang’s campaign website, anyone over 21 who Googled Yang was given free beer.
Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard’s campaign has stopped at breweries in Peterborough, NH, and Iowa City, IA. Ohio congressman Tim Ryan, who raised pints with then-candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016, stopped of at Fox Brewing in West Des Moines. Former Maryland congressman John Delaney, whose campaign has floundered in recent weeks, found himself conversing with the co-owner of To Share Brewery in Manchester, NH, who illustrated the difficulty of maintaining her health coverage while building the business. It provided a window into the challenges just about every small brewery owner faces.
Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year old U.S. military veteran, polyglot and mayor of South Bend, IN, has a more personal connection to South Bend Brew Werks. In March, he tweeted a photo of their Stargazer IPA, which he’d been gifted as a #BeerItForward . This wasn’t the first shout out the Buttigieg family had given the brewery. Last year, Mayor Pete’s husband, Chasten, tweeted a photo of his advance copy of the candidate’s memoir, along with an SBBW snifter.
The brewery and pub has been open since 2013, and it’s become a community hub, fundraiser for various nonprofits and even the beer supplier for Pete and Chasten’s wedding reception. In April SBBW retweeted a video showing its patrons cheering on the candidate’s televised campaign launch.
A time honored civic tradition is the championship wager between elected officials whose sports teams are facing off. Local beers are a common wager, and these bets are an opportunity for politicians who may not enjoy a brew themselves to acknowledge a local brewery.
Kamala Harris is said to be rigorously health-conscious, so beer does not appear to be a frequent staple of her public diet. But she is the junior senator of California, which boasts the most craft breweries of any state. So, when the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers faced off in the NBA Finals last year, she and Diane Feinstein wagered Anchor Brewing beer (along with Napa Valley chardonnay) against Ohio senators Sherrod Brown and Rob Portmann’s selection of Great Lakes and Platform brews.
Bill De Blasio, New York’s pugnacious mayor, went toe-to-toe with Houston mayor Sylvester Turner in 2017, when the Astros and Yankees met in ALCS championship. De Blasio put up some Bronx Brewery beer (and cannoli) against Turner’s ante: an 8th Wonder Brewing cream ale and a dozen Kölsches. Clearly, De Blasio must be hoping for better luck in 2020 than he saw with that bet.
For many public figures, tipping back an ale is a compulsory, albeit pleasant, activity. Yet the 2020 field has a surprising wealth of candidates whose identities are inextricably linked to craft beer.
John Hickenlooper, the former Colorado governor may be a longshot to clinch the nomination, but no 2020 candidate has a stronger connection to American craft beer. A geologist until the 1980s, Hickenlooper co-founded Wynkoop Brewing Company in 1988. It was the first brewpub to open in downtown Denver and became a nexus for the revitalization of the area.
These deep local business roots served him well when he ran for mayor of Denver in 2002 and governor in 2010. In 2014, he raised pints with then-President Obama at Wynkoop. Last year, he received the Brewers Association’s Friend in Beer Award. And in July, he released a video where he promised to “bring harmony, hope and hops to Washington.”
Pease, who has known Hickenlooper since his brewing days, recalls speaking to the governor recently at an event honoring Association founder Charlie Papazian. During that meeting, Hickenlooper discussed his plan to enter the race. Said Pease: “Whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, Governor Hickenlooper has a strong track record of working across the aisle. The label he enjoys in Colorado is someone who got things done.”
Remember the dark days of early 2019, when the longest government shutdown in U.S. history temporarily shuttered the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau and halted approval of new beer labels and license applications? Well, it was Colorado Senator Michael Bennet who personally contacted Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, warning of the dire economic consequences for the beer industry.
Not surprising, given the sheer number of craft brewers in Colorado, Bennett has long made beer central to his political message. His first 2016 re-election campaign TV spot was partially shot at New Belgium Brewing. This year, Bennett and fellow CO Senator, Republican Cory Gardner, introduced a bill to permanently establish reduced excise taxes for brewers, vintners and distillers.
Incidentally, Bennet and Gardner are both members of the Senate Bipartisan Brewers Conference. Sanders and Klobuchar are also members. Gabbard, Tim Ryan and Mouton are members of the House Caucus, as were Inslee, Delaney and O’Rourke when they were in Congress. That house group is the largest single caucus in Congress.
Jay Inslee, Washington’s popular governor, is highlighting climate change as the key issue of our time. He is also the executive of the state with the second most craft breweries in America. This year, Inslee declared March 2nd as Washington Beer Day. He signed into law SB 5394, a priority for the state’s Brewer’s Guild. The bill codified rules for social media that had theretofore been vague and prevented breweries from, among other things, selling event tickets on Facebook.
Senator Bernie Sanders may not place beer at the center of his democratic socialist platform, but he is as much an icon of modern craft beer. Vermont, birthplace of the New England IPA and home to some of the country’s top breweries, has been Sander’s home since 1968 (he was born in Brooklyn).
During his last presidential campaign, he was memorably photographed holding a can of Heady Topper. Adding to Sanders’ solid craft beer cred: in 2016 the beloved Burlington brewer Zero Gravity released Bernie Weiss, a “forward-thinking Berliner Weiss.” If you missed it then, no worries: it’s back in cans this year.
Of course, not everyone is a drinker. Regardless of common campaign trail tippling is, we shouldn’t expect non-drinkers to start toasting just because they’re running for office.
Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, for example, has never had a drink. In fact, when in February a Buzzfeed reporter asked him to identify the ingredients of a Manhattan, a Long Island Iced Tea and a margarita, he was stumped.
Housing and Urban Development secretary Julian Castro, whose stock has risen since a powerful debate performance last month, is also a non-drinker. But he still faced criticism early this year for seeming to appropriate Bud Light’s font and color scheme for his campaign marketing.
Spiritual guru and author Marianne Williamson is as far removed from the brewing industry as you’ll find in the 2020 field. In fact, before her bizarre debate performance in June, she sent a campaign email encouraging recipients to skip the de rigeur debate drinking games and instead do yoga.
On a more substantive level, Food and Wine noted that Williamson is the rare candidate who places food policy prominently on her platform. This, on the one hand, would be in line with craft brewing’s embrace of whole ingredients and sustainable practices. However, her intention to address what foods and food products receive de facto government subsidies could affect beer’s hard-earned excise tax victories.
Then there’s Joe Biden. Despite the Onion-conceived image of Diamond Joe Biden, the Coors-swilling shirtless ne’er-do-well, the former Vice President is not a drinker. A 2008 New York Times profile of the then-senator and vice presidential candidate, drew a picture of Biden’s youth where alcohol was omnipresent and harmful. In particular, the effects of alcoholism ravaged his family when, facing lean times, they moved from Scranton to Wilmington.
During the odd footnote of recent political history that was 2009’s “beer summit” following the wrongful arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates, Biden drank Buckler, Heineken’s non-alcoholic brand.
It’s worth noting that Donald Trump, current occupant of the White House, does not drink either. It’s a life choice reportedly informed by his older brother’s death resulting from alcoholism. But like the last Republican chief executive – George W. Bush, who gave up drinking in 1986 – this lack of actual beer-drinking has done nothing to dampen his blue-collar appeal.
Such is the odd dichotomy between public perception and reality that pervades politics.