Tuesday, March 01, 2011

The Obamas Make History With Homebrewed White House Honey Ale

White House beermaking is a milestone in American culinary history that the Chefs will continue...
UPDATE, Sept 1, 2012: WH releases two beer recipes
UPDATE, Aug. 14, 2012: The President travels with homebrew
UPDATE, Sept. 16, 2011: President serves homebrew to Medal of Honor hero
President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama made culinary history when they served homebrewed White House Honey Ale, made with a pound of honey from the White House Beehive, to guests at last month's Super Bowl party. They are the first presidential couple to ever charge their chefs with the ancient--and now wildly popular--art of homebrewing, according to White House Curator Bill Allman. (Above: The President and First Lady check out beer steins; inset is a bottle of White House Honey Ale)

Allman is the very busy historian who oversees every extraordinary aspect of the most famous 132-room museum/residence in America, from the priceless antiques and art to the decades of records about domestic practices and sometimes curious presidential habits. The Obamas' White House homebreweing has no precedent: Allman did a thorough check of his sources, beginning with the days when the White House was first occupied more than 200 years ago.

"We have no record of beer brewing at the White House," Allman said.

William Ushong, historian for the White House Historical Association, concurs.

"I haven't heard of any beer brewing going on at the White House itself," Ushong said. "President Jefferson would be your likely candidate, given his epicurean taste."

But no: Even President Thomas Jefferson (in office 1801-1809), who is credited with being the first president to spotlight the importance of the culinary arts at the White House, did not homebrew at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Allman said that while President Jefferson "rather famously took a personal interest in buying wines, by which he severely depleted his personal accounts," a previous White House historian recorded that Jefferson's Steward bought the whiskey, beer, and cider that was served, so it wasn't brewed on site. (Jefferson, above)

Allman added that there's also no evidence that homebrewing occurred in other early presidential administrations, when "skills possibly plied at [the presidents'] personal homes might have been plied at their temporary official home." Even during Prohibition in the 1920s, when all of America was dry, there is no record of home brewing or distilling at the White House, Allman reported, while admitting that "there was some consumption of illegal alcoholic beverages."

"There is no evidence in our files concerning brewing during those decades or during the rest of White House history," Allman said.

Homebrewing takes hold at the White House...
The White House Honey Ale was not the first time the White House chefs have homebrewed. You don't serve your very first fermentation experiment to special visitors, do you? The President and Mrs. Obama's Super Bowl guest list mixed glamor with politics: Singer/actress Jennifer Lopez and her husband, singer Marc Anthony mingled with a smattering of Cabinet Secretaries, Members of Congress, and First Family friends.

But Super Bowl Sunday was the first time there was an announcement about homebrewed beer, because clearly the White House is aware that it's special; the bottle labels for the White House Honey Ale were created in-house, to mark the occasion.

And the homebrewing is going to continue.

"It is very safe to assume that there will be more White House beer in the future," said Semonti Stephens, a spokesman for the East Wing.

For the Super Bowl party, "90 to 100" 12-ounce bottles of the Honey Ale were served, Stephens said. There were no leftovers.

The chefs, who are led by Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford (l), are quite excited about homebrewing, according to Stephens. Between the savory side and the pastry side of the kitchen, there are about a dozen chefs, all told--and a number are exploring the wonders of boiling and bottling.

"It's a collaborative effort," Stephens said.

Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses, for the record, is a whiz at molecular gastronomy--the science of food. Brewing some lovely White House Honey Ale is right in keeping with his interests in the reactive nature of edible ingredients; he's even lectured at Harvard University about the science of food, and alongside world-class scientists at a recent convention in DC.

Red, White and Brew
The Obamas and their chefs have now joined a national community of enthusiasts that seems to be getting larger by the day, because homebrewing (and craft brewing and micro brewing) have surged in popularity in recent years, becoming one of the hottest trends in the food world. There are more than 700,000 homebrewers in the US, according to the American Homebrewers Association. Every year there are countless festivals, competitions, and beer bashes held to laud the wonders of home fermentation. Homebrewing has been legal in the US since 1978--and yes, it is legal in DC, where there's a very active cadre of Hop Heads.

The President and First Lady purchased the brewing equipment with their own funds, a White House aide said on Super Bowl Sunday. Stephens declined to identify exactly what kind of equipment--it's a private purchase, after all--but according to Alan Talman of Karp's Homebrew, a brewing supply shop in East Northport, New York, the Obamas could have a very workable homebrewing set-up for as little as $60 dollars. A fancy rig would run between $200-$400 dollars. And the White House kitchen, though notoriously small considering the vast amount of delights that are created each week, is already in possession of some of the finest cooking equipment available.

Hops in the Kitchen Garden...
The very talented chefs have been engaging in all kinds of "new" culinary adventures since the President and Mrs. Obama arrived, from pickling vegetables grown in Mrs. Obama's Kitchen Garden (which have been given as high-profile diplomatic gifts) to making cheese in house, which occurred for Sunday night's black tie Governors' Dinner, when homemade ricotta was served. But the culinary adventures are not really new: They're practices that were once standard in American kitchens. They just haven't gone on at the White House before--or were conducted behind the scenes, with no announcement. Home pickling and cheese making are also hot trends right now in the American cooking scene.

Assistant chef Sam Kass (l), who does double duty as the First Lady's Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives, is very excited about the homebrewing: Hops could be the next "experimental" vegetable planted in the First Lady's Kitchen Garden, which Kass oversees.

"Believe me, I've thought about it," said Kass, chuckling, when asked if there was a possibility that the key beer-making crop might join the other delicacies growing in America's most famous edible garden.

"It has definitely crossed my mind," Kass said.

Mrs. Obama's 1,500 square-foot Kitchen Garden, located on the bottom of the South Lawn, will shortly be re-planted for the Spring season, and there's plenty of room for Hops, which are relatively easy to grow. The garden is simultaneously a nutrition education project for children and an unequaled chef's garden, the source of more than 60 kinds of vegetables, including heirloom varieties and special edibles sourced from Jefferson's own kitchen garden at his Virginia plantation home, Monticello. It's overseen by master historical gardener Peter Hatch, who has advised on the Kitchen Garden. The White House crops are used to create everything from State Dinners to simple First Family meals. About a third of the crops are donated to Miriam's Kitchen, a local social services agency that feeds the homeless.

UPDATE: The Hop fest in the Kitchen Garden didn't happen. No Hops were sowed when the First Lady re-planted for Spring on March 16. But the Chefs got a different vegetable they'd asked for: Beets.

Ale to the Chief: America's beer lovers are thrilled...
Although President Obama has had a couple of other high-profile beer events during his Administration--there was the Beer Summit in 2009, and last summer's World Cup Beer Bet with Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron--news of the presidential predilection for homebrewed beer caused a huge froth of excitement. The White House brewing became a hot topic on the internet, the subject of many postings to beer list-servs and chatboards. (Above: The Prime Minister and President toast as they swap beers; the bet ended in a draw)

Talman, of Karp's Homebrew, said the presidential beer was the subject of much discussion among visitors to his store, which is about a half hour outside New York City.

"Plenty of people have mentioned it to me, and people in the beer trade are passing the word around," Talman said.

“Last weekend at his SB party the president served homebrew at the White House,” Denny Conn of the Cascade Brewers Society told an Oregon state senate committee, during a February hearing about a bill to allow homebrew competitions to resume at state fairs. The committee passed the measure, and sent it to the full senate for a vote, according to the Portland Tribune.

Obama Foodorama got hundreds of excited e-mails from readers praising the President and First Lady's excellent taste, and looking for more info; there was so much cheery, beery e-mail that the interns are still plowing through it. There were even invitations sent in for President Obama, asking him to visit homebrewing fests (you can e-mail the President here, BTW).

Of course everyone wants the recipe--but the White House isn't ready to release a "definitive" recipe just yet. That'll have to wait until the recipe is absolutely perfected.

"Maybe with the next batch," Stephens said.

Another first: The White House Beehive
The White House Honey Ale was a particularly special way for the President and First Lady to get a gold star in the history books, because the White House Beehive is also a first. Before the Obamas installed the Beehive in 2009, there'd never before been one on the eighteen acres of park-like grounds. Located beside the Kitchen Garden, the Beehive is strapped to its base, so it doesn't blow over when President Obama flies in on Marine One. (Above: The Bee Hive)

The Beehive is overseen by Bee Keeper in Chief Charlie Brandts, who says the honey changes in taste while the bees are active, depending on where they're getting their pollen. Last season, the hive produced 160 pounds of honey, and it regularly appears on White House menus, for instance for the State Dinner in honor of China's President Hu Jintao. It's also used for traditional food art creations, like the 400-pound holiday White House Gingerbread House.

More White House food firsts...
In addition to the Beehive and the homebrewing, the pickling and cheese making, included on the long list of White House food firsts is the Kitchen Garden itself, the first on the White House grounds since World War II. The Obamas are the first to include cooking demonstrations at both their annual Easter Egg Rolls, and the first to invite guest chefs to cook State Dinners. They're the first to ever have a Senior Policy Adviser for Healthy Food Initiatives. Most recently, they became the first presidential couple to appoint a male Social Secretary--and an openly gay one, at that. Jeremy Bernard is the fellow who will now oversee the events where all the culinary history is being made. And, of course, there's the biggest first of all, the First Lady's Let's Move! campaign. Mrs. Obama's massive project is the first-ever national campaign run by a First Lady that focuses on healthy eating and fitness initiatives. (Above: Kass and the First Lady, with child helpers, working in the Kitchen Garden)

The President and Mrs. Obama have often said that they aim to make the White House truly the People's House, and the culinary adventures of their chefs reflect that. They're re-creating the best of American food traditions, creating new ones, and making history as they go.

UPDATE, June 27, 2011: More WH brewing going on...

UPDATE, March 4, 2011: If you are visiting here from NPR, please note that the report that President Obama is doing the beer brewing HIMSELF is entirely false. And if you arrived here from Irish Central or other Irish media, please note that it is NOT TRUE that the White House has announced that the President himself will be homebrewing beer to serve to guests on St. Patrick's Day, fun as that sounds.

UPDATE, March 2, 2011: For all the serious Hop Heads who've e-mailed: Yes, President George Washington was a well-known homebrewer. President Washington is also the only president who never lived in the White House. He oversaw construction, which began when the first cornerstone was laid in October of 1792. But it was not until 1800, when the White House was almost completed, that its First residents, President John Adams and his wife, Abigail, moved in.

*Top photo by Samantha Appleton/White House; beer bottle photo by Pete Souza/White House; Comerford photo by API; others by Eddie Gehman Kohan/ObamaFoodorama.com

*In the photo at top, the President and First Lady were attending the Marine Barracks evening parade in Washington, on July 24, 2009.