Thursday, April 11, 2013

Ale To The Chief: For President Obama, A Special New 'White House Wheat Beer'

Assistant Chef Sam Kass has big plans for the "experimental" wheat newly added to the First Lady's Kitchen Garden: Homebrewed beer, he says, is part of America's "fabric of identity"...
During his second term in the nation's highest office, President Obama, America's most famous beer lover, will be trading the White House chefs' signature White House Honey Ales for White House Wheat Beer if Sam Kass gets his wish.  The Assistant Chef has big plans for the wheat First Lady Michelle Obama planted in her Kitchen Garden last week, including using it "for making our next round of beer," he said.  The President could be raising a mug of the special suds by the end of summer.  (Above, toasting in the Rose Garden with Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer)

"We will harvest late July-ish," Kass, Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy, told agriculture reporters gathered at the White House on Tuesday.

Wheat is a staple of the American diet as well as one of the nation's major agriculture exports, and the First Lady's 'Bread' and 'Club' wheat seed came from an expert breeder working with "experimental" varieties, Kass said.  What will be amber waves of grain are a first for Mrs. Obama's garden, the latest of many Obama food firsts, including the beer.  (Above, Mrs. Obama planting the wheat seed)

The Obamas' chefs are the first in history to homebrew at the presidential mansion, beginning their exciting fermentation experiments in 2011 at the President's behest.  They use honey from the first-ever White House beehive that sits beside Mrs. Obama's garden for their three beers, each made with a pound of gold stuff:  Honey Ale, Honey Blonde Ale, and Honey Porter. 

While there's currently just one large, raised bed with wheat on the southernmost side of the 1,500 square-foot Kitchen Garden, Kass said he plans to plant much more, ensuring enough crop for White House Wheat Beer and other whole-grain delights.

"There's a big bed, a big bed in the back and we're gonna plant the next round of wheat there," Kass said.  

He lamented, laughing, that while he thinks it would be "beautiful," he hasn't gotten "the sign off" for "tearing up the rest of the South Lawn" for an entire wheat field.     

A new brew will please America's Beer Drinker in Chief, who loves his suds so much he paid for the White House brewing rig with his own funds.  The President used beer to excellent advantage during the final campaign of his career, chatting about his homebrew as he raised pints everywhere with voters, from a tent at the Iowa State Fair to the granite hills of New Hampshire.  The President's hi-tek tour bus, Ground Force One, was stocked with his House-made beer, and he gifted the brown glass long-necks to some very lucky citizens. (Above, chatting with beer-loving voters in Waterloo, Iowa, August, 2012)

Brad Magerkurth,  the first thrilled recipient, ultimately sold his single bottle of Honey Ale for a whopping $1,200, donating the funds to a childrens' hospital.  President Obama also bragged about his White House beer on national TV, and even suggested he'd open his own craft operation if he wasn't elected to a second term.

"This is some tasty beer," President Obama told David Letterman.  "And if this Presidency thing doesn't work out, we got a little microbrewery thing going on."

Kass stars in the official video that unveiled two of the recipes for the White House beer to America's very demanding brewing community, who formally petitioned the President for the release.  By orders of magnitude, the video is the most-watched White House food video created in the last four-plus years (now with more than 605,000 YouTube views).  After The New York Times had a professional brewer recreate one of the White House recipes, the paper's wine critic rained praised on it

Wisconsin craft brewer Deborah Carey, co-founder of New Glarus Brewing Co., was even invited to sit in the First Lady's Box when the President delivered his 2013 State of the Union address.   Like his bosses, Kass is a beer-lover, too: "I never turn down a cold one," he once told Obama Foodorama.   

More about the White House wheat....
Beer won't be the only thing the wheat is used for.  Whole wheat risotto and whole grain bread are also options for the crop, Kass said, hinting that the possibilities are endless: "Everything's possible with wheat." (Above, Mrs. Obama, Kass, and helpers plant the wheat seed at one-inch intervals)

Kass declined to reveal where the seeds planted at the White House came from--"we don't disclose that information," he said--but explained that the seeds are "experimental varieties" grown by "a breeder who was breeding new varieties."  

Club wheat is a soft wheat, and Kass said that it has a head that looks like a club, almost "a ball," rather than the usual long wheat sheaf.  It's typically used for cake and bread flour, and grown almost exclusively in the Pacific Northwest.  Varieties of Bread wheat are grown in temperate regions around the world.  

For those unfamiliar with plant genetics, "experimental" does not mean genetically modified with materials from another species, as is the case with the salmon that is currently awaiting the greenlight from FDA as the first GM food approved for human consumption.  

"There are no genetically modified crops in our garden," Kass said.

When the chefs first started homebrewing the Presidentiale, Kass said he wanted to add hops to the garden, which are also used to brew the White House beer.  It never happened, but he's still holding out hope:  "We are not growing hops….not yet," Kass said.   

More first-time crops will be planted in the garden this summer:  "Some surprises," Kass said.  As for how using crops from what is ostensibly a childrens' teaching garden to make presidential beer fits in with Mrs. Obama's childhood obesity initiative, Kass explained.   

With the Let's Move! campaign and the Kitchen Garden, first planted on April 9, 2009, the First Lady has inspired a nationwide conversation that spotlights not only healthier eating and fitness, but also makes people more aware of homemade foods and the work of farmers and chefs.  It's part of the shift in America's overall food culture Mrs. Obama hopes to achieve, Kass said, building on the nation's culinary history:  "We try to relate to food the way the country relates to it." 

"There is absolutely a real awakening around our food, where it comes from, how it's produced, who is growing it," Kass said. 

"You see people brewing beer, as we do at the White House, making cheese, as we do, and it weaves a fabric of identity.  Farmers are being held up as heroes, which is awesome."  

Kass will be a hero farmer come July when the wheat is ready, with plans to hand-harvest the crop.  He joked about the Secret Service response to seeing scythes in the garden.  

"We might be the only ones they let bring that on the South Lawn," Kass said, laughing.

*All beer photos by Pete Souza/White House; other photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama