the politics of beer

It would be nice if all of our intractable political and cultural problems could be resolved over a pint of beer. Indeed, I’ve been involved in bar stool discussions on more than a few occasions that have resulted in solutions for everything from global warming to world peace to the timing of street lights along the Hiawatha Light Rail line; if only the powers-that-be had been listening, instead of the bartender who kept a watchful eye on our inevitable cut-off point.

I’m certainly no expert on the problems at the root of the Gates-Crowley-Obama (plus Biden) beer summit. I’ve never had to experience the constant suspicion and frequent hassling that African-American men face, nor have I been on the thin blue line that protects and serves. That we are a long way from being a post-racial society is obvious; that a few brewskies are unlikely to advance much toward utopia is also obvious.

I am, though, an expert on beer. I’ve sampled widely in the range of malted beverages, from pale to black, sweet to bitter, and I’ve brewed a few batches of ale in my kitchen. And from that perspective, I’m sorely disappointed by the beverage choices at last night’s summit.

Obama’s choice of Bud Light can be justified, perhaps, on a few points: it’s the most popular beer in the United States (for the life of me, I can’t understand why…), and it’s unlikely to impair his judgment since, as the Canadians would say, it’s like making love in a canoe. But it comes off as a crass pandering to the lowest common denominator; in his convention speech he urged us to rise to our best, and that is most assuredly not Bud Light. If he’d wanted to make a patriotic statement, Anchor Steam would have been a better choice: a truly native style, with a crisp finish that’s ideal for a summer on the patio.

Gates’ Sam Adams Light was a bit of a pleasant surprise (much better than the Red Stripe that had been reported prior to the meeting, the beer of frat boys who’ve just discovered Bob Marley but can’t handle Dragon Stout). It’s named for a patriot and brewer, after all, and is thoroughly Bostonian, though the “Light” version is lacking in flavor. But it at least tastes like beer, which is more than we can say for Bud Light.

Crowley’s Blue Moon is also in my second- or third-tier choices. I find it a little sour, and not hoppy enough for a summer evening. It broadcasts that he’s not a thuggish cop (PBR would be the choice for the opposite message), that he appreciates subtlety, It has more than a faint aroma of foreignness, though: a Belgian-style beer brewed by a subsidiary of Molson in Canada; surely Obama wouldn’t have dared to drink it.

As a Minneapolitan, I’m disappointed that the beer summit didn’t include Summit Beer. The St. Paul brewer offers a wide range of styles, from a bitter IPA to a smoky porter, and some great seasonals perfect for summer.

Or perhaps something from Surly Brewing, another great Minnesota brewer? With names like Furious, Bitter Brewer, and Cynic Ale, they’d be the perfect complement to the sudsy photo-op. Plus, they come in extra big cans, providing more time to solve the problems of the world.

Stanley Crouch points out that all three of the key participants have Irish roots (no one’s as Irish as Barak Obama). The Irish have contributed much to the world of beer, and it would have been interesting to see the participants drinking Guinness (the blackest of beers), a half-and-half (Guinness and Harp), or a black-and-tan (an appeal to cross-island unity with Irish stout and British ale, named for the ruthless thugs the Brits sent to suppress revolt in Ireland). Those would have been too racially-charged, perhaps; another Minnesota beer, Finnegan’s, would have been a good nod to the Irish, though, and a small act of charity, since the brewer donates its profits.

The beer summit probably did nothing significant for racial justice, and certainly did nothing to advance Americans’ taste in beer. Which is a pity: the last Depression ended Prohibition, giving American brewers a start on the long path back to the wonderful beer diversity we enjoyed for our first two centuries; certainly America’s local brewers could use a little bit of stimulus.

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