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Why beer and American politics go hand in hand

How exactly did beer and politics become so woven together?
Chronicling the connection between brews and civics
Posted at 5:19 PM, May 14, 2023

Whether you like it or not, when it comes to your beer, politics come with the pour.

"Politics is, you know, mixed in with the beer. There's no way to get it separated," Brian Alberts, a beer historian and writer, said.

And what he's saying is not an understatement. It's a relationship that, quite literally, has been brewing for centuries. So how exactly did the two become so woven together? Well, let's back up a bit.

"Beer was considered a staple, you know, in the earliest days of colonialization in North America. One of the very first industries that colonial Massachusetts tried to encourage was a local brewing industry," Alberts said. "And it actually failed. It could not get off the ground. But when that happened, it was actually women who preserved the knowledge and practice of producing beer in the colony. And they did so in their domestic kitchens, and they had to maintain that for about 20 years before the colony was able to kind of again, kind of reassert a vibrant tavern culture that could take over some of that home production."

As those taverns sprung to life along the east coast, they quickly became gathering grounds for community conversations, a lot of which had to do with English rule, sparking political debate and calls for independence. During this time, beer was available, but historians say it wasn't exactly everyone's drink of choice, often playing third fiddle to drinks like rum and whiskey. However, some founding fathers took a liking to it.

"George Washington was a fan of Porter. I don't think he brewed it himself, but he was a fan of getting it imported, which was a common practice at the time," Alberts said.

As time passed and the processes for making beer became more efficient, interest in the beverage grew in the U.S., with a lot of credit due to German immigrants and their background in beer culture.

"German drinking culture is all about sociability. It's all about being outdoors and spending time with family and community, and everything like that. And so that just dovetails so well with the Industrial Revolution and with kind of this downtrend and other alcohol that it becomes like the beverage of choice in the United States," Alberts said.

But with that rise in popularity came social and political pushback from the Temperance Movement and Prohibition, which saw alcohol as a threat to the moral fabric of the nation. And that wasn't the only concern politicians had about alcohol consumption.

"That entire time, you know, beer is wrapped up in all these political shifts in the United States. There is questions of whether or not immigrants deserve full citizenship. Questions of who is allowed to drink," Alberts said. "A good example being, you know, southern states back before slavery was obviously and rightfully made illegal, there were questions about whether black residents and enslaved black people are allowed to drink. And there were a lot of attempts to make sure they couldn't because that was a way to deny citizenship. It was a way to deny full access and participation in the American experience."

SEE MORE: Dylan Mulvaney returns to social media after Bud Light backlash

In 1933, Congress adopted the 21st Amendment, replacing prohibition, which had prevented the manufacturing, sale, and transportation of alcohol in the U.S. for over a decade. With the taps back on, the beer industry began taking on a more prominent role in American culture. The beer industry began getting strategic with its advertisements, the goal being to appeal to consumers as a relatable product for everyday life. Breweries began to pop up across the country, and the beverage itself became closely associated with America's favorite pastime, baseball.

"There's nothing more American than baseball and apple pie. But you throw beer into that because beer has been present in all of those baseball stadiums since pretty much the beginning," Liz Garibay, executive director of The Chicago Brewseum, said.

Now a days, while not every politician chooses to drink alcohol, it's not uncommon for lawmakers, including presidents, to be pictured having a pint – be it with colleagues and leaders from other countries while catching up or working on negotiations.

In 2011, former president Barack Obama became the first president to have beer brewed at the White House and was known for hosting "beer summits," as a way to bring folks together. Beer has even become a tool used by political candidates during election cycles as a way to raise their "likeability," among voters by 'cracking a cold one' with them to talk life and politics.

"That whole narrative, the idea that, you know, oh, we want a presidential candidate that we can have a beer with, I mean, that's something that was activated. I want to say it was first really used during the George W. Bush campaign," Alberts said. "I don't know if it was his campaign that put it together. But, you know, that was something that came up in fairly recent, you know, political history. And it's become this kind of refrain that's meant to symbolize, you know, accessibility in politics."

Like many industries in the U.S., beer companies have been known to throw their support behind political candidates and legislation with campaign donations. One of the largest donors is Anheuser-Busch. There have even been studies on what your choice of beer says about your political affiliations. For example, Bloomberg points to a 2019 study by National Media, a political ad-buying firm, which notes that Democrats appear to have a taste for Guinness, Corona, Modelo, Miller High Life, and Heineken, whereas Republicans seem to gravitate towards Samuel Adams, Busch Light, Michelob Ultra, Yuengling, and Bud Light.

SEE MORE: Reports: Bud Light marketing exec takes leave after boycott calls

So, what's the beer scene like on Capitol Hill today? We caught up with our congressional correspondent, Nate Reed, for some insight.

"I have personally witnessed senators who've talked about, here at the Capitol, even in the Senate chamber, drinking as a method of negotiations," Reed said. "You might think back to some of the major laws that have been passed in the last several years. There have been times where I even saw, and I reported this, I think, I tweeted at the time, Senator Ben Sasse, the Republican of Nebraska, was bragging on the Senate floor about how much moonshine he had to drink. And so sometimes negotiations are best served over either a glass of wine, a cocktail moonshine, even an ice-cold beer."

Like many relationships, it's not always perfect, as evident from the backlash Bud Light has received from some consumers for its partnership with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney – at a time when transgender health care has become a major political battleground in states across the country. On one end of the spectrum, some beer drinkers began boycotting Bud Light as a showcase of resistance for its association with the transgender community. On the other end of the spectrum, some Chicago gay bars have stopped selling the beer and other Anheuser-Busch products for not standing by its partnership with Mulvaney amid a sales slump and boycott calls. Anheuser-Busch placed two executives on leave and reportedly cut ties with a third-party agency responsible for the Instagram post that launched the debate to begin with.

As the company seeks to distance itself from the matter, it raises questions about how politics could impact future marketing campaigns for brands going forward.

"The one thing I keep telling people is we're never going to stop drinking. Right. It's just part of who we are. It's always been a catalyst for the growth of humanity, of civilization. It just changes along the way," Garibay said.

So, the next time you are sipping on some suds, beer experts would like you to remember...

"Beer has been legal and illegal. It's been moral and immoral. It's been healthy. It's been sinful poison. We've done a very good job using beer to navigate the rest of society, and it just it flows with us," Alberts said.

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