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Monday, September 3, 2012

White House Beer: A Brewer Weighs In


Now that the White House has revealed its recipe for Honey Brown Ale, brewed by cooks in the White House kitchen using honey from its own hives (along with releasing a nifty video of the beer-making process), I thought it would be worth assessing the recipe and methods, and conjecturing on how the beer would taste. This required a beer-making professional, so I called on Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at the Brooklyn Brewery and editor of the encyclopedic “Oxford Companion to Beer.”

Like most professional brewers, Mr. Oliver began as a home brewer, and so is intimately aware of the challenges and limitations of making beer in bathrooms and kitchens, even one as exalted as the White House.
“Brewing at home is very much like cooking at home â€" it doesn't bear much resemblance to professional brewing, but it can be done simply or very rigorously, and the results can be excellent,'' he told me, adding that the Brewers Association, a craft-brewing trade group, estimates that a million Americans make beer at home. (After word of the White House's brewing experiment spread, many of them joined in urging President Obama's aides to divulge the recipe.) “The version of brewing they're doing at the White House might be called ‘second-level beginner.' ”

Rigorous professionals, Mr. Oliver said, brew with malted barley, adding hops at appropriate times during the process for aromas, flavors and bitterness. An absolute beginner would use a liquid malt extract to which hops have already been added, like baking brownies from a mix - no muss, no fuss. The White House, Mr. Oliver said, has taken the next step, using a malt syrup but adding hop pellets, real hops that are gr ound up and pressed into pellets to preserve them. Most professional brewers, it should be noted, use hop pellets rather than actual hops.

“They've also added some crushed grains and steeped them like tea leaves,'' Mr. Oliver said. “In this case, the biscuit malts give a toasty malt flavor, adding some complexity and fresh grain character. Amber crystal malts give a light caramel flavor.''

Most interesting to Mr. Oliver was the White House's use of honey from its own hives, an ingredient often used by home brewers. “This honey will give its own distinct flavor to the beer, but the sugars in honey will ferment completely, so the honey adds no sweetness,'' he said.

How does he think it would taste, extrapolating as a professional who is familiar with the ingredients and the methods?

“Light, crisp and dry, with some bready flavors from the malts, floral notes from the honey, and fruitiness from the British ale yeast ,'' Mr. Oliver said. “Altogether pleasant, great with seafood and salads, goat cheeses, or hanging out in the sunshine in the Rose Garden.''

As a next step, Mr. Oliver suggested that rather than using the malt syrup, the White House produce its own mash of malted barley. “However, very few home brewers start by doing an actual mash - I certainly didn't - so I'm happy to give the chefs a break here,'' he said.

He also suggested that, since the White House has been growing more of its own food, it plant barley and hops so that it could brew a beer entirely of White House ingredients.

“And if they need some brewing help,'' he said, “I am standing by, ready to do my duty for my country.''