“Let’s grab a beer.” That was the invitation extended by President Obama, who is seeking to dial down the racial tension surrounding black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s July 16 arrest by a white police officer. On July 30, Gates and the arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, will meet Obama at the White House to have a beer and discuss the maybe-racist-maybe-not incident in which the three men find themselves entangled. Anticipatory news reports of the drinking session have included a seemingly bizarre fact: the White House only serves domestic, American-made beer. A report in the Boston Globe claimed the patriotic policy has been in place since the Johnson administration and that Gates, an admitted fan of Germany’s Beck’s and Jamaica’s Red Stripe, would once again be out of luck. Is this true? Does the White House only serve American alcohol?
“Not at all,” says former White House executive chef Walter Scheib. Sheib, who oversaw the White House kitchen from 1994-2005, says that the White House is a home, and like any home it stocks and serves whatever the First Family enjoys. “If the President woke up one morning and demanded nothing but microbrews from Polynesia, well, then the White House would serve nothing but microbrews from Polynesia,” he explains. Sheib says that although there has never been an American-only policy in the White House kitchen, domestic products are frequently highlighted at official events. “We are America’s home and obviously we like to to highlight what’s best in America,” he says.
Barry H. Laundau, Presidential historian and author of The President’s Table: 100 Years of Dining and Diplomacy, says that alcohol preference at the White House changes from administration to administration. Rutherford B. Hayes was a public teetotaler but a private drinker; the President would invite guests upstairs for a secret cocktail while his wife, “Lemonade Lucy,” served non-alcoholic drinks downstairs. The Eisenhowers rarely served mixed drinks, Reagan enjoyed the occasional screwdriver and George W. Bush, a recovering alcoholic, drank Buckler, a non-alcoholic beer made by Heineken .
Kennedy served Dom Pérignon champagne at nearly every function, while Johnson switched it up with Piper-Heidsieck. President Nixon favored European wines; he considered himself somewhat of an expert and a few of his bottles are still stocked in the White House cellar. After California vineyards gained prominence the 1970s, administrations became a bit more U.S.-centric. Reagan, Clinton and both Bushes regularly served California bottles at official functions. Sometimes, the White House will purchase a beverage from a visiting dignitary’s home country. Tsingtao beer has been served at every Chinese state leader’s visit since 1979.
Beverages at private events are a little harder to track. “They don’t usually publicize what anybody drinks because then companies can use it for advertising purposes,” explains Sheib. Maybe that’s why the White House has so far kept mum on Obama’s beer selection.
When Henry Louis Gates Jr. comes to the White House, he will be able to get whatever kind of beer he wants, even if it’s German or Jamaican. Crowley, who reportedly favors the domestic wheat beer Blue Moon, will receive the same treatment. There has been no word on whether the White House carries these brews on a regular basis although that may not necessarily matter. In a Jul. 27 appearance, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs offered to make the beer run.
Read “The Gates Case: When Disorderly Conduct Is a Cop’s Judgment Call”