I'm not taking sides or making a political statement, but in the recent coverage of the national conventions, nothing captured my attention more than headlines appearing just before the start of the Democratic convention about President Obama's "top secret" plan to make beer in the White House. Last Saturday, the White House released the recipe the president used to make a batch of homebrew: White House Honey Ale.
Some homebrewers can be quite secretive about the details of what goes into their creations, and to get the presidential recipe, it took over 12,000 signatures on a petition combined with a Freedom of Information Act request. Because I couldn't get a bottle of the actual presidential brew to review, I chose a local version of honey ale from one of America's oldest beverage businesses -- Gray's Brewing -- which just happens to be based in Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan's hometown of Janesville.
All politics aside, Gray's Honey Ale is one of the brewery's most popular beers and worth a little prime-time attention.
What is it? Gray's Honey Ale from Gray's Brewing Company of Janesville, Wisconsin.
Style: When honey is added to either an ale or lager, it provides sugars that can be fermented by yeast into alcohol while not adding body or mouthfeel to the beer. Honey can give the beer a light perfumey aroma and hint of sweetness, but neither quality should be overwhelming within the overall flavor profile. Brewmaster Fred Gray uses a light-bodied golden-blonde ale at the core of this beer, which is itself known for its crisp, clean flavor with some dryness and even light sweetness. Because honey ales can cross many different styles, they have a broad range of strength. Generally, light golden-colored honey ales range from 4% to 6% ABV.
Background: Gray's Honey Ale is among the brewery's flagship brands. It's made with four different malts and four different hops, along with locally harvested honey. Brewmaster and brewery owner Fred Gray has said it is his toughest beer to make because it's light-bodied, crisp and clean, so nothing can hide in the overall flavor profile. Gray also lays claim to this beer being one of the first commercially made honey ales, dating back to the mid-1990s. The beer won a gold medal in the 1994 Great American Beer Festival and a bronze in World Beer Championships in 1996. Gray's Honey Ale finishes at 4.9% ABV and sells in six-packs for around $9. It's also regularly available on draught for $4 a pint at Gray's Tied House in Verona.
President Obama's recipe for honey ale produces a little darker brew than the Wisconsin version made by Gray's. Similarly to Grays, though, White House Honey Ale is made with local honey, harvested from beehives on the South Lawn. More details on the process are provided in a White House promotional video about this presidential homebrew.
Obama isn't the first U.S. president to endorse homebrewing. George Washington paid troops in the Revolutionary War with porter beer. Thomas Jefferson was known to make birch beer at his Monticello home. James Madison was a proponent of a national government-run brewery and discussed establishing a "Secretary of Beer" for the cabinet. And Jimmy Carter, who didn't allow alcohol in the White House, signed federal legislation in 1978 that eliminated taxes on homemade beer and wine, which is generally considered the birth of the modern craft beer movement.
- Aroma: A hint of floral sweetness from the honey.
- Appearance: Light yellow-golden color with a think soft, white, head.
- Texture: Light and very crisp.
- Taste: Begins with a slight grainy maltiness, but quickly becomes crisp, bubbly and lightly bitter.
- Finish/Aftertaste: A hint of a roasted-smokiness with a light lingering sourness.
Glassware: The basic pilsner glass that is short and stubby with a slight inward taper of the lip shows off the bubbly nature of the beer while subtly focusing the aromas, bringing out the soft flowery and perfumy tones of the honey.
Pairs well with: Gray's Honey Ale is light, crisp, even sharp. It has some palate-cleansing qualities suitable for sandwiches and light meals, but can be easily overwhelmed by stronger flavors.
Rating: Three Bottle Openers (out of four)
The Verdict: Gray's Honey Ale is a light, crisp beer that is very drinkable, and certainly one that is enjoyable on a hot day. It's a clear golden beer that features lots of bubbly effervescence with a light floral-sweet honey aroma. Despite a sweet malty start, it ends up with a light, yet sharp, sour finish that's a bit distracting. Otherwise, it's a respectable rendition and one that will garner votes from supporters of the style.