The Longtime Link Between Beer and Politics
When at the bar, never discuss politics, religion or sex, it’s said, and you’ll have a fine time.
Despite the long shelf life of that truism, all three subjects stubbornly remain hot topics for discussion while quaffing beer. When it comes to politics, that conversation may lead well beyond the barroom.
Take, for example, John Hickenlooper at Wynkoop Brewing Co., Brett VanderKamp at New Holland Brewing and Roger Baylor at New Albanian Brewing Co., who ran for governor, state senate and city council, respectively. Of the three, only two-term Colorado Gov. Hickenlooper was successful, but all three campaigns stemmed in part from the business of beer.
Their stories illustrate only the latest version of the longtime connection between politics and beer. Both, after all, are based in relationships.
The link between beer and politics in the U.S. can be traced back to the American Revolution. Among the notable: Samuel Adams, who became the namesake of the Boston Beer Co.’s flagship beer. Mr. Adams, known best as a thought leader in the movement for independence, was one of several generations of maltsters and took an active role in managing his family’s malthouse.
The beer and politics connection goes much farther back, though. Some scientists argue the world’s first farmers were driven largely by the need for extra grain to make beer, especially for feasts during which alliances were formed and developed.
Hickenlooper uses the story of Anchor Brewing Co. owner Fritz Maytag, who described how his father used beer to break the ice when meeting with businessmen from around the world.
“People enjoy sharing ideas and collaborating over a good brew,” Hickenlooper says. “There is instantly a more relaxed, level playing field to engage in discussion.”
Hickenlooper co-founded Wynkoop in Denver in 1988. He began his political career successfully running for Denver mayor in 2003, winning with a campaign that emphasized his business experience. He won re-election in 2007 before then running for governor in 2010. Hickenlooper won re-election again last year.
VanderKamp also came to politics from brewing. He opened New Holland Brewing in Holland, Michigan, in 1997, where he soon grew frustrated with an archaic blue law created by the county’s religious history and a state distinction between liquor and beer and wine.
“We had this really bizarre scenario where you could go to a restaurant and get a dry martini but not get beer or wine on Sundays,” VanderKamp says.
VanderKamp and others succeeded in a campaign to repeal the law—no easy task since doing so required a two-thirds majority vote in a general election. The victory encouraged VanderKamp, who had begun to study libertarianism.
In 2010, he noticed the incumbent state senator in his district faced no opposition, so VanderKamp decided—“against a lot of advice, including from my wife,” he says—to challenge him in the Republican primary. VanderKamp won 40 percent of the vote in a three-way race, falling short by about 5,000 votes.
VanderKamp said the experience is one he’ll never forget, but he also learned that running for office may not be for him. He’s remained politically active, but in more behind-the-scenes roles working on campaigns and serving on his brewers guild’s government affairs committee.
Baylor came to politics from beer, too, but from an ideologically different point than VanderKamp. He opened the business that eventually became the New Albanian Brewery in New Albany, Indiana, in 1987, starting with a pizzeria with a good beer selection before going into brewing full-time in 2002.
Baylor spent time traveling in Europe after he graduated college in the early ’80s, and seeing different forms of the “social contract” between people and their government made a profound impact on him. In 2011, when he opened a second brewery in a location undergoing urban revitalization, it spurred his interest in local planning policy. Baylor unsuccessfully ran for city council that year as a Democrat. This year, he is running as an independent candidate for mayor. To him, selling good beer and running for office go hand in hand.
“What are we doing except on an everyday basis except saying, ‘Don’t drink that Budweiser, try this craft beer?’ ” Baylor says. “What’s different from politics about that? It’s taking a position and trying to get people to agree with you.”
In fact, some politicians use beer as a tool to reach agreement.
Immediately upon winning a contentious, nationally watched election in 2013, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe set about courting state lawmakers by expanding the bar in the governor’s mansion.
“Sixty parties in 60 days!” he told The Washington Post last year, in a story that also recounted how the Democrat learned and made sure to have one Republican delegate’s favorite beer available.
A little more than a year in, McAuliffe’s charm offense has produced mixed results. His first year in office did see Virginia successfully land a $74 million investment by San Diego’s Stone Brewing Co. to build its east coast brewery in Richmond.
That deal has resulted in additional politicking at the city level that helps illustrate the two-way relationship between brewers and government. As part of the deal bringing Stone to Virginia, the Richmond City Council must approve 15 related pieces of legislation, involving everything from zoning and utilities to incentives and a performance agreement.
On a larger scale, brewers and other beer-related interest groups routinely seek access to policy- and lawmakers to advocate for their needs. The National Beer Wholesalers Association gave $3.8 million in federal campaign contributions during the 2-year 2014 cycle, and Anheuser-Busch gave $919,702, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Donors hope their contributions will result in access to present their arguments when relevant issues arise. At the federal level, says Viveca Novak of the Center for Responsive Politics, those issues regularly include things like the level of excise taxes, both overall and in relation to the taxes on wine and spirits, as well as agriculture (think beer ingredients) and shipping (which affects the cost of distribution).
New Belgium Brewing, a regional brewer with distribution in 37 states, has gotten engaged in environmental efforts involving the federal Environmental Protection Agency “because clean and abundant water is a vital business issue for brewers, and it’s good public policy to protect our water supply,” says Andrew Lemley, the company’s government affairs representative. New Belgium also works on federal issues with the Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy coalition and with the Brewers Association, which represents smaller breweries.
Those kinds of partnerships and participation through trade associations represent a common path for political engagement. Most brewers want to make and sell beer and aren’t necessarily interested in or equipped to engage in political activism.
“Companies want to be in trade associations because we are focused on the policy and politics,” says Jim McGreevy, president and CEO of the Beer Institute, which represents brewers of all sizes, beer importers and industry suppliers, like can and bottle makers and hops growers. (Disclosure: All About Beer Magazine is also a member.)
“You can tell a bigger story that way than having one company or brewer telling their story. There’s strength in numbers and creating a broader narrative for the industry,” McGreevy says.
The beer industry has different concerns when it comes to states, whose laws and regulations cover a smaller geographic area but often are more comprehensive. Eighteen states maintain some level of monopoly over the wholesaling or retailing of alcohol, and small tweaks to regulations can drastically affect the beer industry.
In recent years, states have passed laws affecting production levels, ownership of multiple pubs, onsite distribution and more. For example, a change in North Carolina law allowing the sale of 64-ounce growlers helped open the door for New Belgium and Sierra Nevada to build production facilities in Asheville. In Michigan, a nine-bill package signed into law last year by Gov. Rick Snyder will loosen restrictions on small breweries, hopefully encouraging further expansion by an already fast-growing industry.
For more about beer policy at the state and national level, see Carolyn Heneghan’s roundup of 2015 proposed legislation.
Mason Adams (@MasonAtoms on Twitter) covers business, politics and more from the mountains of southwest Virginia.