There’s fermentation in beer, and there’s fermentation in politics. Over the course of history, the two often cross. This year’s contentious and omnipresent election is a case study of that cross-over: During the primaries, candidates from Ted Cruz to Hillary Clinton and John Kasich took time to visit local breweries, even pouring up pints in one case. Plus, brewers from Half Moon Bay Brewing Co. to Russian River Brewing Co. and even Scotland’s Innis & Gunn are incorporating this pervasive election season into their businesses, via t-shirts, mock polls, beer labels and more.
Lenny Mendonca, owner and founder of Half Moon Bay Brewing in California, has been active in politics for the past 15 years. His brewery’s “Alection” series, which started in 2008, is released each election year. This year’s Alection benefits Common Cause, a non-profit that promotes honest, accountable government.
“I’m on Common Cause national board, so I take this stuff really seriously,” says Mendonca. “So the Alection stuff is lighthearted, but I think counting people’s votes properly is a big deal.”
Each incarnation of Alection consists of a single beer (it’s an IPA for 2016) that is then named and labeled in two different ways to represent the two (leading) presidential candidates. Mendonca’s brewery tracks purchases, and then uses the tallies like polling results to predict local election outcomes. It’s mostly been spot on.
When Half Moon Bay did Alection in 2008, it showed results in Obama’s favor, and Mendonca let the then-candidate know the results.
“The President signed one of our posters and sent a big thank you to me, so we got a lot of visibility,” said Mendonca. “He loved it.”
In a stroke of beautiful irony, what enabled machine politicians to cull votes through “liquid rewards” (in the 1880s, half of Chicago’s polling places were located in saloons, according to the book American Pharoah) is now being used for the sake of political integrity at Half Moon Bay.
Russian River Brewing Co., meanwhile, approaches election season with more of a sneer. The brewery’s merchandising has made its much-heralded IPA, Pliny the Elder, into a mock candidate during election years, through shirts with slogans such as “Pliny for President” and “No more IRS much more IPA.”
Recently, the brewery has added to its political fun through the bottle labels for Defenestration, its dry-hopped, Belgian-inspired blonde ale. Russian River started making Defenestration in 2008 after owners Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo visited the Czech Republic, where they heard the famous local history of political rivals being tossed out of windows (this act is called defenestration) in Prague.
The beer has been available on draft for election season since its beginnings, and it has also showed up sporadically in the Russian River taproom. But this year marks the first bottling of Defenestration, and Vinnie Cilurzo said the brewery is already on its second round. The label, which was created by Jason Roberson, shows a suited elephant and donkey being tossed from what appears to be a 15th century Bohemian tower.
“It’s just a fun play for us, it’s not a political thing for us at all,” said Vinnie Cilurzo. “I don’t think Natalie and I have heard anything from any politicians about it … so we haven’t seen any reaction from the political world.”
Innis & Gunn, though, is looking for such a reaction. This year it created Smoke & Mirrors, a beer supposedly brewed with “truth serum,” and mailed it directly to both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Innis & Gunn has yet to receive a response from either camp.
“We’ve been through two referendums recently … and, you know, there was a certain amount of spin associated with a lot of those campaigns from both sides,” says Dougal Gunn, founder and master brewer of Innis & Gunn, referring to the Brexit and Scottish independence referendums in his brewery’s homeland.
Gunn said that he was asked in a pub around referendum time if someone could brew a beer with truth serum in it, and he ran with the idea, using licorice root, mullein and vine essence for their “cognitive enhancing properties.”
“I think given the incredible amount of interest in the U.S. presidential election this year, who better to send this two than the two highest profile politicians in the world right now?” he asked.
“If Innis & Gunn can spark a debate, and if it can spark people to talk about how truth is important in the political process … I think it can show beer is more than something that you pour in a glass in a bar,” he continued.
FULL DISCLOSURE: I tried Smoke & Mirrors and I can’t say that I felt particularly truthful, though the beer was truthfully delicious—with notes of caramel, toffee, vanilla and oak, all edged by a warming, boozy quality and a biting tinge of licorice. I did, however, feel an overwhelming need to talk to someone about my experience after quaffing the bottle. But I don’t believe that’s attributable to some homeopathic distillation—it’s just part of beer’s characteristically social nature.
Perhaps in this era of increased polarization and digital divides, that’s just the point of putting beer back into politics. It’s redemption for beer’s good political side. After all, New York City was temporarily governed from the Lovelace Tavern until the building apparently burned down in 1706, and part of what makes Franklin Delano Roosevelt a hero (to me, at least) was his signing of the Cullen-Harrison Act, which effectively began the unraveling of Prohibition by legalizing 3.2% ABV beer, in March 1933.
“If it’s opening up a conversation, we’ve done our job,” said Gunn of Smoke & Mirrors. “And if in the process, this raises a few smiles, and gets people cheersing in bars and at home, then we’ve done our job.”
Bo McMillan lives in Chicago. He’s an editorial assistant for All About Beer Magazine.