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We Test the White House Honey Ale and Porter Recipes

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[Photographs: Mike Reis]

The image is great: President Obama standing over a brew kettle, mash paddle in hand, sweat dripping from his brow only to fall at the toes of his red, white and blue Wellington boots. It's true, the White House is homebrewing.

But the reality, as it so often is in these hard-hitting political matters, is less fanciful than all that. While President Obama did purchase the White House's very own brewing kit with his personal cash, he is hardly the brewer we'd love to imagine he is. After months of inquiry, including a petition that yielded over 12,000 signatures, the truth came out.

It turns out Obama is too busy with, you know, president things to get his hands dirty on a brew kettle. White House Assistant Chef Sam Kass stepped forward as the unofficial brewmaster. He came bearing recipes and a lighthearted video detailing the brewing processes for two White House original beers: a honey brown ale (called just Honey Ale in the recipe) and a honey porter.

Though some noticed that the recipe had some technical errors, brewers across the country (including Brooklyn Brewery's Garrett Oliver) fired up their stoves with the goal of drinking like the president. I had to try it.

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Honey Ale

My first crack was at the Honey Ale. I followed the original recipe to the word, substituting only my own local honey for that grown at the White House (Garrett Oliver's request for a sample, like my own, was ignored).

The recipe is simple—by using malt extract and honey as the primary forms of fermentable sugar, the brewer needs not meddle in the complicated processes of mashing or lautering. The result is a final product with a high level of repeatability and consistency. The brewer needs only steep some grain for flavor, dissolve syrups for fermentable sugars, and boil hops for bittering and preservative qualities.

Fermentation, if kept within the prescribed range of temperatures, will be fairly consistent as well. If the recipe is followed closely, brewers all over the country will be tasting roughly the same beer—technique plays less of a role than ingredients here. I feel closer to Obama already!

But anyone who tries to brew the President's beer will encounter a few issues that should be addressed.

The first problem arises in the ingredients list: the recipe calls for 12 ounces of crushed "amber crystal malt." That describes a huge range of products—there are many varieties of crystal malt, all of them amber, each expressing a unique range of flavors and color. I played it safe with some middle-of-the-road crystal 60.

By the time I'd reached the end of the brewing process, however, I hit another hurdle. There was a little one ounce pile of Fuggles hops sitting on my kitchen counter. While the ingredient list calls for 1.5 ounces of Fuggles, the original recipe itself only instructs the brewer to use a third of that. It's not a huge deal, and the problem has since been corrected.

Errors aside, after just a few short hours my very own White House Honey Ale was sitting in a fermenter, happily bubbling away as the yeast's CO2 byproduct pushed its way through the airlock. I stuck the beer in bottles a few weeks later and waited the recommended additional two to three weeks before tasting.

The result was not as thrilling as I'd hoped, especially in light of Garrett Oliver's evaluation of the beer as being "perfectly balanced," and NY Times wine critic Eric Asimov's summation as the beer being "Good. Very good." I have to disagree.

The beer is quite sweet, which limits its drinkability. Oliver and Asimov both note a certain bitterness that is nearly absent from my beer, perhaps partially attributed to that troublesome ounce of Fuggles, which Oliver included even though the original recipe never instructed when they should be added.

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I taste the beer before bottling. Best beer in America might be a stretch.

Aromatically, it's quite nice, with candied orange peel and marzipan leaping from the glass. Flavorwise, its not bad either: orange hard candies, grain and honey are all driving flavors packed within a rich body with a light effervescent carbonation. It's certainly not a bad beer, but the sweetness is cloying. There are a couple of things I'd change about the recipe.

1. Don't forget the Fuggles. Kass meant to include all of the Fuggles in the late flavoring hop addition, instead of just a half ounce. While the recipe now reflects that, copies of the original version are still floating around (including on the White House's own website). While not a ton of bitterness will be extracted from the hops, some contrasting hop character may help ease the sugary punishment.

2. I could have used some more carbonation, so if you're brewing this beer, you might want to increase the priming sugar. I pulled off just under 5 gallons of finished beer, so the carbonation level should have been right on with the recommended 3/4 cup of corn sugar used for bottle conditioning. That's about 4 ounces by weight, so I'd up it to 4.5 or 4.75 ounces (again, by weight) to bump the carbonation up to around 2.5 volumes of CO2. This will ease some of the sweetness off your palate.

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3. Consider lowering the gravity. While the recipe doesn't indicate a target starting or finishing gravity (let alone ABV), my beer began with an original gravity of 1.064 and finished with a gravity of 1.014. This means the beer is a hefty one, around 6.7% ABV. Using a lower gravity recipe (by cutting back on the amount of extract used) would up the drinkability of this beer considerably. In Asimov's article, he notes that Oliver's take on the beer came in at 4.9% ABV, a nearly impossible result given the recipe. I'm inclined to believe that Oliver tweaked the gravity for drinkability's sake.

4. Try another yeast. In addition to the gravity adjustment, try fermenting with White Labs' California Ale Yeast or Fermentis' Safale US-05. The result will be less fruity (which will cut back on implied sweetness), and more highly attenuated, leaving a drier, lighter body.

Honey Porter

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For whatever reason, people seem to have forgotten that there were in fact two beers in Kass's release. It's a shame, because the porter is the better beer, and I certainly preferred brewing it. The recipe is more thorough, specifying exactly the types of grain necessary, and the methods are described more clearly.

The only confusion came from the use of the strange "HBU" measurement, which I had to look up. These are "Homebrew Bitterness Units," and quantify hop alpha acid content independent of variety specification. I used some scrap hops I had leftover in my freezer to get to the necessary 10 HBU (specifically, I used a half ounce of Super Galena at 13% AA, and a quarter ounce of Nugget at 14%). Once I brewed it, fermentation went smoothly, and the final product was ready in just a few short weeks.

Aromas of plum jam, honey and figs are rounded out by some spicy hop character in this beer. The flavor is less sweet than the honey brown and much easier to drink, with a clean, dry finish, and a lower gravity (my OG/FG were 1.056 and 1.008, respectively, yielding an ABV around 6.3%)

I wouldn't change a ton about this beer, except maybe to increase the black and chocolate malt a touch to provide a bit more malt depth, and to use a cleaner fermenting yeast. The prescribed Nottingham strain produced a heavy load of fruity esters. Again, White Labs' California Ale Yeast or Fermentis' Safale US-05 might be worth trying.

Tell Us Your Results!

Have you brewed the White House beers? What did you think?

About the author: Mike Reis is a Certified Cicerone and Co-Director of Beer at the Monk's Kettle and Abbot's Cellar restaurants in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @beerspeaks or find him behind a pint near you.

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