The DC homebrewer dishes on the petition response, the transparency issue, and the challenges of recreating President Obama's historic beer...
UPDATE, Sept 1, 2012: WH releases two beer recipes
President Obama's announcement during this week's Reddit live chat that the recipe for White House Honey Ale "will be out soon!" was something of an early birthday present for John Lutz. He's the DC resident who created the petition on the White House website calling for the details of the top-secret homebrew. An avid beer geek, Lutz moved to town in June to take up a post at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and he turned 24 on Thursday. Lutz is thrilled with the President's apparent promise, which seems to be a direct response to his petition. (Above: Lutz with the petition on his laptop)
"I was pretty amazed," Lutz said. "That was great."
He's also thrilled about the public response to the petition--there are 12,022 signatures as of this writing--and said he doesn't regard the issue of the recipe release as anything having to do with transparency or election-year politics.
Since taking office, the President has enjoyed beer in watering holes in Ireland and across America, with numerous recent stops on the campaign trail. After he gifted a bottle from his own private homebrew supply aboard Ground Force One to a lucky citizen in Iowa earlier this month, Lutz posted his petition to the 'We the People' site on August 18. When it became publicly viewable after getting 150 signatures, it made national headlines, "spreading like wildfire," Lutz said. (Above: The President in DC's The Dubliner on St. Patrick's Day)
Though the President's live-chat promise seems to indicate that America's beer lovers will definitely be treated to the recipe, a White House spokesman did not respond to a query about what happens if the petition fails to get to the magic required number of 25,000 signatures by Sept. 17.
But Lutz isn't nervous. The number of signatures has increased daily, and he is a member of the D.C. Homebrewers Club, a collective of a couple hundred enthusiasts who have monthly meetings at locations around the District. Despite the President's announcement, they are continuing to aggressively promote the petition on Twitter and Facebook and elsewhere, with the hashtag #OperationBrewBama.
Not a transparency issue?
Lutz's petition came on the heels of a Freedom of Information Act request for the recipe filed by Brody Burks, the assistant district attorney of Limestone County, Texas. That got national attention after Burks posted it to Reddit, demanding the White House--which bills itself as "the most transparent" in the annals of America--reveal one of its best-kept secrets. Burks told The Atlantic that he filed his request because he was "frustrated" by the Presidential "stonewalling" about the recipe.
"In an era of open government, it shouldn't take this level of media coverage to get a response," Burks said. "The White House likes to talk about the homebrew, but only on their terms."
But Lutz sees it differently. A native of Minneapolis, one of America's nerve centers for beer, Lutz started homebrewing as a college senior while majoring in anthropology and minoring in museum studies at Beloit College, and said his work as a curator has given him a different perspective.
Tasting a beer President Obama has enjoyed at the White House--including on very special occasions, such as when he served it to Dakota Meyer on the eve of the former Marine Sergeant's Medal of Honor ceremony--has simply piqued his curiosity about a historic culinary creation, Lutz said.
"People are making it into a lot more of a political issue than it is," he said. "I don't see it as a political point at all, I see it as a part of history."
"I can't think of a good reason the White House would want to hide the recipe," Lutz added. "The homebrewing community is about sharing. Even craft breweries and commercial breweries share their recipes with the homebrewing community."
He pointed out that homebrewers are always trying to recreate President George Washington's homebrewed beer recipe.
"It's always fun to connect with presidents in some tangible way," Lutz said.
Burks tossed Washington into his FOIA request, too, writing "President Obama has joined a great tradition of Presidential brewing going back to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson."
Yet Washington never cooked up a batch of his own beer--which uses pumpkin and raisins in addition to hops and mash--at the White House, because he is the only American president who never lived there: The first to move in was President John Adams in 1800. And, as was first reported here, the Obamas' chefs are the first homebrewers in White House history.
Thus Lutz joins the chefs on their historic journey as the first person to file a petition for a White House recipe. Perhaps America's excited buffalo ranchers should have taken that tack, too. The White House declined to release the recipe for the Bison Wellington that was served as the entree at the President's State Dinner in March, despite pleas from ranchers, who raise the historic creature in all fifty states.
Will homebrewers be able to recreate the President's recipe?
Politics aside, Lutz admitted that recreating any historic recipe is a tough proposition, but it will be especially difficult to recreate President Obama's beer. The still-unidentified chefs who are microbrewing in the bowels of the White House use honey from the first-ever bee hive to sit on the grounds, installed at First Lady Michelle Obama's request alongside her Kitchen Garden on the South Lawn. So Lutz is looking for some locally produced honey that might replicate the stuff made by the Presidential bees.
That itself will be an adventure: The highly active hive produces honey that changes in taste during the course of the months when the bees are busy, based on what's blooming at the White House and the nearby National Mall, according to Beekeeper in Chief Charlie Brandts. The bees travel as far as three miles, and are fans of the cherry blossoms that decorate the famous trees on the Mall in early spring. They also feast on the riot of magnolia blooms on the White House grounds, which grow on trees dating back to President Andrew Jackson's administration.
Roses fill the White House gardens for many months every year, as do many other flowers. Salvia, which is planted around the White House grounds, can be tasted in some of the honey pulls, according to Brandts and Executive Chef Cris Comerford. Clover, black locust, and basswood have also been noted by Brandts. Even the color of the honey changes from the first harvest to the final one each year, varying from a pale amber to a deep gold.
But Lutz is up to the challenge, and looking forward to having his own Presidential beer summit with his pals at D.C. Homebrewers.
"It would be nice if they gave the recipe to us by election time--that way it would be ready by Inauguration Day," Lutz said, laughing (and yes, he voted for Mr. Obama in 2008).
Meantime, the social media campaign for the recipe release continues.
"Regardless of which way you vote this November, you now have the chance to cast the most important vote of your lifetime…as a homebrewer," wrote D.C. Homebrewers president Joshua Hubner in a post on the club's website urging members to sign the petition.
"Please sign it, tweet it, facebook it, email it to your grandma."
The White House Honey Ale is one of three known beers that the chefs have produced; there's also been White House Honey Blonde Ale (served to Meyer) and White House Honey Porter. Aides first revealed that the chefs were hombrewing when White House Honey Ale was served at the President's Super Bowl party in 2011.
Brad Magerkurth, aka 'The Beer Guy,' is the fellow President Obama gifted with a bottle of homebrew in Iowa. Magerkurth still hasn't sampled his brew, but he's dished all the details of his private Presidential beer summit.
Above, today's screengrab of the White House beer petition.
*Top photo courtesy of John Lutz. Beer bottle and Dubliner photo by Pete Souza/White House; the President visited The Dubliner with his Irish cousin Henry Healy. Bee hive photo by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama.