"Let's grab a beer." That was the invitation extended by President Obama, who is seeking to dial down the racial tension surrounding black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s July 16 arrest by a white police officer. On July 30, Gates and the arresting officer, Sergeant James Crowley, will meet with Obama at the White House to have a beer and discuss the maybe-racist-maybe-not incident in which the three men find themselves entangled. Anticipatory news reports of the drinking session have included a seemingly bizarre fact: the White House only serves domestic, or American-made, beer. A report in the Boston Globe claimed that the patriotic policy has been in place since the Johnson Administration and that Gates, an admitted fan of Germany's Beck's and Jamaica's Red Stripe, would once again be out of luck. Is this true? Does the White House only serve American alcohol?
"Not at all," says former White House executive chef Walter Scheib. Scheib, who oversaw the White House kitchen from 1994-2005, says the White House is a home, and like any home it stocks and serves whatever the First Family enjoys. "If the President woke up one morning and demanded nothing but microbrews from Polynesia, well, then the White House would serve nothing but microbrews from Polynesia," he explains. Scheib says that although there has never been an American-only policy in the White House kitchen, domestic products are frequently highlighted at official events. "We are America's home and obviously we like to to highlight what's best in America," he says.
Barry H. Laundau, presidential historian and author of The President's Table: 100 Years of Dining and Diplomacy, says that alcohol preference at the White House changes from administration to administration. Rutherford B. Hayes was a public teetotaler but a private drinker; the President would invite guests upstairs for a secret cocktail while his wife, "Lemonade Lucy," served non-alcoholic drinks downstairs. The Eisenhowers rarely served mixed drinks, Ronald Reagan enjoyed the occasional screwdriver, and George W. Bush, a recovering alcoholic, drank Buckler, a non-alcoholic beer made by Heineken (which is Dutch).
John F. Kennedy served Dom Pérignon champagne at nearly every function, while Lyndon B. Johnson switched it up with Piper-Heidsieck. Richard Nixon favored European wines; he considered himself somewhat of an expert, and a few of his bottles are still stocked in the White House cellar. After California vineyards gained prominence in the 1970s, administrations became a bit more U.S.-centric. Reagan, Bill Clinton and both Bushes regularly served California bottles at official functions. Sometimes the White House will purchase a beverage from a visiting dignitary's home country. Tsingtao beer has been served at every Chinese state leader's visit since 1979.
Beverages at private events are a little harder to track. "They don't usually publicize what anybody drinks because then companies can use it for advertising purposes," explains Scheib. Maybe that's why the White House kept mum on Obama's beer selection until the day before the meeting, when he selected Bud Light.
When Henry Louis Gates Jr. comes to the White House, he will be able to get whatever kind of beer he wants, even if it's German or Jamaican. Crowley, who reportedly favors the domestic wheat beer Blue Moon, will receive the same treatment. There has been no word on whether the White House carries these brews on a regular basis though that may not matter. In a July 27 appearance, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs offered to make the beer run.
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