America’s New Beer Test

U.S. presidential candidates are going after voters with IPAs in hand, rather than the traditional Budweiser.

Patrick Semansky / AP

Ahead of last month’s Wisconsin primary, Hillary Clinton stopped at La Crosse’s Pearl Street Brewery. She wasn’t taking a break for a beer after a long day or grabbing growlers for her staffers. The visit was part of something much larger, a strategy employed by both parties to showcase small, independently owned craft breweries during their campaign runs.

Contrary to the time-honored campaign tradition of stopping at a local pub to quaff Budweiser with the after-work crowd, this cycle’s candidates have gravitated toward local beer makers. The shift shows how the market for beer is changing: Craft breweries are making increasingly significant economic impact in their communities. But it also shows how the symbol of beer has evolved in American politics: downing a draft or cracking open a can is now a way of connecting with a much broader set of voters.

Photographs of the former First Lady show Clinton holding a pint glass in her left hand while pulling the tap handle down with her right. Subsequent shots show a glass with a healthy amount of foam and little liquid. Veteran beer drinkers took to message boards to criticize this pour; in the images, Clinton wears a sheepish expression, as if she’s in on the joke. “The pictures went viral,” Pearl Street’s director of sales and marketing, Tami Plourde, said. “We didn’t expect that.”

Clinton’s not the only candidate in the 2016 U.S. presidential race who feels compelled to share the spotlight with a craft beer. Her Democrat rival Bernie Sanders has been photographed proudly holding a can of Heady Topper, a Vermont-brewed Double IPA that can only be purchased in Sanders’s home state. Most recently, at a New York rally, Ted Cruz was presented with a growler of the flagship Amber Ale from Wolf Hollow Brewing Company, a Glenville, New York, outfit. “Y’all don’t mess around,” the Texan said about the beer.

The most stalwart advocate of craft beer may be former Republican candidate John Kasich, who has championed Ohio microbreweries and the craft-beer industry in general. He was publicly endorsed by Mount Carmel Brewing co-founder Kathleen Dewey, of Cincinnati. The Ohio governor campaigned at the Lansing Brewing Company in Michigan, visited Henniker Brewing in New Hampshire, and appeared on the New Hampshire radio program “Pints and Politics,” a show sponsored by the Granite State’s Smuttynose Brewing.

Brewery visits have become a new political trope. Pouring a beer demonstrates an “I-know-how-to-do-this-too” common denominator with voters. It’s a proverbial toast to the economy and to local businesses. Presidential candidates have seemed to distance themselves from international conglomerates and domestic macro-lagers, such as Bud Light, Coors, or Miller, and found themselves fully embracing the craft-beer movement and all that it represents.

Candidates have found themselves embracing the craft-beer movement and all it represents.

“In craft beer, you’re dealing with voters of the whole spectrum, from 21 until they’re cold,” said Plourde. “Our beer drinkers are left, right, Independent. Beer is the x-factor. People might not agree politically, but they can agree that this beer is great.”

The craft-beer movement suggests there’s a new beer culture in America—this time, shared across demographics and class groups. There are now over 4,000 breweries in the United States, according to the Brewer’s Association; the organization claims this is the first time the number of independent brewers has been greater than 4,000 since the 1870s. Craft beer involves entrepreneurialism and signals investment in a local community. It can also be a symbol of economic recovery: In a recent Atlantic article, James Fallows argued that craft breweries are barometers of a community’s civic success.

“Craft brewing is having a huge impact on our local economies,” wrote Jen Kimmich, the co-owner of The Alchemist, the Vermont outfit that makes the Heady Topper, in an email. “Across the country, craft breweries are playing an important role in the financial success of our communities by attracting tourists, increasing sales tax revenues, and creating good jobs.”

Bart Watson—the chief economist at the Brewers Association, a craft-beer advocacy group—agreed, arguing that small, independent breweries create hundreds of thousands of jobs. For politicians, lining up with breweries is a clear win. “How many manufacturing industries have added people?” Watson pointed out. “Breweries are one of the successes.”

Kimmich added that many craft brewers are “socially responsible,” investing in their communities’ infrastructure by only distributing within a limited distance of the brewery, raising money for local charities, creating tourism opportunities, and paying attention to environmental sustainability. “It’s not surprising that our lawmakers have taken an interest in the success of craft beer,” she said. “They recognize how we are collectively strengthening our economy.”

No longer can beer drinkers be painted as just working class men downing ice-cold lagers after work on a Friday. Craft-beer drinkers represent many demographics. According to the Brewer’s Association, these brew-lovers encompass all ages, from the youngest voters to those over 55. Almost 75 percent of people of legal drinking age live within 10 miles of a brewery. And the number of young women and Hispanic craft beer drinkers is on the rise. These trends are true across the country, said Watson. “You can look at any state, any congressional district, and it’s there.”

There’s a new beer culture in America.

Drinking beer has always been a way for politicians to connect to regular voters. Drinking craft beer bolsters that relationship because the people crafting the beer are part of the local community. They’re rarely wealthy; brewery CEOs usually don’t have stock options. A craft brewery is, in some way, a throwback to an earlier era of American business, one when local bakeries, butchers, and diners thrived. At least on the surface, it seems more authentic and its people a little more real. It’s a politician’s campaign-trail dream: championing successful small businesses while appealing to voters who are young, old, men, women, multi-cultural, and upper-, middle-, and working-class.

When candidates show up at a craft brewery, they don’t necessarily leave with an endorsement, though. Embracing a politician can be bad for business, especially in towns with mixed political affiliations. Pearl Street faced some social-media backlash after Clinton’s visit, but Plourde didn’t mind.

Beer belongs in “all areas, all policies, all political parties,” she said. “We would’ve had the same reaction to any [candidate]. It would have been an honor to host anyone. We would be flattered that any candidate would take the time to swing in and visit.”