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Brewing Issue: What Beer Should the President Drink?

Monday, 16 Jul 2012 | 2:00 PM ET
President Barack Obama drinks a beer at Ziggy's Pub and Restaurant in Amherts, Ohio.
Jim Watson | AFP | Getty Images
President Barack Obama drinks a beer at Ziggy's Pub and Restaurant in Amherts, Ohio.

“What’ll you have?”

A good question to ask house guests or a catchy slogan if you’re Pabst Brewing. But it becomes a more complicated question to answer when you’re the leader of the free world, where every action and every decision is analyzed. Yes, when you’re the President of the United States even your choice in beer is scrutinized.

Recently, President Barack Obama stopped at Ziggy’s Bar in Amherst, Ohio about 30 miles outside of Cleveland. The President stayed for about 90 minutes, stopping at each table to talk with patrons and pose for photos. In those photos, the President is seen drinking a Miller Lite draft and later, a bottle of Bud Light.

The photos created headlines about the President's “carefully orchestrated appearance” designed to appeal to "working class” crowds and his choice of beer was presumed to be evidence of that.

It's a logical conclusion, as Bud Light has been in the political spotlight before. It was President Obama's beer of choice for a 2009 White House beer summit with Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and policeman James Crowley.

But the choice may come as a surprise to some beer fans, who might expect President Obama to select a craft beer, especially since he has been known to brew his beer at the White House.

Marketing consultant Laura Ries thinks Bud Light is a good fit for the President.

“Going with Bud Light is a safe choice and is probably the best choice,” says Ries. “Bud says 'leader.' I think it is still believed by Joe SixPack across the nation to be an 'all-American' beer. Even though it is owned by a foreign conglomerate now, most people don’t think about it. The average person thinks of Budweiser as an American choice.”

The appeal for a politician, Ries suggests, lies in Bud Light's popularity.

“With Bud Light being the best-selling beer, obviously a majority of people are drinking it and for most people, Obama kicking back with a Bud Light is a relatable experience,” Ries continued. "Take a look at the list of best-selling beers and a majority of people are drinking light beers. In certain circles, Bud is looked down upon and only craft beer is cool, but for most people, they are drinking Budweiser, Bud Light and Coors Light, the general mass brands.”

(Anheuser-Busch Inbev owns Budweiser and Bud Light, while Coors and Miller are owned by Molson Coors Brewing.)

Miller Time at Ziggy's

Miller Lite and Bud Light may have ruled the day at Ziggy's, but the bartender on duty doesn't think it was an orchestrated move.

“(President Obama) started to ask what we had on tap and then he just turned to (Governor) Ted Strickland and said ‘what did you order?'” says Katie Ives, the bartender at Ziggy's on the day the President visited. “The Governor said 'Miller Lite' and so Obama turned back around and said 'I’ll take two Miller Lites' and that was it.”

The Bud Light that followed? It was bought by a patron who now has a great story about buying a President a beer.

“One of our regulars was at the bar drinking Bud Light and he asked the secret service 'Am I allowed to buy (the President) a drink?' And they said yes, it's fine. So he ordered an extra beer and the next thing I know he’s offering it to the President. That was the Bud Light that (the President) carried around with him when he was talking to everybody.”

Ives says given the chance, she was hoping to offer the President something local.

“I wanted to suggest a beer from Great Lakes Brewing Company, but I didn’t get a chance,” says Ives. “Once he asked the Governor what he was drinking and then ordered the same thing, I thought ‘oh well, he’s not ordering anything interesting.’”

So how does Cleveland-based Great Lakes Brewing feel about the President missing the opportunity to sample their brew?

“We’re a little disappointed that he didn’t opt for one of Ohio’s own outstanding handcrafted brews,” says Marissa DeSantis, a Great Lakes Brewing spokeswoman.

With Ohio being a battleground state, the President will certainly be back and Great Lakes is offering him a second chance to taste their beer and discuss the impact of craft breweries on the economy.

“The next time he returns, we’d love to give him a VIP brewery tour and tasting at Great Lakes Brewing Company,” says DeSantis. “(Great Lakes) is able to directly give back to our community in a way that big brewers can’t, which we love and take very seriously. The fact that we are able to grow and provide jobs in a struggling economy proves how valuable the American craft beer industry is."

Obama The Home Brewer

While Bud Light has captured a lot of public attention as President Obama's beer of choice, it's not that he doesn't like craft beer. In fact, while many of the early Presidents were home brewers, President Obama is believed to be the first President to brew his own beer while in the White House.

The President and First Lady paid for a home-brewing kit with their own money and have brewed three beers, White House Honey Ale, White House Honey Blonde Ale and White House Honey Porter. Why all the honey? It’s taken from the first-ever beehive kept on the White House lawn.

Official White House home brews have been served at the President’s 2012 Super Bowl party, on St. Patrick’s Day and when Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer asked to have a beer with the President last year.

Ries sees presidential home brewing as a smart political move.

“What’s more American than brewing your own beer? It makes for a great story and great PR,” says Ries. “Plus when (Obama) brews his own beer at the White House, he doesn’t have to make a brand choice.”

The Fratto Rules for Political Beer Ordering

So what's a politician to do when out on the campaign trail and wanting to order a cold one? Tony Fratto, who served as deputy press secretary to former President George W. Bush, offered up three simple rules for politicians.

First, go local when ordering, and when possible have the bartender take the decision out of your hands.

“The safest thing to do is know what the local beers are so you can order a local beer if you need to,” says Fratto. “But if you find yourself at the bar, say “hey, what's a good local beer” and let the bartender choose for you. That way you don't alienate any local brewers since the decision is made for you."

Second, when ordering a local beer on your own, don’t order anything with more than four words.

“It means you have to think about it too much and increases the likelihood you’ll make a mistake and then be made fun of for getting it wrong. Keep it simple,” he says.

Avoiding another potential source of ridicule leads to rule No. 3.

“Nothing fruity. Don’t order a beer with some sort of fruity flavor to it,” says Fratto. “Order a beer that tastes and sounds like a beer."

With all the ramifications involved in a Presidential beer choice, the most savvy person involved might be the bartender from Ziggy’s. When asked if the chance to meet and serve a beer to President Obama meant that he'd be getting her vote, Ives wasn't saying.

“I try and stay out of the whole politics thing,” says Ives. “I see the way people are with it and how angry they get and kind of stay away from it.”

(Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identifed Tony Fratto as a political consultant.)

Questions? Comments? Email us at consumernation@cnbc.com. Follow Tom Rotunno on Twitter @tomrotunno.

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