California Hops Vs. The Secret Service

By John Holl

At first, you might wonder why a small planter of hops, complete with trellis, sits on a windowsill at Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore) office on Capitol Hill.

These certified organic hops once called Chico, California, home. They were planted with the intention of becoming a bittering agent in one of Sierra Nevada Brewing Company’s beers. However, after brewery spokesman Bill Manley learned that President Obama had supported homebrewing by the White House staff, he approached his boss, Ken Grossman, founder and president of Sierra Nevada, with an idea.

In addition to bringing homebrewing back to the people’s house, the Obama’s also planted a garden on the south lawn shortly after taking residence. What if, Manley suggested, the brewery sent them some hops to plant in the garden, with the intention of them being used in a future White House homebrew.

Grossman liked the idea, and reached out to DeFazio, a champion of the House Small Brewer’s Caucus. The congressman too liked the idea, and arrangements were made for the cascade hops to make the trip east. They were packaged, along with their certified organic soil, in a pot with a trellis to match.

Clearly, this was a great idea and a perfect way to promote America’s small and independent craft brewers.

“Then we ran into the Secret Service bureaucracy,” DeFazio recalled. “Somehow they think that somewhere in that soil Ken has planted something that might be the demise of Democracy.”

It turns out the Secret Service would have been glad to accept them, but would have had to immediately destroy the hops because they came in soil, something that is apparently on the security no-no list.

Things have clearly come a long way since the days when presidents like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were known and noted homebrewers. Over time, beer fell out of fashion with other Commanders-in-Chief. That is until Barack Obama took office in 2009, and brought with him a sudsy renaissance to the nation’s capitol.

On the campaign trail, candidate Obama visited breweries, was not shy about drinking local beer, and routinely talked about the benefits of small businesses, like craft breweries.

During the Super Bowl, the Obama’s earned headlines when it was revealed they served a homebrew, brewed by a White House chef, with honey collected from the White House garden. The hearts of homebrewers and craft beer lovers swelled with pride.

For now, the Obama’s would-be hops sit on the congressman’s windowsill and wait for a new home. Last week, in a telephone conversation with DeFazio, he said his office was speaking with the United States Department of Agriculture in the hopes that they would offer the rhizomes a permanent home in their garden on the National Mall.

Should they be planted on government land?  DeFazio said he thinks it is a step towards more recognition that craft beer is a diverse industry.

“We’re making a little progress in Washington, D.C.,” said DeFazio.

Meanwhile, Grossman confirmed new rhizomes—sans soil—are being readied to leave Chico, hopefully meeting Secret Service standards. The goal for these hops to find a home on White House grounds still remains.

Grossman seemed amused when asked about the prospect of having his hops grown at the president’s residence.

“It never crossed my mind that a president would want to brew his own beer,” he said. “It feels great; I hope we get to brew some beer with them.”

John Holl is the editor of All About Beer magazine and author of The American Craft Beer Cookbook: 155 Recipes from Your Favorite Brewpubs and Breweries.

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