Strange brew: Lawmakers delight in bottling their own beer

When summer presses like a hot iron, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) enjoys sitting on his porch at his home in Springfield, Ore., surrounded by two acres of quiet, with a cold glass of home-made pale ale.

DeFazio is a home brewer. In the winter he makes heavier English ales. In the dog days of summer, he likes to brew India Pale Ales.

Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.) bottles his own brews as well. Ales are his specialty, but he also makes dark, sweet bach lagers.
“My wife figured it would be cheaper to brew at home than going out to the pub,” he said.

DeFazio and Bilbray are not the only members of Congress who are busy fermenting. Californians Rep. George Radanovich (R) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D) are both vintners. Radanovich taught Bilbray how to make wine, and Bilbray taught him to make beer.
“I still owe him a couple bottles,” said Bilbray.

The lawmakers belong to the 35-member Small Brewers Caucus, which looks after the interests of local microbreweries and celebrates good beer. DeFazio co-chairs with Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.)

The business of their meetings?

“We drink beer together,” said Bilbray.

The chairmen aren’t hiding their participation. The caucus logo, with a link to the caucus website, is prominently displayed on the homepages of both Walden and DeFazio.

Bilbray has no link to the caucus on his site, but spokesman Kurt Bardella, who controls the Web content, says it was not intentional. 
What about the image of a lawmaker taking part in a congressional caucus that’s all about drinking? Constituents must raise concerns.

Some spokesmen admit that, on rare occasions, constituents have expressed discomfort with their member’s participation in the caucus.

But Bardella says it is not an issue for Bilbray.

“In our district we have lots of wineries and breweries,” he said. “It’s more about business.”

Walden spokesman Andrew Whelan agreed.

“They [Oregonians] take pride in the industry,” he explained.

The caucus members do not favor popular domestic beers. But they temper that selectivity with the underlying purpose of supporting good beers in their districts. Bilbray is surrounded by craft beers, so that’s what he drinks. Bardella, however, denies that Bilbray is anything like a snob.

“I would be shocked if he hadn’t had a Bud Light [at some point],” he said.

But DeFazio and Walden enjoy more esoteric beers. Among Walden’s favorite beers are Full Sail Amber Ale and Deschutes Mirror Pond, both Oregonian brews.

Brewing begins with cooking malt, then boiling the hops with the malt. What results is mixed with yeast, and sometimes sugar, then bottled to ferment.

Bilbray offers a tip to brewers: “Don’t boil the hops to death.”

The fermenting process can take anywhere from a week to more than a month, depending on the beer. The careful tending required for a decent brew isn’t always easy, given the busy life of a congressman.

“I gotta be home to bottle,” said DeFazio. “The [new] Democratic schedule has really cut into my beer-making.”

For his bottling, DeFazio recycles eye-pleasing 22-ounce bottles — preferably the ones with the labels painted on the side instead of the stick-on labels.

“The key is to be fastidious about cleanliness,” he said, counseling that recycled bottles be scoured. “You have to be really careful that the beer isn’t contaminated.”

During his college years in Boston, DeFazio says that he and his friends dreamed of using abandoned equipment at a boarded-up brewery in nearby Jamaica Plain to make their own beer.

DeFazio’s brewing attempts after college flopped. But he took up brewing again about 15 years ago and hasn’t had a bad batch since. Charlie Papazian’s best-selling books on home brewing have been handy guides. He likes to use lots of hops, imparting a more bitter taste to the beer.

“I never was much of a Budweiser guy,” he said. As a young man, he drank foreign beers. His brother, who was in the military, would bring back Asian beers for him to sample.

DeFazio, Walden and Bilbray insist it’s not just a bunch of guys drinking — women are also members of the group. They all think of themselves as beer connoisseurs, or at least protectors of beer connoisseurs. DeFazio says the California and Oregon members argue over who has more microbreweries in their district. The caucus’s website, maintained by Walden’s office, has a feature explaining what kind of beer pairs best with everything, from duck to lemon tart.

“It’s more of a culinary experience than seeing how many beers you can put down,” said Whelan, Walden’s spokesman.

The caucus recently held a large-scale event when the Brewers Association was in town on May 15, their first and thus far only meeting. DeFazio said it was very successful, noting that the caucus offered 20 different kinds of craft beers for the tasting.

“There were lots of RSVPs for that one,” said Whelan. The caucus is recruiting, too, and the chairmen hopes for 100 members by the end of this Congress. One incentive to join: their next party, or meeting, will be open only to caucus members.

Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) has also joined the caucus. In his case, it’s not because of the beer at the caucus meetings, but because of the large number of microbreweries in his district — one of the only districts to host a female brew master, at Stoudt’s Brewery. Gregg Bortz, Dent’s spokesman, stressed that even though his boss does not drink beer often, “he’s not anti-drinking.” 

It’s fitting that two Oregonians chair the caucus. Portland is considered the microbrew capital of the world. DeFazio says that Oregon has the highest percentage consumption of what he calls “good beer” versus mass-produced beer.

Craft beer, beer made by microbreweries, is also becoming more popular on the Hill. This year the first American Craft Beer Week, an open-air festival with smaller brewers, came to the Hill. Washington is coming out of what DeFazio calls “the Dark Ages” and offering more craft beers. Still, he said, it’s hard to find good beer in this city. He said that in his own town of Eugene, Ore., you can buy craft beers at local convenience stores.

DeFazio likes to share a pint with Jerry Giovaniello, a lobbyist for National Association of Realtors whom DeFazio calls an aficionado. Fellow Oregonian Rep. David Wu (D) also drinks good beer “sometimes.” DeFazio also likes to talk over a drink with Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) but reports that Taylor imbibes Miller Lite.

More broadly, drinking sophisticated beer is becoming more popular, and home brewing is on the upswing. In the latest worldwide homebrews competition, hosted by the American Homebrewers Association, a record number of home brewers entered their concoctions.

“People are talking about different styles and pairings with food,” said Jeff Becker, president of the Beer Institute, a lobbying organization that represents the beer industry. “The taste is still a light American lager.” He said the growth of microbreweries and homebrews has only helped larger beer companies: “It’s put wind in the sails. It’s created innovation.”