Two months ago the government declassified the most important documents this side of John Lennon’s: the White House Homebrew recipes. Barack Obama, the only one of both presidential candidates who enjoys a beer now and then like a real human being, bought a homebrew kit (with his own money - relax) and commissioned his kitchen staff to create a beer. After some experimentation they came up with two, the White House Honey Ale and the White House Honey Porter. Both use honey harvested from the White House’s brand-new apiary and are impressively complex for beginners.
A couple of months ago I decided to brew the White House Honey Porter. It’s the time of the year for porters and I had been eying the honey stand at a local farmer’s market over in Sunnyside, Queens (where the main baddie from The Toxic Avenger works, but that’s a story for another day...) The recipe as given is perfect for newcomers, and indeed seems to be encouraging many people to start up this great hobby, but I’m here to tell you that you can make it even more easily. The recipes can be found here but there are some extraneous steps they have given that you can skip - it won’t keep you from making a delicious beer, and speeds up the process quite a bit.
While I’ve been brewing beer for almost three years now, with dozens of successful batches (and a couple of failures) under my belt, I’m definitely no expert, so keep that in mind while brewing your own. All I know is that the outcome speaks for itself, and it’s one tasty beverage, one I can see brewing again over the next few years as I enjoy my improved health care system and separation of church and state. But feel free to do whatever you like to the recipe - experimenting is the best part about homebrewing. The worst thing that can happen to you is that you’ll end up with beer.
And this is a great one. As you can see the beer pours beautifully, even if I may have overcarbonated it a tad in my keg. It’s very well balanced, hoppy and malty with a nice, refreshing finish. It goes down real easy, as we found out on election night as the beer got us through a few harrowing hours. It drinks almost like a session beer, so smooth it’s almost dangerous, leaving us constantly shocked at how empty our glasses were. The beer is definitely not as heavy as you’d expect from the color, a lush, dark brown.
You can find out by brewing your own! If you don’t have equipment I’d recommend buying a Starter Set at Northern Brewer or Midwest Supplies unless you have a decent local homebrew supply store. Their basic kits will give you everything you need to brew this, but here’s a short list.
- 1.Kettle for brewing, at least 5 gallons
- 6.5 gallon fermenting bucket with lid (I like Better Bottles but buckets are just fine for beginners)
- 6.5 gallon bucket with spigot for bottling
- Sanitizer (I like BTF Iodophor, although Star San is great too)
- Auto-siphon (easier way to transfer the beer to your bottling bucket)
- Three-part airlock (easier to clean than the bubblers)
- Bottle Filler and tubing
- Enough bottles to bottle 5 gallons of beer. You can reuse any size beer bottles, but avoid twist-offs!
- Bottle capper and around 60 bottle caps
This basic setup will let you brew almost any kind of ale. It’s a little bit of an investment (it can run you $75-$100, more depending on the kettle) but you’ll be able to use it for years and years to brew your own beer. If you’re concerned about the price, remember that five gallons of great homebrew can be made for as little as $20-$30. That’s around 50 cents a beer.
You can find premade ingredient kits for the beer at many retailers, but this is what you’ll need for the White House Honey Porter.
- 7.6 pounds of light unhopped malt extract (they recommend two 3.3 pound cans)
- 3/4 lb Munich Malt (cracked)
- 1 lb crystal 20 malt (cracked)
- 6 oz black malt (cracked)
- 3 oz chocolate malt (cracked)
- 1 lb Honey
- 10 HBUs bittering hops
- 1/2 oz Hallertaur hops for aroma
- 1 muslin bag
- 1 pkg Nottingham dry yeast
- 3/4 cup corn sugar for bottling
A note about “10 HBUs bittering hops”. HBU is Homebrew Units, a way of determining how bitter a beer will be by seeing the amount of amino acids in the hops you’re using. You can use any sort of hops for this - their aroma won’t matter because you’re using them for their bittering properties and will boil out all of their flavor. Each package of hops comes with an Alpha Acid percentage to make things easier. There's a quick formula for figuring out your HBUs- multiple the alpha % by the ounces. So if you have an ounce of 5.5% Cascade hops you have 5.5 HBUS. Add 4.4 more HBUs and you’ve got the right amount. Simple!
I had a ton of leftover hops from a previous batch so I used Kent Golding, Centennial and Willamette hops. Ended up with almost 11 HBUs, figured it would be just fine. (It was.)
The White House recipe recommends you do a partial mash, something that’s really for more intermediate homebrewers, but you don't have to bother. It will add hours to your brewday and is relatively needless for your purposes. Here are the directions, modified from the originals.
- In the kettle steep the grains in the muslin bag in 2 1/2 gallons of water at 155 degrees for half an hour. Remove the grains and discard.
- Add the malt extract into the pot. Stir well.
- Boil for an hour. Add half of the bittering hops at the 15 minute mark, the other half at 30 minute mark, then the aroma hops at the 60 minute mark.
- Pour in honey on flameout.
- Place 2 gallons of chilled water into the primary fermenter and add the hot wort into it. Top with more water to total 5 gallons if necessary. Place into an ice bath to cool down to 70-80˚.
- Activate dry yeast in 1 cup of sterilized water at 75-90˚ for fifteen minutes. Pitch yeast into the fermenter. Fill airlock halfway with water. Ferment at room temp (64-68˚) for 3-4 days and leave for another week.
- To bottle, make a priming syrup on the stove with 1 cup sterile water and 3/4 cup priming sugar, bring to a boil for five minutes. Pour the mixture into an empty bottling bucket. Siphon the beer from the fermenter over it. Distribute priming sugar evenly. Siphon into bottles and cap. Let sit for 1-2 weeks at 75˚.
My brew day went by pretty well, although I realized right before starting that the Munich Malt I ordered wasn't cracked. Since I don't yet have a grain mill (them things are expensive!) I grabbed a rolling pin and did my best cracking them open without pulverizing them. It didn’t help that the rolling pin was smaller than my fist, and it added some time to the whole process.
One major part of the recipe that left people scratching their heads was why the honey was boiled for the duration. Boiling it removes much of the honey aroma and deactivates the enzymes that are needed ferment the honey, which is laden with complex sugars. So it’s debatable to even use honey in the first place if you’re going to use that method. You’ll get aroma but it will be muted, so what’s the point? The best time to dump the honey into the pot is actually after you turn the heat off (the term is “flame-out”). Since I picked my honey up from a farmer’s market it wasn’t pasteurized, which meant I did boil it a few minutes just to kill off any unwanted organisms, even though it’s very hard for any to grow in honey in the first place and most people make mead without boiling it.
The other thing you can ignore is the secondary fermentation. After you ferment your beer in the bucket some people like to transfer it to another container to clarify it a bit - it’s needless for most beers and gives you another chance of contamination. Once that wort is cooled down anything that comes into contact with it can ruin the beer, so sanitize, sanitize, sanitize.
Here’s the final product sitting in my keg, the affectionately nicknamed Ol’ Denty. Yes, that’s my main fridge- we don’t have room for another big fridge to fit this five-gallon corny keg and so it takes up half the room, which my beer-loving wife thankfully allowed. The best part about the keg is that I have beer on draft, and I don’t have to wait the additional two weeks for the beer to naturally carbonate - I can just crank up the CO2 and force that sucker to carbonate.
It may seem like a lot of work just for some beer but there’s simply nothing like handing out glasses of a beer you hand-made and watching your friends and family enjoy it. I came off very impressed with this recipe, and I’ve heard good things about the Honey Ale as well. Thankfully they have four more years to think up new recipes. The future is bright, and full of beer.