Poor & Unhappy Brains

The politics of beer and its transformative powers


Beer hasn’t lost its political power, which has been used to inspire the masses, encourage the downtrodden and disparage the evildoers in office.

Over the past few weeks, beer has once again come to the forefront of American politics. Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings were more the stuff of Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek’s drunken repartee instead of serious nonpartisan proceedings.

Beer-drinking was among the odder issues at the Kavanaugh hearings.

“I drank beer with my friends,” Kavanaugh said in his opening statement on Sept. 28. He was referring to allegations of his teenage drinking habits. “Almost everyone did. Sometimes I had too many beers. Sometimes others did. I liked beer. I still like beer.”

Democrats tried to make the case that he may have drunk so much he blacked out, implying he may have indeed committed the sexual assault of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford all those years ago.

Ultimately, the Democrats’ efforts to block Kavanaugh were ineffective; the Senate voted 50-48 to confirm.

Throughout history, beer has been at the center of many political discussions, recriminations and arguments.

In colonial days, beer was a tool for expanding the British Empire. In England, taverns were used to accelerate trade. As taverns popped up in America, so did settlements. It was like a self-fulfilling prophecy: Taverns needed beer to sell and brewers needed taverns to which they could sell their beer. Taverns soon became the center of commerce and even the law in their communities. Farmers could trade their crops for rations of beer, traveling judges held court in taverns (it’s how the terms “traveling the circuit” and “circuit court” entered legal vernacular).

As the stirrings of revolution began to spread, beer became a robust industry. Taverns were prospering as the incubators of political dissent aimed squarely at English rulers. By 1770, George Washington and Patrick Henry argued that British beer imports should be boycotted. Picking up the anti-English mantle, Samuel Adams met with a group of separatists at Boston’s Green Dragon Tavern. There, the attack on British cargo ships now called the Boston Tea Party was conceived and launched.

Later, in an effort to finance the Civil War, the U.S. Congress, at the president’s urging, decided to levy excise taxes on a number of goods. Beer was on the list. Even Abraham Lincoln, thought by some to be a teetotaler, understood the impact beer had on the Union’s economy.

“I am a firm believer in the people,” Lincoln is credited with saying. “If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crises. The great point is to bring them the real facts, and beer.”

In March 1933, America was in the grips of the Great Depression and Prohibition. President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave his first of 31 “fireside chats.” The chats were radio broadcasts FDR used to keep in touch with the American public. After that first foray, Roosevelt said to folks around him, “I think it’s time for a beer.” Within days, beer was again legal and Prohibition was history.

Today’s breweries are much like the taverns of old, encouraging Americans to gather, discuss the issues of the day and enjoy a beer or two among friends.

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