Tell me what kind of beer a man drinks, and I’ll tell you who he is. A Sierra Nevada? Probably lives in a blue state and drives a foreign car—maybe even a Prius. A Bud Light? A red stater, likes football, probably gets where he’s going in a Chevy flatbed. It’s all quite reductionist, this classification by beer choice, but it was certainly on the minds of the participants at President Obama’s beer summit at the White House last week. Professor Henry Louis Gates originally asked for a Red Stripe from Jamaica (suggesting a certain worldliness and a loyalty to people of color), but then switched to a more race-neutral choice, the Boston-area favorite Sam Adams Light. Sgt. James Crowley, a thinking man’s cop, selected Blue Moon, a fruity wheat beer brewed in Toronto that’s often served with a slice of orange. The message: I’m no redneck. Obama went with Bud Light to show what a regular guy he is, his upcoming vacation in Martha’s Vineyard notwithstanding.
We Americans like to think we’re not a class-based society, but beer is just one of the social signifiers that tip off where we fit in the grand scheme of race, education, politics, and wealth. A Subaru wagon says one thing about its driver; a Dodge Ram says another. Working folk get their caffeine fix at Dunkin’ Donuts, while the highly educated queue up for a venti Sumatra at Starbucks. Arugula or iceberg? A Mac or a PC? Target or Bloomingdale’s? Even when a cop opts for the fancy foreign beer and a president picks the Everyman suds, our choices betray how we’d prefer to be perceived: In the land of plenty, you are what you consume.