John Hickenlooper speaks at the Democratic presidential candidates NALEO Candidate Forum in June.
Photo: Joe Skipper (Getty Images)

Democratic presidential candidate John Hickenlooper is the former governor of Colorado, and before that, mayor of Denver. But prior to both those, he was the cofounder of Denver’s Wynkoop Brewing, the first craft brewery in a city that now boasts nearly 80. He’s written a memoir about his time in beer, and was honored for his contributions to the industry at the annual Great American Beer Festival in 2018. Now beer is front-and-center in one of his digital campaign ads: “I’m the only presidential candidate you could have a beer with, and make a beer with.”

So, does John Hickenlooper really know his beer? (This beer writer says yes.) And does brewing have anything to do with running for President? (Jury’s out.) I spent a speedy eight minutes on the phone with Hickenlooper last week as he campaigned through Iowa to ask him about beer, politics, and beer politics. For his stance on whether a hot dog is a sandwich, click here.


The Takeout: Your political experience aside, how did beer prepare you to run for the Presidency?

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John Hickenlooper: I think that understanding fermentation is crucial toward success in politics. The way you create a brewpub where you bring together a great team of people, motivate them, and hold them accountable, and when you’re in the weeds, it’s all hands on deck. In rough water, everybody paddles. I’m not talking about a brewer’s paddle, in that specific example.

Those lessons from brewpubs on a macro scale inform what fermentation is all about. Fermentation, if you’re paying attention to Reinheitsgebot, all you’re brewing with is water, barley, hops, and yeast, and yet from those ingredients you have a combination that really is—this has been true for millennia—is magic.

In the best cases, that’s what good government is. You take the simple facts and whatever the big challenge is and you address it in a collaborative way. It’s never just one thing, it’s several things. I have a whole metaphor I could use about the right ingredients and keeping your equipment clean, but the real key here is: When you’re starting a brewery of any type, it’s the application of entrepreneurial skills that’s allowed us to be so successful as mayor and governor and hopefully as President.

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TO: It’s said that people want a president they can drink beer with. What beer is in your fridge right now?

JH: Fat Tire, Denver Pale Ale from Great Divide, I think I also have 90 Schilling. It’s mostly Colorado beer because I’ve lived in Colorado. If I had a refrigerator here in Iowa, I’d have a local Iowa beer. I had a great beer last night called Tailwind; they were the special beer for the RAGBRAI race.

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TO: Do you drink macro beer or are you a craft-only person?

JH: I’ll drink factory beer but I generally am someone who generally appreciates the art of a brewer. I appreciate the balance one uses, balancing the body of beer with the hops; that’s another perfect metaphor for government.

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TO: Cans or bottles?

JH: I have been persuaded. I was a bottle only person for ages, but we’re at a point where we have to embrace technology and change. What we really care about is quality. If you look at cans, when you’re holding a can of beer, 85% of that can is recycled whereas glass is a fraction of that. Given the quality, the taste—I’ve done blind taste test—I can’t tell the difference.

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TO: Given your brewing-industry experience, what are you hearing from brewers and other manufacturers more broadly about how tariffs are affecting their business?

JH: I’m not as up-to-date on how it affects the brewing business but I can tell you there are no winners in tariff wars. Everyone’s a loser. I’ve talked to the chair of the economics department at the University Of Chicago who told me there are no stories of anyone coming out better from a tariff war. We haven’t seen anything but pain and misery from our farmers, our small businesses. They’re getting clobbered.

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TO: What would you do regarding tariffs if elected?

JH: A couple things you learn in the brewpub business: We’re all equal. When we’re all in the weeds, doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, short or tall, gay or straight, we’re all in the same family. You also learn there’s no profit or margin in having enemies; no matter how unreasonable that customer is, you’ll do everything you can to have them leave knowing they value that relationship. I think that’s a huge problem with our diplomacy right now. People like to value themselves by how much media attention they can get based on their enemies. That’s not a long-term strategy for diplomacy.

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