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On Tap: Kuster Endorses Pumpkin Beer, Tax Breaks

  • Rep. Annie Kuster tours Seven Barrel Brewery in West Lebanon Wednesday, November 6, 2013.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Rep. Annie Kuster tours Seven Barrel Brewery in West Lebanon Wednesday, November 6, 2013.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • A glass filled with hops sits in the brewing room at Seven Barrel Brewery in West Lebanon Wednesday, November 6, 2013.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    A glass filled with hops sits in the brewing room at Seven Barrel Brewery in West Lebanon Wednesday, November 6, 2013.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Rep. Annie Kuster tours Seven Barrel Brewery in West Lebanon Wednesday, November 6, 2013.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • A glass filled with hops sits in the brewing room at Seven Barrel Brewery in West Lebanon Wednesday, November 6, 2013.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

West Lebanon — A few regulars were perched at the bar of the Seven Barrel Brewery one Wednesday afternoon when an eager congresswoman stepped inside.

Dressed in a gray checkered jacket, buttoned high, U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster looked a little out of her element, as though she needed directions to a Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

Nope. This was the right place. And with a television crew set up in a corner, the Democrat from New Hampshire chatted with Seven Barrel brewer Tony Lubold about her plan to help his industry.

“What I’m hoping to do is help the small brewers get off the ground and grow,” Kuster said.

Kuster has made job growth a priority. And in New Hampshire, craft beer is one fast growing area of the state’s economy. She is co-sponsoring a bill, called the Small BREW Act, that would cut the federal excise tax in half for small breweries across the nation.

The proposal would save more than $1,000 a year for a place like Seven Barrel. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but consider that small businesses generally don’t have a lot of discretionary money for things like marketing or advertising. The money could help Seven Barrel cover some of the expense of recent upgrades, Lubold said, or go toward a pay bump for staff.

“The money will certainly come back into the business,” he said.

The tax cut could provide a $1.04 billion boost to the U.S. economy over five years, according to a recent Harvard study, and create more than 5,000 new jobs during the first year to 18 months.

Yeah, I know. Jobs, jobs, jobs. Helping small businesses; economic growth; blah blah blah. That stuff is all good, but I wanted to know what kind of beer Kuster preferred.

If it were me, I would have ordered a pint of IPA right away so I’d have something to sip while glad-handing. But Kuster seemed reluctant until the television crew pushed her to get a sample. Something for the cameras.

She craned her neck over the bar to read her options. Would it be the Quechee Cream ale? New Dublin Brown? An Oatmeal Stout?

Kuster went right for the pumpkin ale. She got a 3-ounce sample.

It was an amber colored beer made with real pumpkin and spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice. Though I have argued in their defense, pumpkin ales are generally looked down upon by craft beer elitists, who consider it the beer style for people who don’t actually like beer. This was not the choice of a connoisseur.

“Oh wow. That’s good!” Kuster exclaimed after her first sip. “That is amazing. Is that the most popular?”

Not exactly. The Red 7 and the Champion Reserve IPA sell the most, the bartender told her. Still, Kuster seemed happy with her choice.

She mentioned it often as we — Kuster, her handler, Lubold, me, a Valley News photographer and a two-person television crew — squeezed into the small brew house for a tour.

As Lubold explained the brewing process, Kuster interjected a question.

“Now, if you’re going to do a pumpkin beer, when do you add that in?” she asked.

Later, Lubold spoke of using Vermont-grown hops and local maple syrup in some of his beers.

“It’s like the pumpkin,” Kuster piped up. “Being in touch with the weather and the seasons and the crops.”

There was an economic argument to be made in all this, which Kuster seized on. Small brewers have shown great interest in using locally sourced ingredients, something which further invests in the regional economy.

After a half-hour, Kuster headed off for her next appointment. I caught up with her in the parking lot and asked her why she was sponsoring this bill aimed at small brewers. She didn’t seem like a big beer drinker to me and I wanted to know what interested her about the industry.

“I’ve been very aware of the increased interest in buying local food and then, in the course of learning more about that, I started hearing about the craft breweries,” Kuster said.

Peter Egelston, founder of New Hampshire’s Smuttynose Brewery, introduced her to the kinds of issues that affect growth in the industry. Lowering the excise tax for brewers of a certain size could help the little guys compete.

Between the brewers, distributors and retailers, the beer industry contributed $705 million directly to New Hampshire’s economy in 2012 and employed 5,560 people, according to the Beer Institute, an industry trade group. Factor in the taxes these businesses pay and the ancillary jobs in construction, agriculture, tourism and business services, and the total economic impact tops $1.3 billion. In Vermont, the total impact is $552 million.

Kuster didn’t need to be able to describe the malt profile of an Irish red ale in order to get behind brewers. If economic growth is her priority, then it is easy to understand her support of Lubold and his peers.

Plus, she gets to expand her palate.

After she finished most of her sample, leaving a swallow behind, Kuster thanked the server and looked over at a fellow bar patron. She had some advice for his next selection.

“The pumpkin beer I’d recommend,” she said.

Valley News staff writer Chris Fleisher is a beer judge and the founder of the website BrewsReporter.com. He can be reached at 603-727-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.