By James Laber
Thomas Jefferson was a man of many accomplishments. President, author of the Declaration of Independence, founder of the University of Virginia and perhaps most importantly, brewer.
Brewing beer was a significant daily activity at Jefferson’s Virginia estate, Monticello. It was served at most meals for family, friends and colleagues. Rather than have the brew shipped in from the Southwest Mountains, just outside of Charlottesville, Jefferson brewed his own.
In honor of our founding father’s proclivity for brewing, Starr Hill Brewery will be releasing Monticello Reserve Ale on President’s Day – at Monticello, of course. The beer is the culmination of a cooperative research and brewing project involving Starr Hill’s master brewer Mark Thompson and one of Monticello’s assistant curators, Justin Sarafin. Thompson said the beer will be a near replica of what was originally brewed at Monticello.
“We made this beer as historically accurate as we could,” he said. “It’s made with malted wheat, torrified wheat and corn grit. We use East Kent Golding hops. There is no barley in it. Jefferson had a hard time getting barley.”
The ale is even brewed with hops grown at Monticello. Thompson eventually wants to use all local ingredients from the region to add to Monticello Reserve Ale’s authenticity.
An historic beer
The idea for the project came from Thompson, who grew up in Charlottesville and, like most children in the area, went on numerous visits to Monticello. About two years after Starr Hill Brewery’s founding in 1999, Monticello restored the Jefferson beer cellar and the story of the president’s brewing started to become public knowledge.
“Jefferson had gotten really into beer in a certain phase of his life and I pitched the idea to Monticello of a recreation of the beer that was brewed there,” Thompson said. “They gave me all the information I needed to get started and now we are brewing it.”
Monticello’s long history of brewing began with Jefferson’s wife, Martha, who oversaw the periodic brewing operations, producing 15-gallon casks of beer about every two weeks. This beer was referred to as “small beer” because the alcohol content was so low. However, the scale and potency of brewing at Monticello escalated in 1813 with the appearance of Captain Joseph Miller, an Englishman detained in Albemarle County during the War of 1812.
Miller, an expert brewer, improved upon the quality and quantity of Monticello beer, introducing ale, which was much stronger and better for storage. Miller trained the enslaved Peter Hemings – a brother of Sally, who allegedly had an affair with Jefferson – to carry on the brewing operations, making 100 gallons of ale every spring and fall.
A mysterious brew
Although Jefferson kept meticulous records of most happenings at Monticello, for some reason he never kept an exact recipe for his ale. In response to a recipe request Jefferson wrote, “I have no reciept [sic] for brewing,… and I much doubt the operations of malting and brewing could be successfully performed from a reciept. If it could, Combrune’s book on the subject would teach the best processes: and perhaps might guide to ultimate success with the sacrifice of 2. or 3. trials. . . . We are now finishing our spring brewing. If you have a capable servt. and he were to attend our fall brewing, so as to get an idea of the manual operation, Combrune’s book with a little of your own attention in the beginning might qualify him.”
With no exact recipe to follow, Thompson looked to Monticello’s crop-growing records, Jefferson’s purchasing records and the book mentioned in Jefferson’s aforementioned letter, Micheal Combrune’s “Theory and Practice of Brewing,” written in 1804, for clues.
From this information Thompson knew that Jefferson grew his own corn, hops and wheat for the brew. East Kent Golding hops were probably the only available hops in Virginia at the time and ale yeast was the most likely variety used. From this information, Thompson recreated Jefferson’s brew. The end result is a bit different than what people are used to drinking today. The unfiltered ale has earthy aromas and a wheat taste with a slight hint of citrus.
A fine tradition
Jefferson was not the only president to partake in the alcohol trade. From correspondence between Jefferson and James Madison, we know that Madison was also an avid home brewer. George Washington liked the hard stuff. He owned the country’s largest and most successful whiskey distillery in the late 1700s.
With President’s Day approaching, feel free to patriotically toast a drink to our founding fathers. If you are lucky enough to be in the Virginia area stop by Starr Hill Brewery in Charlottesville or Monticello for a real taste of history. For now, Monticello Reserve Ale is only available in the Monticello gift shop and in the Starr Hill Brewery tap room. Thompson has plans for wider distribution. It will soon be on tap in Charlottesville watering holes and could expand to the greater Mid-Atlantic region and beyond.
A few beers for Presidents’ Day
If you don’t have the opportunity to grab a Monticello Reserve Ale, here are five other patriotic beers with the presidential stamp of approval.
1. Sam Adams Revolutionary Rye Ale
When you are drinking a beer from a brewery named after a man who signed the Declaration of Independence, you know it’s a patriotic brew. Adams was a brewer before becoming involved in politics. Those Founding Fathers sure liked their booze.
2. Pabst Blue Ribbon
If you don’t believe PBR is the most patriotic of beers and that you are helping save America by drinking it, let Tom Raper tell you how much of an idiot you are. Though I cannot confirm this through historical records, I am fairly certain this was President William H. Taft’s beer of choice when he got stuck in the White House bathtub.
3. Rogue American Amber Ale
Rogue is one of the finest breweries around and this beer is so awesome that it won the 2005 World Beer Championships. Eat it Tsingtao.
4. Fireside Chat Winter Spiced Ale
21st Amendment Brewery likens this beer to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s radio addresses, calling it “a kick in the butt and a hug at the same time.” Sounds like a good time to me.
5. Stoudt’s American Pale Ale
Stoudt’s was a pioneer when the craft brewing movement was getting rolling in America and their American Pale Ale is their flagship beer.
(James Laber is a writer in Montana. He recently wrote about The Weirdest Beers in the World for Made Man.)