Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Official Beer of Monticello

Thomas Jefferson ... President and brewer. The third President once wrote to Joseph Coppinger on April 25, 1815: "I am lately become a brewer for family use, having had the benefit of instruction to one of my people by an English brewer of the first order."  That English brewer was Captain Joseph Miller, who had been detailed in Albemarle County, Virginia during the War of 1812. Captain Miller trained one of Jefferson's slaves, Peter Hemmings (who was also the brother to Sally Hemmings), in the art of malting and brewing.  With that training, Hemmings oversee the production of more than one hundred gallons of ales every spring and fall.  

By the fall of 1814, there was a brewery at Monticello and President Jefferson even began malting his own grain rather than purchasing it from his neighbors.  That grain, along with the other ingredients -- such as barley, wheat and corn -- came from the gardens of Monticello. The beers were more akin to session beers, lightly hopped with low alcohol content.  Those beers were "table liquor," which was served with dinner.  (Wine and/or Madeira was served after the meal.)

A picture from the beer cellar at Monticello.
In 2011, Starr Hill Brewing brewed the Monticello Reserve Ale, which has become the official beer of Monticello.  The Starr Hill brewmasters produced the ale in the style of the beers that were made at Monticello.  This is quite the feat, given the apparent lack of a recipe. According to the Monticello Foundation, former governor James Barbour wrote President Jefferson about the beer served at Monticello: "Some years past I recollect to have drunk some ale at Monticello which I understood was of your own brewing. The manner of doing which you had obtained by a recipe from some intelligent Briton. . . . You will oblige me much by furnishing me with a copy of the recipe as soon as your convenience will permit."  Jefferson responded, "I have no reciept [sic] for brewing and I much doubt the operations of malting and brewing could be successfully performed from a reciept."  Undaunted, the Starr Hill brewers produced the Reserve Ale using the same ingredients that Captain Miller and Peter Hemmings would have used back in the early nineteenth century. 

The Monticello Reserve Ale pours a yellowish gold color, with a very thin and light foam.  The aroma is rather light and a little hard to detect.  Nevertheless, there were some hints of the wheat and lemon.  As for the taste, the wheat leaves its mark, with flavors of bread and grass.  A very light citrus note is also present in the taste of the beer.  

As I drank this beer, writing down my impressions, I also looked at what other people wrote on websites such as Beer Advocate and Rate Beer.  I was surprised at some of the negative reactions, especially on Rate Beer.  Every beer has some reviews that express disappointment, but one reviewer went so far as to say the beer was a "drain pour."  I have to say that the reviewer missed the whole point of the beer, which is to recreate a beer based upon what Thomas Jefferson probably drank during his dinners.  Given that perspective, the beer provides an interesting look at brewing over two hundred years ago and I really liked the beer.

As for pairing this beer, its easy-drinking and light body allow the Monticello Reserve Ale to be paired with just about anything.  However, if you want to continue the historical angle, you should consider pairing the beer with Bouilli (Beef Pot Roast) and Mashed Potatoes and Macaroni and Spinach Bake, both of which are recipes that were served at Monticello.  (Check out The Founding Foodies for the recipes.)


For more information about the brewing of beer at Monticello, check out the Monticello Foundation.

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