Jefferson's Secret Love
Travel around Virginia’s wine country and you find yourself bombarded with Jeffersonian imagery: Brochures and press releases have spotlighted the Founding Father for more than 20 years, near his old home sits a winery called Jefferson Vineyards, the Monticello Appellation envelops his home town of Charlottesville, and one vineyard sits by the ruins of a Jefferson-designed house. The third president rambled on so much about fine wine that he bored the hell out of an up-and-coming John Quincy Adams during White House dinners. So the hook makes sense even if it goes a bit overboard.
But here’s a secret: Jefferson also loved his beer. The book “Thomas Jefferson on Wine” by John Hailman mentions that the Sage of Monticello drafted plans for a small, Palladian-style brewery on the plantation grounds. He wrote letters to his successor, James Madison, on the subject; and when a British brewer found himself captured during the War of 1812, Jefferson arranged for him to stay with him so he could teach Peter Hemmings, a slave and chef at Monticello, the art of making ale. Sounding like a 1970s homebrewer, he wrote one colleague that the beer made on site was better than the “vapid” ones available to the public.
Jefferson – known as Mr. Jefferson across much of Virginia and, a bit more informally, “TJ” when the tourists aren’t listening – liked pale ale the most. Frank Clark, the director of foodways at Colonial Williamsburg and the head of its beer program, gave me a bottle of his interpretation of Jefferson’s favorite brew. If you want to taste the author of the Declaration of Independence’s favorite beer, Yards Brewing produces a Jefferson-inspired ale, and homebrew recipes based on his drink abound.
Clark’s take on Jefferson’s favorite sits roughly between four and five percent alcohol, and it stems from a recipe in Michael Combrune’s “Theory and Practice of Brewing,” Jefferson’s favorite book on the subject.
“It’s a scientific look at brewing, most of it is theory. At the end of it, there’s a lot of practical recipes,” Clark says. “It’s basically pale malt and hops with a little bit of grains of paradise. A couple of ounces a batch. Just to add the tiniest bit flavor.”
I drafted an actual Jefferson descendant to sample the historic brew. This did not involve frantic calls to Monticello but rather a quick text to my brother, since she’s a family friend. An old-style daughter of Virginia, she wanted to remain anonymous. Still, she was interested in drinking what her illustrious ancestor drank.
Only one problem remained.
“She doesn’t really like beer,” my brother texted.
And so a few nights later, the daughter of Jefferson and the sons of the author of the first Yiddish novel – actually, we think that might be a family exaggeration – sat in front of a tall, brown bottle. Out of it poured a light-copper brew with a giant head. Smooth, with some fruit and spice at the end, we eyed her verdict.
“I liked it,” she said. “Maybe it’s a genetic thing.”
For further reading on Jefferson’s love of beer visit http://wiki.monticello.org/mediawiki/index.php/Beer.
-- by Matt Gottlieb