On Presidents’ Day (Monday, February 21) Starr Hill Brewery in collaboration with The Thomas Jefferson Foundation will debut Monticello Reserve Ale, the official beer of Monticello. This beer is the culmination of cooperative research and brewing project involving one of Monticello’s Assistant Curators Justin Sarafin, Starr Hill’s Master Brewer Mark Thompson, and Lead Brewer Levi Duncan.
Beer, sometimes referred to as “table liquors” during the Colonial period, was made during two different periods at Monticello. In the early 1770’s Martha Jefferson supervised brewing using malt and hops that were grown and purchased locally. Brewing seems to have dropped off beginning the late 1700s while Jefferson was effectively absent from Monticello with various official duties. However, production of beer began shortly after Jefferson’s retirement from office and return to Monticello in 1809. In 1813 Jefferson met with Joseph Miller, an Englishman with knowledge of brewing who was stranded in the United States during the war of 1812. At Jefferson’s request, Miller instructed Peter Hemings, an enslaved person at Monticello, in malting and brewing.
For all Jefferson’s meticulous record-keeping, he did not write down his beer recipe. In response to a beer recipe request from former governor James Barbour, 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.”
So what beer did Starr Hill and Monticello brew up?
The genesis of this project was the intersection of Mark Thompson’s interest in Jefferson’s success as a brewer (in contrast to his essential failure as a winemaker) and Monticello’s continuing research on Monticello’s architecture (the 1814 brewhouse), enslaved people like Peter Hemings, and Jefferson himself.
In the absence of a true recipe, Assistant Curator Justin Sarafin and the brewing team at Starr Hill conducted research to create a brew that would likely resemble Jefferson’s own. They consulted (among other things) Jefferson’s growing records, purchasing records, and Michael Combrune’s “Theory and Practice of Brewing” (circa 1804). It was known that in an effort towards self-sufficiency, Jefferson grew his own wheat, corn, and hops specifically for brewing beer. The team postulated that Jefferson’s beer was likely a “combination of wheat and corn, lightly hopped.” After researching what were the popular hop varieties of the day and what was available in Virginia at the time, it was determined that the most likely hop variety was East Kent Golding. Using the same process it was deduced that the most likely yeast variety was Ale Yeast.
Starr Hill/Monticello describes the beer as “an unfiltered American wheat style beer made with wheat and corn. East Kent Golding hops add a citrus and earthy aroma. The taste is very light on the palate with a clean finish. Wheat is the biggest flavor contributor but corn flavor is present. The color is golden.”
I have always been quite open about the fact that I am not much of a beer reviewer, and I specialize in profiling people and places rather than flavors. That being said… when I sampled the Monticello Reserve Ale at today’s media preview the first thing that came to mind was “American Adjunct Light Lager.” Now, I know this is an ale and not a lager, but I’m just speaking to what my taste buds told me. I tasted a strong corn sweetness and didn’t notice the flavor that I expect from “an unfiltered American wheat style beer” where corn is a contributing but not a dominant flavor.
As I am not a beer reviewer per se, I encourage you to try this beer when it comes to the DC area if you are curious. Let us know what you think.
WHERE TO BUY
For the first 6+ months, Monticello Reserve Ale will be sold in 750 ml bottles at the Monticello Visitor Center Museum Shop and available in 750 ml bottles ($12.95 retail) and on tap through Starr Hill’s distributor, Virginia Eagle in the Central VA region. The beer will be released to the rest of Virginia in late 2011 and to the Mid-Atlantic region in 2012.