The Thomas Jefferson Beer Academy

thomas jefferson on a beer stamp

Four score and long before it was called craft beer.

We pay homage to Old Dominion’s most philosophical president – a man who saw a great republic… and filled it with great domestic beer.

When creating a national identity from scratch, the devil is in the details. A constitution is one thing, but what a nation drinks after a long day is what really binds us together. People won’t just drink anything…well some people will, but that comes with its own problems. How a culture gathers to talk about the day says a lot more about us that anything our politicos dream up.

As American society grew into its own, the Founding Fathers sought ways separate themselves from the status quo of the old country. Men like Thomas Jefferson saw the world through the prism of scientific process which required empirical observation – or more to the point, tinkering. To wean the new republic off the Old World’s teat he encouraged Americans to make their own brew and grow their own hemp. Despite what every high school sophomore will tell you, and in spite of some of the things he wrote, Jefferson never smoked the hemp he grew on his plantation, Monticello. The hemp was for making rope; the brew was for taking the edge off.

In his heart Jefferson was a wine enthusiast – just not a very good one. For that matter he wasn’t a very good farmer either. Records show that he was replanting Monticello’s vineyards almost annually – suggesting that his quest for a wine that was “not exactly the same kinds [as in Europe], but doubtless as good” was doomed. If anyone was going to unlock the secret of bringing European wine to the New World before modern pesticides, it was going to be Jefferson. Sadly, it didn’t happen.

Still, the man knew something about beer. Before she died in 1782, Jefferson’s wife Martha made some 15 gallons of small beer every week for the house. Do the math. As a man of science, Jefferson’s endorsements were sought after. In 1804, Michael Krafft dedicated his book, American Distiller, to Jefferson to “safe against its falling into a general wreck of oblivion.”

Jefferson was delighted. His response revels a very Zen approach to life before any white people knew what Zen meant. “Hitherto chemistry has scarcely deigned to look to the occupations of domestic life…The art of distillation which you propose to explain, besides its household uses, is valuable to the agriculturalist, as it enables him to put his superfluous grain into a form which will bear long transportation to markets to which the raw material could never get.”

Jefferson's Monticello estate.

Jefferson’s Monticello estate.

In 1812 Jefferson was caught up in the scientific process of making beer and the young Republic was at odds with its former masters. Being a man of vision, Jefferson turned Monticello into a one-man prisoner of war camp. His prisoner: a retired English Captain, one Joseph Miller.

Miller wasn’t even a combatant. He’d been trying to immigrate to Norfolk with his daughter to claim the Virginia estate left him by his late half-brother. They’d left England before they even knew the war had started. During the crossing, the Millers were detoured by a French warship and a British blockade – which takes some time. When they finally arrived in Norfolk (six months late) Miller was refused his claim because he was English. In the midst of all this foolishness, he met Jefferson whose attention was grabbed on learning that Miller had been trained as a brewer in England.

For his own “safety” Jefferson suggested Miller be interned for the duration of the war at Monticello, where construction on a state-of-the-art brew house was started. Miller set about teaching a slave, Peter Hemmings, the art of brewing. Peter’s mother, for the record, was the famous Sally Hemmings; his father was…well sometimes you just can’t tell about these things.

The new brew house was ready in 1814 and so were Jefferson’s prisoner of war, Miller, as well as his slave (and probable son), Hemmings. Disregarding the moral and tax consequences of the arrangement, the first batch kegged was a roaring success. Soon his neighbors were coming about, sponging dinner invitations and trying to get the recipe. Incidentally, those famous silver Jefferson cups were not originally intended for bourbon, but beer. Smallish to be sure, but if you had to slake the entire county, you’d use dainty cups too. He was pulling the best beer around, so no one seemed to care that Jefferson was living with an enemy alien and his confused daughter whose countrymen had just burned down the US capital. Neighbors can be like that.

With the end of the war in 1815, Captain Miller left Monticello to claim his estate in Norfolk, VA. The place was well shabby after years of neglect and to make matters worse the neighbors decided to hate him for being a foreigner. This was pretty thick in a country that didn’t exist 40 years ago and even thicker considering that Miller had actually been born in Maryland. Still, his career options were limited. The Captain returned to Monticello to keep making wicked good beer with Hemmings (Perhaps the intelligentsia through the ages is never as clever as it claims to be. It was Hemmings who saw that barley was expensive and came from far away, but Jefferson’s farms and the surrounding continent was lousy with Indian corn, so why not malt it instead?).

Jefferson started to write his cronies in Washington to get his perpetual houseguest re-naturalized and eventually did. In the meantime, Hemmings’ fame grew throughout the county. Jefferson, who was generous to a fault if you were white, loaned Hemmings out to the neighbors as a traveling one-man brewing academy.

As the founder of the University of Virginia, Jefferson thought man should never stop learning, even if just for knowledge’s sake. He was glad to spread such “household” knowledge throughout the country.

Mr. Hemmings’ thoughts on this arrangement are unrecorded.

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Writer, humorist. Have covered tomfoolery across Hell’s half acre and Clarksdale, MS. Former brewer of Murffbrau – then did the world a favor and stopped.

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