Martha's malt? New brews at Monticello
It’s no news that Thomas Jefferson was quite the wine connoisseur, but did you know that beer was actually the dinner beverage of choice at Monticello? Thanks to a newly restored and furnished Beer Cellar– part of a larger project to restore all of the dependencies– visitors to the underbelly of Jefferson’s mountaintop home can now learn about the history and process of brewing and storing beer long before Michelob and micro-brews.
In addition to an illustrated reader rail, the cellar is filled with historically accurate reproductions of wooden casks and boxes, stoneware and glass bottles, and other items related to beer and ale in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
It was actually Martha, not Thomas, who introduced brewing to Monticello when she arrived in 1772. Like other ladies in plantations across this young nation, she supervised the production of “small”– or low alcohol content– beer. The contents of the 15-gallon cask she brewed just about every two weeks in the fall and spring disappeared quickly down thirsty throats.
“Brewing beer is a lot like making bread,’ says Monticello curator Susan Stein. “It’s more than just a process. You have to have a feel for it, which Martha clearly did.” After her death in 1782, the casks went dry, and Thomas was forced to purchase beer elsewhere-– that is, until his own thirst for scientific knowledge led him to actively pursue the construction and operation of a serious brewery at Monticello.
Offering assistance and expertise was Joseph Miller, a London-trained brewer who was held in Albemarle during the war of 1812. At this time, Miller taught Peter Hemings, a versatile Monticello slave (he served as cook and tailor), everything he knew about malting and brewing. In no time, Monticello’s new brewmaster was producing 100 gallons of ale every season in an elegant, Jefferson-designed brewhouse.
Greene County brewmaster Emmett Boaz notes that “100 gallons of ale would not have gone far with the large number of people typically in residence at Monticello.” (And he should know. “I’ve been brewing beer since I was way too young to be supposed to drink it,” he says.)
According to Jefferson, Hemings learned brewing “with entire success” and possessed “great intelligence and diligence, both of which are necessary.” As a sign of Jefferson’s confidence in his brewer’s abilities, he invited James Madison to send an apprentice to Monticello in 1820 to learn brewing directly from Hemings and subsequently spread the good cheer around Albemarle County.
So the next time you’re up at Monticello, make sure not to miss the fascinating micro-history lessons found in the passageway underneath Jefferson’s main house. In addition to the Beer Cellar, three other recently restored and furnished dependencies-– the Cook’s Room, North Privy, and Storage Room-– are now open to visitors.
Monticello is open during the summer 8am to 5pm. Adults $13, children 6-11, $6, under 6, free. Albemarle and Charlottesville residents $6, free when accompanying a paying guest. Children 11 and under, accompanying parent, free. Route 20 south. 984-9896.