New book details Charlottesville’s beer history

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Lee Graves started writing about Virginia’s craft-beer scene in 1996 for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. His latest book, Charlottesville Beer, traces the area’s beer history from Thomas Jefferson’s father’s homebrewing to our plethora of craft beer options. Photo courtesy of subject Lee Graves started writing about Virginia’s craft-beer scene in 1996 for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. His latest book, Charlottesville Beer, traces the area’s beer history from Thomas Jefferson’s father’s homebrewing to our plethora of craft beer options. Photo courtesy of subject

Fans of locally made craft beer have long felt that we had something special happening here. Now there is a book to reinforce that. Author and journalist Lee Graves has written Charlottesville Beer, documenting the history of area brewing and outlining the current state of the industry.

While working as a journalist in Richmond, Graves witnessed the birth of Legend Brewery in 1994. It was Richmond’s first microbrewery, and because Graves was a well-traveled beer-lover who had been to Germany and England, the Richmond Times-Dispatch put him on the regional beer beat a few years later.

That was a time when most people still thought that green bottles meant fancy beer.

“My best friend was a beer geek,” Graves says. “We used to be very adventurous. We came to Charlottesville to try Blue Ridge [Brewing Company], which was the first brewpub in the state. …I was looking around the state and Charlottesville was happening.”

Graves watched as Blue Ridge was bought and transformed into Starr Hill, and South Street and other small breweries began to pop up all over town.

CharlottesvilleBeer_CourtesyAuthorLocal beer hounds probably already know some of that history. But what comes as a surprise in Graves’ book is that the story of beer in Albemarle County likely starts with the estate of Peter Jefferson, father of Thomas Jefferson. His wife, Jane Jefferson, would have been in charge of brewing the household’s staple beer. In the households of both Peter and Thomas Jefferson, slaves were involved in brewing beer and growing the raw ingredients.

“In doing the research for the book I stumbled across something that I want to raise awareness of,” says Graves, “and that is the role of slaves in growing and selling hops. There’s instances of slaves growing and selling hops back to the plantation owner: Bagwell Grainger selling 60 pounds of hops to Thomas Jefferson for 20 bucks in 1816 is an eye-popper. Plus, Peter Hemings, I would love to have some recognition of him.”

Hemings was the brother of Sally Hemings, a slave who was widely believed to have had a sexual relationship with Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson arranged for Peter Hemings to be trained by a former professional brewer from London. This likely raised the quality of Monticello’s beer above the hearthside kitchen beers that had previously been made in Albemarle County.

Charlottesville went dry well before Prohibition became federal law. Graves says that in June 1907, 430 votes were cast for banning alcohol while 390 voted against the ban.

But local brewing continued behind closed doors even during Prohibition. According to Graves, William “Reddy” Echols, professor of mathematics and the namesake of UVA’s Echols Scholars Program, made his first illicit batch in 1919. The results were poor, but in 1920 he managed “an excellent stout—with good flavor and alcoholic strength.”

After Prohibition, the area was as much of a beer wasteland as most of the U.S.: Lagers like Budweiser and Schlitz were all that was available. But that lack of decent beer in Charlottesville turned out to be an important part of starting the craft beer revolution that eventually changed the entire American beer landscape. It was right here at the University of Virginia where Charlie Papazian, father of the craft beer movement, studied nuclear engineering and first encountered homemade beer in the early 1970s.

He met a neighbor off of Montebello Circle who was making his own beer. Invited to taste it, Papazian was impressed and realized what he had been missing by only drinking commercially produced beer.

According to Graves, Papazian’s first recipe called for a can of Blue Ribbon malt extract, sugar, water and yeast. Laughably primitive by today’s homebrewing standards, it was still far better than what was commercially available at the time. Papazian began brewing his own beer and teaching friends in his apartment on Jefferson Park Avenue.

Papazian went on to write The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, which soon became the default text for anyone interested in making his own beer. He also founded the American Homebrewers Association and the Brewers Association, which is now the major trade group representing American craft brewers.

Small breweries are everywhere in Virginia today, but Graves thinks the Charlottesville and Albemarle beer scene is unique within the Commonwealth, largely because it emerged first.

“If you look at the history in Charlottesville, all of these breweries started before the current boom,” Graves says. “The first beer tourism trail [The Brew Ridge Trail], that’s been a model for the rest of the state.”

Charlottesville had a built-in advantage as a beer region because of the open-mindedness of its residents, and access to ingredients.

“I think the community of Charlottesville is very smart, very hip, very open to new ideas,” Graves says. “Plus there is a really strong agricultural community surrounding Charlottesville. These days the use of local ingredients has propelled a lot of the current boom. Charlottesville has always been percolating with new ideas, and I think beer just happened to fall in there.”

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