The ‘first foodie’, Thomas Jefferson, was also a beer pioneer


Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello. Photo: Michael Bailey Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello. Photo: Michael Bailey

Like many of us normal folk, Thomas Jefferson enjoyed beer with his dinner. Like others of us, Jefferson enjoyed beer enough to learn how to make it himself at home. He was also wise enough to initially learn the art he performed during his brewdays from his literal alewife, Martha Jefferson. His success with brewing was followed by a headfirst plunge into texts on the science of malting, brewing, and fermentation.

It’s hard not to be inspired by the undertakings of homebrewer Jefferson, and his custom-designed brewhouse and cellar at Monticello. A man possessed, Jefferson became the kind of homebrewer few modern brewers could rival by kilning his own malt, a process so precise and laborious that few—if any—commercial brewers do it today. For the unfamiliar, the kilning of malted barley is the largest contributor to final beer color and also contributes significantly to flavor. The process also requires a significant amount of space, which while not exactly a problem at Monticello, speaks nonetheless to the degree to which Jefferson revered his beer.

Jefferson is often referred to as “the first foodie,” and that title can be extended to the local ingredient renaissance as well. Jefferson brewed his beers with malt and hops sourced locally, which no doubt resulted in a distinctly regional beer not unlike those found in Europe. In defense of today’s homebrewer, it was more likely less expensive to source locally back then, which is not the case in the marketplace today. Economies of scale require large volumes of malt and hop production in order to create an affordable wholesale price. This writer and brewer very much looks forward to the day that Virginia malt and hop production meets demand for local brewers, so that we may make Jefferson proud.

Another means in which Jefferson was a brewing pioneer is in the use of adjuncts (see Beerspeak 101), such as corn. Corn and rice are used on a large commercial brewing scale in order to save on cost and produce a higher alcohol percentage. Although these “adjunct beers” are widely regarded today as being of lesser quality, they may in fact be the beverages that first appeared in the now-famous silver Jefferson cups. As someone who has received several as gifts at milestones, I am particularly inspired to learn that these may have first been filled with beer.

Jefferson would also likely be proud of our current President, with whom, politics aside, he shares the joy of homebrewing. President Obama has been celebrated for making and also sharing the recipe for a White House Honey Ale and a White House Honey Porter, both made with honey produced from the first ever beehive on the South Lawn. Given his predilection for local ingredients, brewing, and beer, it’s an easy assumption that Jefferson would be all about this inaugural White House homebrew, and one can only hope that it provides equipment and information sufficient to continue production through presidential terms to come.

It is a genuine pleasure to be a part of an increasingly vibrant beer scene within the viewshed of Monticello, where brewers continue Jefferson’s tradition of brewing with traditional and non-traditional ingredients in the interest of providing the best beer possible for the area. This writer has a hard time envisioning another area where you simply have to look up for inspiration when it comes to brewing quality products for a passionate populace. As it does for so many aspects of daily life, the legacy and history of Jefferson continues to inspire brewers and beer consumers alike: respecting and reflecting history while constantly looking ahead to the next approach.

Adjuncts (n.): Unmalted grains (such as corn, rice, rye, oats, barley, and wheat) used in brewing beer. They supplement the main mash ingredients (such as malted barley), often with the intention of cutting costs, but sometimes to create an additional feature, such as better foam retention.

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