Thomas Jefferson—beer nerd? New Champion release honors TJ’s personal brewer

Research by J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham, a Randolph College professor and beer historian, inspired a new brew based on one made more than 200 years ago. Photo: Good Beer Hunting Research by J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham, a Randolph College professor and beer historian, inspired a new brew based on one made more than 200 years ago. Photo: Good Beer Hunting

Thomas Jefferson was not an IPA guy.

We know this thanks to the scholarly efforts of J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham, a Randolph College professor, whose research provides a fascinating account of the work of Jefferson’s enslaved brewer, Peter Hemings, a son of Elizabeth Hemings. Jackson-Beckham’s recently published article, “Missing Ingredients—The (Incomplete) Story of Thomas Jefferson’s Unsung Brewer,” inspired a new offering from Champion Brewing Company, created in collaboration with the professor and media company Good Beer Hunting. Called Intelligence and Diligence—qualities that Jefferson himself attributed to Hemings—the beer will be on tap at an upcoming event at Champion.

Jackson-Beckham’s article evolved from a tale she had often heard repeated during her decade studying the beer industry: America’s founding fathers all brewed their own beer. Given the hard labor of brewing—especially in the colonial era—Jackson-Beckham was skeptical. “The narrative always struck me as implausible,” she says.

In search of the truth, the Lynchburg resident started at Monticello, where, she learned, much of the beer was made by Peter Hemings, whose mother was a sister of Jefferson’s mistress Sally Hemings. As Jackson-Beckham’s article recounts, Hemings learned to brew while he was the principal cook at Jefferson’s estate. In 1821, Governor James Barbour—the namesake of Barboursville—enjoyed the beer so much during a stay at Monticello that he later wrote to Jefferson, asking for the recipe. Jefferson replied that he doubted someone could replicate Hemings’ magic from a recipe alone. The president credited the beer’s quality, in part, to his “servant of great intelligence and diligence, both of which are necessary.”

While Jackson-Beckham failed to discover an actual recipe, her findings were sufficient to create one closely approximating Hemings’ formula—with a modern twist. Jefferson wrote glowingly of Hemings’ brew, except once, when he noted that it had been “spoiled” by “over-hopping.” Given today’s popularity of aggressively hopped beers, Jackson-Beckham wonders whether Hemings may have been 200 years ahead of his time.

And so, Intelligence and Diligence is an homage to the Hemings beer Jefferson said was spoiled. As Hemings likely would have done, Champion and its brewing collaborators started with wheat and corn (along with a little barley for contemporary tastes). To that, they added a healthy dose of Magnum hops. The result is a hoppy wheat ale, 5.6 percent ABV and 56 IBU. Champion’s lead brewer Josh Skinner describes it as clean, bitter, and effervescent with dominant wheat flavors and subtle corn sweetness.

Champion founder Hunter Smith says he’s honored to be part of a project that celebrates the legacy of one of our area’s earliest brewers. The beer, Smith says, “represents another way Monticello and Charlottesville are making efforts to better understand the past and reconcile that with present realities.”

Want a taste?

The Intelligence and Diligence release party takes place at 5pm, February 22, at Champion, 324 Sixth St. SE. The first 50 guests will receive a commemorative glass; copies of Jackson-Beckham’s article, and the author herself will be on hand.

Correction February 14: The original version misidentified Jackson-Beckham as a Randolph-Macon professor instead of Randolph College in Lynchburg where she’s on the faculty.