Mark Thompson has collaborated with the staff at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation to rediscover from Jefferson’s detailed notebooks the flavorful beer that the President enjoyed when he dined at his Monticello estate.
The resulting research has uncovered a nearly lost tale of courage, romance, politics, pirates and, of course, great beer. And as all great stories do, this story begins with a great love story.
In 1772 the young Virginia lawyer Thomas Jefferson married Martha Wayles in what was to become a devoted marriage of two soul mates. Martha became the guiding mistress of the Jefferson former bachelor estate and there brewed 15 gallons of “small beer’, a beer with a low alcoholic content, about every two weeks for her husband’s enjoyment and use.
The deep affection between the two resulted in a long string of pregnancies that eventually weakened Martha’s health. Finally in 1782 Martha died at the early age of 33. Jefferson locked himself in his room to grieve and weep for three weeks. He never remarried.
Jefferson soon accepted a position as the American Commissioner to France shortly thereafter. And for the next 26 years Jefferson’s efforts to help establish the American nation on firm ground often kept him away from his beloved Monticello.
Once he had completed his second term as president, he left government service exhausted and very, very gladly returned to the calm and quiet of his beloved country estate. There he began to actively brew beer again, using the wheat and corn grown on his own estate to create a “table liquor” for his many arriving guests.
Enters Captain Joseph Miller, gentleman farmer AND master brewer. Captain Miller and his young daughter Mary Ann were Americans with deep English roots, but Miller chose to side with the young nation over Britain. In 1812 the Captain boarded the sailing ship Lydia with his daughter to return home to America.
It would take over six long months to complete his trip. While enroute to the States, the War of 1812 broke out between England and America as Great Britain sought to reclaim her former colony. Their boat was boarded mid-Atlantic first by French privateers and then detained by the British navy.
When they finally arrived on American shores, they were forced to sail northward to find an open port as the ports of the deep south were closed to any ships from England. Then their boat was destroyed in a massive sea storm outside Norfolk, Virginia. Luckily they survived the wreck.
Once on dry land, their problems had only begun. Because of his long residence in England, Miller’s citizenship was questioned, making it impossible for him to claim the American estate he had just inherited from his late half-brother.
The submission of various required paperwork in order to claim his estate took him into the region of Virginia where Jefferson lived. There he met the former president and soon they were good friends.
Jefferson, who was interested in all things scientific, appreciated and admired Captain Miller’s indepth knowledge about both the art AND science of brewing. He asked Miller to come to Monticello and review his country production methods. Because of his professional skill, Miller was able to offer Jefferson several important ideas for improving his beer.
At Jefferson’s request, he stayed and began to teach the very talented house slave Peter Hemings, who was also a trained French cook, the art of malting and brewing. In return Jefferson supported Miller’s lengthy appeal for the rights of his disputed American citizenship through a constant stream of letters and petitions to officals.
All the while, the rich ale unique to Monticello flowed and was enjoyed by the many visitors arriving, served in silver tumblers as they marveled at the many inventions Jefferson had created in his treasured world of order and purpose. Sadly after his death, Jefferson’s heirs were unable to maintain the now debt-burdened property.
It a little known fact that Monticello (and its valuable records, including those about beer brewing) was saved by the Uriah P. Levy family. Commodore Levy was the first American of Jewish heritage to receive a commission in the U.S. Navy. When Monticello was near collapse, Commodore Levy bought it in 1834 and worked throughout his lifetime to preserve its unique and vital heritage.
Interestingly, it was Thomas Jefferson who wrote the nation's first laws guaranteeing religious freedom to all, the same laws that Commodore Levy revered and that still protect each citizen today. That’s something we should all raise a glass to and now we can do it with Jefferson’s very own beer.
Thank you Thomas Jefferson Foundation and Happy Presidents’ Day!
Your Culinary World copyright Ana Kinkaid/Peter Schlagel 2011