A Colorado brewery is recreating a wheat ale originally made by Monticello chef and brewer Peter Hemings.

By Sarah Kuta
Updated July 13, 2020
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Courtesy of Avery Brewing

After visiting Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation in Virginia, friends and neighbors often wrote to him afterward asking for the recipe for his beer. "Some years past I recollect to have drunk some ale at Monticello which I understood was of your own brewing,” wrote James Barbour, a U.S. Senator and former governor from Virginia, in April 1821. “You will oblige me much by furnishing me with a copy of the recipe as soon as your convenience will permit."

But while delicious beer was a hallmark of Monticello, it wasn’t Jefferson who was responsible for the drink—it was his one of his many slaves, a talented chef and brewer named Peter Hemings.

Though Jefferson researched and wrote extensively about brewing , Hemings was the real brewmaster at Monticello. And now, with a new beer inspired by an 1822 recipe from Monticello, Avery Brewing in Boulder, Colorado, is sharing Hemings’ story in hopes of giving him the credit and recognition he deserves as one of America’s pioneering craft brewers.

The beer, called Monticello, is a persimmon wheat ale that tastes like a blend of apples, tomatoes, pears, and peaches, along with malted wheat, bran, English hops, and English yeast.

Released on President’s Day and available at Avery’s taproom until it’s sold out, the beer highlights the murky, complicated legacy of one of our nation’s founding fathers.

Courtesy of Avery Brewing

Jefferson, who served as America’s third president from 1801 to 1809, accomplished a lot—writing the Declaration of Independence, for one—but he also owned hundreds of slaves, including Sally Hemings, with whom he had a decades-long nonconsensual sexual relationship.

“It is an unavoidable truth. Jefferson did a lot of amazing things, but he was also one of the largest slave owners of any of the presidents,” said Travis Rupp, Avery Brewing’s beer archaeologist and innovation and wood cellar manager. “We have to tell the story of Thomas Jefferson, but it’s not his beer. It’s a celebration of the people who brewed beer at Monticello, and that just so happens to be Peter Hemings. We’re talking about something so critical to our culture, and this beer was made by a slave.”

Historians at Monticello also aim to tell the complete story about Jefferson. Since 1993, Monticello has conducted oral interviews with the descendents of people enslaved there to preserve and highlight their individual stories.

Monticello also recently unveiled an exhibit dedicated to Sally Hemings, who had no power to stop her owner’s advances and gave birth to at least six children fathered by Jefferson.

“Our big-picture goal for interpreting slavery is to bring forward the complexities of life for Jefferson, but also to complicate his legacy,” says Niya Bates, Monticello’s director of African American history. “What we’re seeking to do is tell a story that shows Jefferson as a flawed founding father, someone who had big visions for what America could be, but ultimately was impacted by this peculiar institution of slavery. Where do enslaved people and their descendents fit into this greater American story about democracy and freedom?”

Avery Brewing has been exploring beers throughout world history with its Ales of Antiquity initiative since 2016. The project is led by Rupp, who also teaches archeology and art history at the University of Colorado Boulder. His archaeological beer research has led to the creation of a George Washington porter, a 1752 India pale ale, and a beer inspired by ancient Egypt, among others. He’s currently researching beer consumed by Roman soldiers stationed along Hadrian’s Wall in Britain during the second century CE, as well as beer discovered aboard the Vasa, a Swedish warship that sank off the coast of Stockholm in 1628.

To replicate Peter Hemings’ beer, Rupp spent months researching Jefferson, Hemings, and brewing at Monticello. He learned that Peter Hemings was the son of Elizabeth Hemings, an enslaved woman owned by Thomas Jefferson’s father-in-law, John Wayles. Jefferson inherited Peter Hemings, his siblings—including his sister Sally Hemings and older brother James Hemings—and his mother from Wayles’ estate in 1774.

Courtesy of Monticello / Thomas Jefferson Foundation

In the late 1780s, James Hemings traveled with Jefferson to Paris, where he learned the French style of cooking. When they returned to America, the two men struck a deal: if James Hemings trained a successor to become Monticello’s chef, Jefferson would free him.

James Hemings trained his younger brother Peter Hemings to become his replacement; Jefferson kept his word, granting James Hemings his freedom in 1796.

Peter Hemings, meanwhile, served as Monticello’s main chef from that point forward, until 1809. In the fall of 1813, Peter Hemings learned brewing and malting from Joseph Miller, a master brewer who had been trained in England. It’s likely that Peter Hemings was the first Black person in America to be professionally trained as a brewer.

“Peter joined an elite staff of enslaved people who established fine dining and entertainment in America,” said Bates. “It’s the foundation upon which the entire industry is built. None of these people are hobby chefs or hobby brewers; this is a way of life. If you want beer, you have to train someone to make beer. If you want fine pastries, you have to train someone to do that. In all of the Monticello examples, these men and women trained for a minimum of five years for their positions.”

Since slaves were not encouraged to read or write (and were more often prohibited from doing so), there’s no record of how Peter Hemings thought or felt about his life, said Gayle Jessup White, a descendent of the Jefferson and Hemings families who serves as Monticello’s public relations and community engagement officer.

From letters, however, historians know that Jefferson appeared to think highly of Peter Hemings. Writing to James Madison, Jefferson described Peter Hemings as “uncommonly intelligent,” for example.

“Keep in mind that Jefferson wrote some of the most abusive and racist language regarding Black people on the one hand,” said Jessup White. “On the other hand, you have him describing an enslaved person, a Black person as ‘uncommonly intelligent.’ Add that to the paradox of Jefferson and the way he analyzed and perceived the people he enslaved.”

After Jefferson’s death in 1826, a free relative purchased Peter Hemings for $1 during an auction on Monticello’s West Lawn under a “gentleman’s agreement,” Jessup White said. Peter Hemings, then in his late 50s, lived out the rest of his life as a free man, working as a tailor in nearby Charlottesville. Unfortunately, his story doesn’t have a tidy happy ending, as his wife and children remained enslaved, Jessup White said.

Today, craft brewing is overwhelmingly white and male, an issue the industry is well aware of and has taken steps to remedy. But throughout history, the opposite has been true—women and slaves were largely responsible for brewing beer.

“In our time, it’s been easy to associate brewing and craft beer with a particular demographic—white men of a particular age with a particular background. That’s who gets to claim American craft brewing,” Bates said. “But when you talk about Peter Hemings, you correct that historical inaccuracy. The root of American brewing is in someone like Peter Hemings. It’s in the enslaved people who perfected this process.”

Throughout his work as an archaeologist and brewer, Rupp said he’s been very aware that people like him—white, cisgender, and straight—often ignore the stories of people who don’t fit that same description. His role as a historian and educator, he said, is to help amplify those often-overlooked stories.

“It is my duty to (stop) that tradition and tell the true story of beer at Monticello and celebrate the man responsible for brewing it,” Rupp said. “Peter Hemings' story must be told. The dehumanizing treatment of the Hemings family and all enslaved people at Monticello left them voiceless and often faceless.”

For her part, Jessup White is happy that enslaved families and individuals are starting to garner some attention in the modern era, through beer or otherwise.

She hopes that Americans of all identities are inspired by what people like Peter Hemings were able to accomplish, even while facing the physical and psychological obstacles of slavery. His story also serves as a grave reminder of slavery’s indiscriminate cruelty—even as a distinguished and highly trained brewer, Peter Hemings was still treated as property.

“Telling stories of the enslaved is essential for us to understand who we are as Americans,” Jessup White said. “Recognizing Peter Hemings’ contributions and recognizing the Black community he represents, there’s an acknowledgement of his humanity. That’s why these stories are so important, because [enslaved people] stop being this vague Black, brown, tan monolith in history and they start becoming real.”