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Beer with presidential aspirations

Greg Kitsock
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, February 22, 2011; 9:44 AM

The 100 or so guests who attended President Obama's Super Bowl party had a choice of beer to match their team loyalties. Steelers fans could chug a Yuengling from Pennsylvania. Packers backers could pick from a pale ale, amber ale and stout shipped from Hinterland Brewing in Green Bay, Wis.

Those without a favorite could maintain their neutrality by quaffing the presidential home-brew, White House Honey Ale.

"This is the first batch we've done, so we're still new to the process," said Semonti M. Stephens, deputy communications director for first lady Michelle Obama. Several White House chefs worked on the beer, she added, incorporating a pound of honey harvested from beehives on the South Lawn, part of the White House garden.

Altogether, the first batch yielded "90 to 100" 12-ounce bottles, Stephens added, which would equal close to 10 gallons of beer (not an unusually large amount for home-brew). "It was very well received," she said, noting that no leftovers remained - disappointing news for this reviewer.

Stephens could not give any specific information about the home-brewing gear, save that the president paid for it out of his own pocket.

Could this have been the first home-brew made here in the 210-year history of the president's house?

Thomas Jefferson, who occupied the executive mansion a little over two centuries ago, was fond of beer. "I wish to see this beverage become common instead of the whiskey which kills one third of our citizens and ruins their families," he once wrote.

But did Jefferson find time to brew during his White House days? "I wouldn't rule it out, but I don't know the answer," answers Justin Sarafin, assistant curator at Monticello, Jefferson's estate in Charlottesville.

There is no question, however, that Jefferson in his retirement began home-brewing on a large scale. In an 1821 letter to fellow ex-president James Madison, he wrote that he brewed three 60-gallon casks each fall, and one cask in the spring, at Monticello. Jefferson assigned the task to one of his slaves, Peter Hemings. The brother of the more famous Sally Hemings learned to make beer from Joseph Miller, an English brewer and sea captain who had been stranded in the United States when the War of 1812 erupted.

"Jefferson was America's first microbrewer," asserts Mark Thompson, founder of Starr Hill Brewing in Crozet, Va. Starr Hill has partnered with Jefferson's estate in releasing Monticello Reserve Ale, which went on sale on Presidents' Day at the Monticello gift shop and cafe.

By no means is this the first Jefferson tribute beer. Nick Funnell, head brewer at the Sweetwater Tavern in Centreville, brewed a Thomas Jefferson Ale when he worked for Dock Street Brewing in Philadelphia, and Yards Brewing in that city still makes a Thomas Jefferson Tavern Ale.

But Monticello Reserve Ale differs from those two - and, indeed, from most other commercial beers - in that it contains no barley. Jefferson never jotted down a recipe for beer, but he grew no barley on his estate. He might have bought barley malt for his early experiments in brewing, speculates Sarafin. But in an age before 7-Elevens dotted the land, when widely scattered rural estates needed to be as self-sufficient as possible, he would have "grown and used as much material from his plantation as possible."

Thompson used grains that Jefferson did grow, formulating his beer from 95 percent wheat and 5 percent corn grits. Monticello Reserve Ale pours a bright straw gold with a creamy white head. It's got a bready aroma with a light, citrusy tang, a hint of sticky corn sweetness in the finish and an underpinning of earthy, spicy hops. Thompson used East Kent Goldings, an English variety that he judged most akin to the hops Jefferson grew at Monticello. At 5.5 percent alcohol by volume, the beer is only slightly stronger than the typical mass-market brand.

The unusual grain bill raised some problems in brewing. Barley kernels are surrounded by a husk that acts as a natural straining device during lautering, the act of separating the sugar-rich liquid from the soggy grain. Wheat, lacking that husk, tends to make a gooey mess. Thompson eases the lautering process by fashioning a filter bed out of flavor-neutral rice hulls. Even so, the beer takes an extra hour or two to make, he says.

Monticello Reserve Ale is a pleasant, summery beer that could give Bell's Oberon (one of the better-selling American wheat ales) a run for its money, except for two factors. The first is distribution. For the time being it will be available only at Monticello and a few places in the Charlottesville area. Thompson plans to introduce it to the rest of Virginia by late 2011 and to the rest of the Mid-Atlantic by 2012.

Then there's price: $12.95 for a 750-milliliter bottle. Will drinkers pay a premium for a beer that's rich in history if not malt, hops or exotic spices? "I don't know if this is a souvenir type of thing or if it will have large-scale appeal," Thompson says.

If it's any incentive, part of the profits from the beer sales will be diverted back to the upkeep of Monticello, notes Sarafin. And that is where Thompson and Jefferson diverge; Jefferson never sold his beer. "Along with cider, it was one of his table liquors at dinner," Sarafin says.

Likewise, the White House's Stephens says "Oh, no!" with a laugh when asked if the president has any plans to go commercial with his home-brew. The alcohol trade being more tightly regulated than in Jefferson's day, that would violate federal law.

A pity. Can you imagine patriotic Americans responding in droves if they are asked to pay down the national debt one mug at a time?

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