Jeffersonian Ale

Last month I accompanied my wife and son on a short vacation which I called the “two dead presidents and a battleship tour”.  We visited the USS New Jersey battleship in Camden, New Jersey, then swung down near the nation’s capital to visit Mount Vernon.  Both of these sites are well worth a visit, if you are at all interested in history.  The New Jersey is an impressive ship, and standing on the bridge that once held Admiral Halsey as he fought the Pacific war is inspiring.  If you go I recommend a guided tour with a docent.  Ours served on the ship during the 1950’s and his stories, insights,  and perspectives added a real personal feel to a great gray hunk of steel.  In a different way, Mount Vernon is inspiring, perched high on a hill overlooking ht Potomac River.  It is a tribute George Washington as a leader – not only a general but an astute business man and inventor who effectively managed his personal affairs as well as the Continental Army. Go if you can.

That said, we wrapped up our short tour at Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. First of all, central Virginia is gorgeous, especially in the springtime.  We passed one bucolic farm after another, and spent the night in the small, charming town of Orange.  Monticello itself  is located on top of a high hill outside Charlottesville, Virginia and it can be no more beautiful than on a spring day with dogwoods, redbuds, and tulips in full bloom.  My wife and I visited about twenty years ago, but the site still filled me with energy and enthusiasm.  On this visit we chose to take a “behind the scenes” tour in addition to the regular house tour.  This tour gave us the opportunity to visit upstairs and to go onto the famous dome that crowns Monticello.  Ironically that dome was useless as living space; unheated and virtually inaccessible to any reasonably sized furniture it is a tribute to Jefferson’s sense of architecture and not much else.

Jefferson himself is a study in contradictions.  A man who wrote about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness while keeping slaves.  A deist who cut the miracles of Jesus from the New Testament apparently because he  did not believe that they occurred.  For all he accomplished his grave stone records what he believed his three greatest achievements: authoring the Declaration of Independence and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and the founder of the University of Virginia.  Not a bad trifecta.

But let’s talk beer.  Jefferson was not known as a beer person.  Wine was his thing.  But a great estate such as Monticello entertained hundreds in not thousands of guests, and beer was on the menu.  Underneath Monticello there is a small display that talks about beer at Monticello.  According to the records, Martha, Jefferson’s wife who died at a young age, brewed a small table beer from wheat and corn.  As Jefferson continued to develop Monticello, beer continued to be brewed. In Jefferson’s copious notes there are many discussions about beer, and found in his library was a copy of  The London and Country Brewer (see the Gutenberg Project website to download a copy).  As barley was difficult to get, wheat continued to be the grain of choice.  There seems to be evidence that the wheat was malted at Monticello, I do not know how the corn was handled.

In 2011 Starr Hill Brewery released “Monticello Reserve Ale” which was based on beer recipes likely brewed at Monticello.  According to their website, this beer is made from wheat and corn with East Kent Goldings hops.  It has an ABV of 5.5%. The amount of corn in the grist was not mentioned, just “a touch”.

At first I was puzzled about the use of corn.  Corn typically lacks the enzymes necessary to break the starch into its component sugars; these enzymes are usually supplied by malted barley and I did not think the wheat would have the necessary diastatic power.  As it turns out, red wheat malt from Briess has higher diastatic power than 6 row barley.  Interestingly, Light wheat malt from Weyermann has a considerably lower diastatic power.

So in the end I used a grist consisting of 90% red wheat malt and 10% flaked maize.  For hops, I went with the Kent Goldings. I have not found any discussion of the type of hops that would have been available to Jefferson. Kent Goldings would have been available commercially, in theory, though I have no idea if they would have been available to Jefferson.  Hops were grown at Monticello, though I found no record of what variety they were.  I added hops at 60 minutes (12 grams) and 10 minutes (10 grams) for a total of about 29 IBUs.

I targeted a low gravity (~1.030) and actually ended up at 1.028.  I pitched 5 grams of Windsor dry ale yeast, and oxygenated for 60 seconds.  Initial fermentation temperature was about 18°C, raised to 20°C after two days.  Right now my version of the Monticello Ale is bubbling away.  In a few weeks I will report on how my experiment in brewing freedom turned out.

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