Roll out the red carpet for top Virginia beers

Old-timers in the Virginia beer community can remember pitching tents in the woods and meadows of Nelson County as part of the annual ritual to taste and toast the best of craft beers in the Old Dominion.

Bob Powers (left) and Bill Wild of New Realm Brewing (Virginia Beach, Atlanta) hoist the Best in Show trophy for Euphonia Pilsner at the 2019 Virginia Craft Beer Cup Gala. Photo by Lee Graves

The 2019 Virginia Craft Beer Cup Gala on Monday, June 17, was a bit different. Yes, we were under a tent, but the setting was decidedly more elegant, among the venerable stone buildings of the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond.

And yes, it was billed as a gala. “When they originally mentioned it was going to be a ‘gala’ event,” said a friend of mine, “I was thinking red carpet, round tables and creative gala attire. But everyone came as they were.” Yes, you have to love a gala where a guy wearing a T-shirt, cutoffs and sandals takes the stage amid hoots and hollers to accept a medal for a well-made beer.

Virginia’s contest, sponsored by the Virginia Craft Brewers Guild, is the largest among state competitions in the country. This year, there were 342 entries in 35 categories. Judges—39 in all led by former James River Homebrewers president Anna Shore—followed the guidelines of the Beer Judge Certification Program. 

“We have purposefully focused on the quality of our judging,” said Brett Vassey, president and CEO of the Virginia Manufacturers Association, which is the umbrella organization for the Virginia Craft Brewers Guild. Beers were judged in the categories they entered, a stricter standard than in past years. “That’s a big deal,” Vassey said. 

More focused judging and a record number of entries made it a big deal to receive a medal, and you could tell from the energy crackling from the 300 or so brewers, brewery owners and beer lovers under the tent that having your name called was special. 

Some 300 brewers, brewery owners and beer lovers celebrated the best in Virginia brewing at the 2019 Virginia Craft Beer Cup Gala on June 17 at Tredegar Iron Works. Photo by Lee Graves

“We’re totally blown away,” said Bob Powers after New Realm Brewing Company won the first-place Best in Show for Euphonia Pilsner. Powers is director of sales and marketing for the brewery, which he cofounded with Mitch Steele (former head brewer at Stone Brewing Co.) and Carey Falconer. Based in Atlanta, New Realm moved into the Virginia Beach facility vacated by Green Flash in 2018. 

Steele is known as a master of IPAs (he wrote a book on the style’s history and evolution), so taking Best in Show for a German-style pilsner is an eye-opener. “It’s really the beer he’s most proud of, and he’s won a few other awards since we’ve had it out,” Powers said. 

Last year’s best in show winner also was a lager, the Lil’ Hellion Helles by Brothers Craft Brewing in Harrisonburg (a silver medal winner this year). Though IPAs dominate the marketplace, it’s the nuanced, delicate balance in lagers—pilsners in particular—that reflects the height of brewing arts and gets high scores from judges.

Just as the stylistic pendulum has swung, the spotlight also has broadened as the state’s brewing scene has matured. Gone are the days when Devils Backbone dominated contests.

“The [medal] distribution is amazingly statewide,” Vassey said. “The distribution among startups, new breweries and senior breweries—those that have been around a while—is amazingly distributed.”

Numbers bear him out. Breweries in the Tidewater area took home 21 medals, if you count New Realm winning two for Euphonia Pilsner (one for winning its category, one for Best in Show). In the Richmond area, the count is 14 medals; in Central Virginia (Charlottesville and beyond), 13 medals; in the Roanoke area and Southside, nine; in the Shenandoah Valley, 10; in Loudoun County, eight; in outer Northern Virginia (including Fredericksburg), 10; in inner Northern Virginia (Alexandria, Arlington, etc.), also 10.

That last group includes the Great American Restaurants group’s Sweetwater Taverns, which has multiple locations in Northern Virginia and Loudoun County. Sweetwater was one of an elite bunch that carried home three medals—firsts for Rusty Roadrunner Lager and Yippee Ei-O Springbock and second for its pale ale. Three other breweries—Center of the Universe in Ashland, 2 Witches Winery & Brewing Company in Danville and Blue Mountain Barrelhouse in Nelson County—won three medals as well. 

Winning one medal is a stamp of excellence for one beer. Winning multiple awards is a stamp of excellence in brewing, and 14 Virginia breweries had their name called twice: Seven Arrows in Waynesboro; Lake Anne Brew House in Reston; The Board Room in Arlington; Adventure in Fredericksburg; Old Bust Head in Vint Hill; Old Ox, Beltway and TrAle in Loudoun County; Fine Creek in Powhatan (including second place Best in Show), Three Notch’d, Starr Hill and Bald Top in Central Virginia; and New Realm and Big Ugly in Tidewater.

Given the record number of entries and the continued growth among Virginia’s craft breweries and brewpubs—more than 280 at last count—it won’t be long before future galas will need a bigger tent.

Here’s the full list of winners:

First Place: New Realm Brewing, Euphonia Pilsner
Second Place: Fine Creek Brewing Company, Dry Hopped Brett Saison

First Place: St. George Brewing Company, Honey Meade Lager
Second Place: Gloucester Brewing Company, DeadRYEz
Third Place: Chaos Mountain Brewing, Glutenless Maximus – Pale Ale

First Place: Parkway Brewing Company, Triple “A” American Amber Ale
Second Place: Spencer Devon Brewing, Pulchritudinous Brown
Third Place: That Damn Mary Brewing Company, Easy Money

First Place: MoMac Brewing Company, Pata De Palo
Second Place: Mustang Sally Brewing Company, Article One Amber Lager
Third Place: Front Royal Brewing Company, Linden Lager

First Place: Makers Craft Brewery, Rauche

First Place: Stone Brewing, Stone Espresso Totalitarian Imperial Russian Stout
Second Place: Old Ox Brewery, Black Ox
Third Place: Adventure Brewing Company, Wicked Nymph Imperial Stout

First Place: Fine Creek Brewing Company, Dry Hopped Brett Saison
Second Place: Coelacanth Brewing, The Captain
Third Place: Center of the Universe, Red Ale

First Place: Port City Brewing Company, Optimal Wit
Second Place: Garden Grove Brewing & Urban Winery, Belgian Wit

First Place: Old Bust Head Brewing Company, Bust Head English Pale Ale
Second Place: Great American Restaurants—Sweetwater Taverns, Pale Ale
Third Place: Lake Anne Brew House, Lord Fairfax

First Place: Three Notch’d Brewing Company, No Veto Brown
Second Place: The Board Room VA, Bishop Brown
Third Place: Ballad Brewing, Fast Mail

First Place: Pro Re Nata Brewing Company, Nature Boy Pilsner
Second Place: Seven Arrows Brewing Company, Aurora Pils

First Place: Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery, One Lion
Second Place: Backroom Brewery, Oatmeal Stout
Third Place: The Virginia Beer Company, Elbow Patches Oatmeal Stout

First Place: Great American Restaurants—Sweetwater Tavern, Rusty Roadrunner Lager
Second Place: Bingo Beer, Black Lager
Third Place: Center of the Universe Origin, Dark Side

First Place: Strangeways Brewing, Uberlin
Second Place: Precarious Beer Project, Everywhere You Look There’s Something

First Place: Great Valley Farm Brewery, Peach Farmhouse Ale
Second Place: Seven Arrows Brewing Company, Sour Grapes
Third Place: The Farm Brewery at Broad Run, Dewitt’s Wit

First Place: Starr Hill Brewery, The Love
Second Place: 2 Witches Winery & Brewing Company, Witch Haze Ale
Third Place: Bike TrAle Brewing Company, Tailwind

First Place: Blue Mountain Barrel House, Classic Lager
Second Place: Castleburg Brewery and Taproom, Castillian’s Champagne Grodziskie
Third Place: Beale’s Beer, Gratzer

First Place: The Bold Mariner Brewing Company, Frogman Lager
Second Place: Beltway Brewing Company, Batting 1000
Third Place: The Board Room VA, No Limit Lager

First Place: Barrel Oak Farm Taphouse, BOFT IPA
Second Place: 2 Witches Winery & Brewing Company, Mosey Along the Dan
Third Place: Big Ugly Brewing Company, Rockers

First Place: Final Gravity Brewing Company, Morning Glory
Second Place: Vӓsen Brewing Company, Cashmere Secrets
Third Place: Twin Creeks Brewing Company, Red Leaf IPA

First Place: Pleasure House Brewing, O’Brien Clan Irish Red
Second Place: Old Bust Head Brewing Company, Vixen Irish Style Red Ale
Third Place: Tradition Brewing Company, Red Willie Irish Red

First Place: Random Row Brewing Company, Mosaic Pale Ale
Second Place: Broken Window Brewing Company, Lucky 13
Third Place: Three Notch’d Brewing Company, Ghost of the 43rd

First Place: New Realm Brewing, Euphonia Pilsner
Second Place: Bald Top Brewing Company, Liberty Light Lager
Third Place: Fair Winds Brewing Company, Quayside Kolsch

First Place: Great American Restaurants—Sweetwater Tavern, Yippee Ei-O Springbock
Second Place: Brother’s Craft Brewing, Lil’ Hellion
Third Place: Black Hoof Brewing, Reh of Sunshine Helles

First Place: 7 Dogs Brewpub, 80 Shilling Scottish Ale

First Place: Bald Top Brewing, Secretly Smoked Lager
Second Place: Alewerks Brewing Company, Pancake House Stout
Third Place: House 6 Brewing, Smoke Eater

First Place: South Street, Soft-Serv Ice Cream Porter
Second Place: Smartmouth Brewing Company, Mount Up
Third Place: Blue Mountain Barrel House, Raspberries on Acid

First Place: Starr Hill Brewery, Little Red Rooster Coffee Cream Stout
Second Place: 2 Witches Winery & Brewing Company, “Just-In” Time for Breakfast
Third Place: Caiseal Beer & Spirits Company (The Vanguard Brewpub), Coffee Blonde Ale

First Place: Reaver Beach Brewing Company, House Lager
Second Place: New Realm Brewing, United Craft Lager
Third Place: Trapezium Brewing Company, Mexican Lager

First Place: Beltway Brewing Company, Changing Lanes
Second Place: Alesatian Brewing Company, Hopsneeze Gen2 IPA
Third Place: Rip Rap Brewing, Wind’s Eye

First Place: Maltese Brewing Company, Barnfire Saison
Second Place: Bike TrAle Brewing Company, Strongman
Third Place: Lake Anne Brew House, New Year’s Ale

First Place: Adventure Brewing Company, Black Sail Scotch Ale

First Place: Restless Moons Brewing, Inked
Second Place: Big Ugly Brewing, Accelerator
Third Place: 1781 Brewing Company, Kӧnig Fruhling

First Place: Center of the Universe, Monkeys Uncle
Second Place: Apocalypse Ale Works, Brohead Fred
Third Place: Skipping Rock Beer Company, Belgian Dubbel

First Place: 2 Silos Brewing, Old Dominion Barrel Reserve Series
Second Place: Blue Mountain Barrel House, Chocolate and Coffee Dark Hollow
Third Place: Old Ox Brewery, Cooper’s Cloak Bourbon Barrel-Aged Quadrupel

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The Great New York ‘Bier’ Trials; Or, How Lager Changed America

Jacob Haas got out of bed on Tuesday morning, May 18, 1858, and began the day his usual way—with a glass of beer. As he dressed, his routine continued with another glass. And another. And another. By late morning, he had consumed more than 20 glasses of beer.

This was not just any beer, but lager, or “lager bier” as the newspapers described it. It was a relatively new beverage in America, brought to the country by the thousands of German immigrants who fled Europe in the mid-1800s. Haas was one of those, a German who had found work as a carpenter in New York, and drinking lager was part of his heritage. Drinking large quantities was part of his lifestyle.

That morning, though, he didn’t want to overdo it. He was due in court to testify for the defense in a case before Judge Daly. One of the city’s beer garden proprietors, George Mauren, was facing a $50 fine for selling an intoxicating beverage on a Sunday. “The question at issue is purely scientific, as to whether lager bier is an intoxicating drink,” reported the New York Herald.

That’s right. Lager was on trial. Was it intoxicating? If the jury said yes, it would hamstring Sunday sales at breweries, saloons and beer gardens around the city. And that meant lager lovers would not be able to relax with friends and family on their one day of rest and share a glass of lager. Make that share glasses—many glasses—of lager.

The proceedings, and the question of intoxication, were only part of a swirl of questions, concerns, accusations and misgivings about this new beverage. Though dating back centuries in its homeland—the word “lager” comes from the German tradition of storing beer in cool caves—lager allegedly had its brewing birth in the United States in 1840 in Philadelphia. New York had its first draught a decade later, and lager would raise its sudsy head for the first time in Virginia at an Alexandria brewery in 1858. “It is an acquired taste,” wrote Englishman David Mitchell while living in Richmond, Va., in the early 1860s. One man described its taste as akin to tobacco juice. Another: “It tastes to me like a glass of soap suds that a pickle has been put to soak in.”

A medical journal, The Scalpel, asserted that lager is destructive to beauty, “which … is the reason women do not drink it, having intuitively discovered that momentous fact,” editorialized the New York Daily Dispatch. “The Scalpel has also ascertained that lager bier produces depressed and broad heads, flat though wide shoulders and chests, straight backs and a cow-like tread.”

How was lager different? Consider that America grew up with an English tradition of ales—porters, stouts, pale ales, bitters. Ales are distinguished primarily by yeast that ferments atop the batch at relatively higher temperatures. Lagers ferment at lower temperatures, and the yeast settles to the bottom, yielding a clearer, generally crisper brew without the fruity esters that characterize ales. In addition, Germans insisted on using only barley, hops, water and yeast; early American brewers used those ingredients and more—everything from corn stalks to molasses—because traditional resources were scarce in the New World.

Lager was the beer of the Fatherland, and Germans embraced it as part of a cultural tradition that elicited its own series of complaints. Their custom of gathering on Sundays in beer gardens—boisterously conversing in their native tongue and clinking glasses to the accompaniment of oom-pah bands playing at Wagnerian volume—offended those whose moral judgment regarded any consumption of intoxicating beverages on the Sabbath as a sin. A temperance advocate in Philadelphia wrote in 1850, “Much was expected of lager beer, when introduced into Philadelphia, for much was said of its purity, and the absence of all ingredients calculated to inflame the brain and stomach. Never was there a greater mistake. It elates and inflates as readily as strong beer; but under the plea that it cannot intoxicate, beastly quantities of it are swallowed every day by its admirers.”

Such temperance advocates yielded considerable political clout in the mid-1800s. Maine passed prohibition legislation in 1846, allegedly becoming the first state in the nation outlawing the sale of alcoholic beverages except for “industrial and medicinal purposes.” New York followed Maine’s lead in 1854 with a bill that was vetoed by then-Governor Horatio Seymour. The following year’s effort stuck, leading to “The Prohibitory Law: An Act for the Prevention of Intemperance, Pauperism and Crime,” read a New York Times headline in a full-page rendering of the law in April 1855.

By many accounts, New York’s law was largely overlooked and unenforced; one provision fueled creative sidesteps. Exceptions were allowed for medicine and “sacramental purposes,” the latter fueling episodes such as this reported in May 1855: “SABBATH DESECRATION—On Sunday last the police in New York made a descent upon a lager bier saloon kept by Frederick Weiss, where it is said divine service with preaching and mock sacraments have been held during the winter past. The proprietor not only saw fit to defy law, order and decency by throwing open his doors, but accompanied by proceedings with a band of music, and a grand flourish of trumpets, which could be heard in every direction.”

The Prohibitory Law was soon repealed, only to be followed by a ban on Sunday sales. The beer, the bands, the noise, the foreigners—it all became too much for some New Yorkers who wanted Sundays to be quiet, restful and sacred. One resident appeared in the office of Mayor Daniel F. Tiemann to complain that the German lager “bier shops” in his neighborhood “made Sunday evenings hideous with their musical demonstrations, and that quiet citizens were much annoyed thereby.” Tiemann consequently ordered a squad of police to “make a descent” on all of the “lager bier stores where music, as well as lager, formed a part of the attractions.” The newspaper report concluded, “This is a fair warning to all musical Dutchmen to keep their harmony to themselves until Monday.” Tiemann’s crackdown began in February 1858, when a Sergeant Berney and four men on his squad, accompanied by a dozen reporters, set about enforcing the Sunday law.

Their first target was Lindenmuller’s Collisseum on North William Street. “There were nearly 500 persons present,” observed a Daily Tribunereporter. “Almost every man was accompanied by his wife or his sweetheart, and many parents had brought their little ones with them. All of them seemed to enjoy the opportunity afforded for spending a social hour with their friends. When we entered, some dramatic performance was going on upon the little stage at the upper end of the hall, and a portion of a popular German opera was being very acceptably rendered by an orchestra composed of two violins and a piano.” The police didn’t close down the place but asked Lindenmuller to dismiss the orchestra, drop the curtain on the drama and keep down the noise.

Berney’s squad continued its crusade. At one stop, “The proprietor of the place politely invited the officers and others to try the lager, which they did, and unhesitatingly pronounced it of excellent flavor.” All the stops weren’t so amicable. George Staats and others who ran a lager bier saloon and garden in Williamsburg, N.Y., were charged for selling intoxicating liquors on Sunday.

Their case went to trial in Kings County Circuit Court later that month. “More than a dozen witnesses swore to drinking from twenty to ninety pint glasses a day, as a usual thing, without causing any deleterious results; and one man swore that he drank seven and a half gallons within two hours,” according to the New York Herald. That equates to one 12-ounce glass every four minutes—for two hours!! The jury’s verdict? Because of its low alcohol content, “Lager bier … does not come within the provisions of the statute in relation to intoxicating drinks.”

Case closed? Apparently not. More arrests came, with Mauren and other defendants facing the same question: Is lager intoxicating? Haas was ready to take the stand that May morning.

A day earlier, a Professor Doremus had testified that lager, which averaged about 3 percent alcohol by volume, is far less intoxicating than brandy, various wines, cider, porter and ale. Lager’s ability to intoxicate “depends altogether upon the susceptibility of the person taking lager bier, whether it is intoxicating or not,” he said, according to the Herald. “But as a general rule it requires a great quantity to intoxicate.”

A physician took the stand, saying “that lager bier is the nearest thing to nothing that a man can drink.” When do you consider a man intoxicated, he was asked? “I consider a man drunk when he would say or do anything that he would not say or do when he is not drunk.”

One man, Heironymous Wilhelm, said that he knew men who could drink 30 to 40 glasses without bad effect. Another, Augustus Weismann, “swore that lager had a cooling and nourishing effect on those who drank; [he] did not drink it himself, being a strictly temperate man.”

Finally, Haas took the stand. How much lager do you drink, the defense attorney asked? Haas said that “he had drank one hundred and six glasses of lager beer in a day, equal of 10½ gallons,” one reporter wrote (italics are in the newspaper’s original account for emphasis). “The Judge asked him what effect it had upon him, and he replied, ‘It made me feel goot, and I sleep vell.’” Haas then admitted that he’d had a few before coming to court—“twenty-three or twenty-five glasses.” Another witness testified about drinking that morning—“twelve or fourteen glasses.” With such overwhelming testimony, the jury reached the same conclusion as the February jury: Lager is not intoxicating.

Not everyone was convinced.   “[That] is about like asserting that Small Pox is not a fatal disease,” one newspaper editorialized. “There is probably not one in ten of the persons in Court when this opinion was delivered whom a liberal supply of Lager would not render stupidly, senselessly drunk.”

The issue was not isolated to New York. Under the headline “If Lager Can’t Intoxicate, It Can Make You Crazy,” a report from a Wisconsin newspaper described a German resident who “undertook, upon a wager, to drink an almost fabulous quantity of lager bier. The feat was more than accomplished. After performing this disgusting guzzling attempt, and while in a state of utter helplessness, he made another fool-hardy bet, and, to carry the game out, was allowed to swallow ten glasses more, in order to convince the witnesses of his folly. The consequence was that he became a raving maniac, a most frightful and offensive object to look at, and had to be removed to his home. For hours he hung between life and death, roaring and groaning, vomiting blood, and suffering the most excruciating bodily and mental agony.”

Extremes aside, the verdict in Judge Daly’s case and others like it allowed the wave of lager popularity to continue swelling in New York and beyond. “In almost every city and town of the United States, where a large German population resides, one or more breweries are to be found,” the Daily Tribune reported in 1854. “We believe we do not make an exaggerated estimate when we rate the number of German breweries in the United States to upward of five hundred, and the capital invested at seven to eight million dollars. The City of New York has twenty-seven breweries, and many of them … brew more than 10,000 barrels, of thirty-gallons each, of lager beer in the course of the year.” Another source noted that the number of breweries in the nation grew from 431 in 1850 to 1,269 a decade later.

Americans had definitely acquired a taste for this new beverage, and German immigrants learned there were fortunes to be made by brewing it. Jacob Schlitz, originally a bookkeeper, took over a small Milwaukee brewery in the mid-1850s and guided it to prominence. Valentin Blatz bought the City Brewery, also in Milwaukee, and capitalized on lager’s momentum. Frederick Miller joined the city’s brewing scene in 1855. In St. Louis, a soap maker named Eberhard Anheuser took over a small brewery around 1850 and combined with his son-in-law, Adolphus Busch, to lay the foundation for the iconic American brewery. Christian Moerlein in Cincinnati, Theodor Hamm in St. Paul, “in Chicago, Boston, Albany, Baltimore—in fact, all over the country—new breweries were established year after year,” says Stanley Baron in his 1962 book Brewed in America.

Lager slaked the thirsts of soldiers during the throes of the Civil War, which also served to cool the feverish pitch of prohibitionists. In the postwar years, demand for ‘bier’ spurred lager brewers to develop and patent innovations in refrigeration and mechanical systems. Research into the properties of yeast and bacteria by Louis Pasteur and other scientists led breweries to adopt pasteurization as a common practice to stabilize beer. The number of breweries swelled to a peak of 4,131 in 1873, and the United States Brewers Association, formed under a different name by mostly German brewers in 1862, wielded considerable clout.

Unfortunately, 1873 was also marked by widespread economic chaos—banks and business failed, and factories closed. The brewers’ deep pockets became the target for federal tax revenue. “Taxes paid by the brewers (and distillers) of America [in 1873] accounted for 55 percent of the entire Internal Revenue Tax collected,” Baron writes. But “this financial contribution that the brewers made to the government, and the political power it could not help giving them, were not lost on the Prohibitionists.” In 1874, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was born, and the march toward Prohibition gained momentum, culminating in the ratification of the 18thAmendment in 1919.

The failures of Prohibition became quickly apparent, and once the amendment was repealed, lager fostered the rebirth of American brewing in one sense—the United States became the highest-volume beer producer in the world.  “There are single breweries in the United States which produce as much beer as entire European countries,” beer scribe Michael Jackson wrote in the seminal 1977 book The World Guide to Beer. By two other measures, however, it led to a nadir in beer culture. From the high of 4,131 in 1873, the number of breweries in the country declined to fewer than a hundred. And the lagers pouring from these beer factories had evolved into brews, many using adjuncts such as rice and corn, that were meant for mass appeal, the least offensive to the most consumers. As Jackson wrote, “A people usually anxious to proclaim the virtues of things American are uncharacteristically self-deprecating about their nation’s beers, despite a great brewing tradition.”

In the course of a century, lager had gone from a curiosity—an “acquired taste”—to a mainstream behemoth. Ironically, it would be subject to the swing of the same pendulum of change. The nation’s craft beer boom, which sprouted in the 1960s, fed beer lovers’ search for new tastes, brewers’ development of novel approaches and entrepreneurs’ eye for evolving markets. In 2015, that pinnacle in the number of breweries reached in 1873 was surpassed for the first time, and as 2018 closed the nation would boast more than 7,000 breweries. American craft brewers would be the darlings of a global renaissance in creative brewing.

The beer-related matters that end up in court these days are more likely to involve intellectual property, distribution rights and driving violations rather than whether beer is intoxicating. But one can’t help but smile to think of Jacob Haas testifying “I sleep vell” after drinking 106 glasses of lager.


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Peter and James: The Tale of Two Hemingses

Note: I have long been fascinated by the tale of Peter and James Hemings, brothers and slaves of Thomas Jefferson. This was written as a precursor—a rough rough draft—of a possible screenplay, one I doubt will ever be fully fleshed. I envisioned it as a tale about food as well as people. Being as it’s Black History Month, and given the current turmoil in Virginia over racism, I post this as an offering to the past that will feed the future. We tend to see slavery as a monolithic institution; it was, instead, a complex construct with many layers and nuances. Further, it was composed of individuals, and the more we know of their stories—of the people who were slaves—the better we can embrace our past and move toward a more compassionate future.

Peter and James

Our story begins in the suburbs of Paris. We see a wagon laden with fresh produce—carrots and lettuce and peppers and tomatoes–bouncing along the roads leading to the city and eventually finding its way to a bustling market. The scene bubbles with the sounds of vendors hawking their goods, everything from fresh beef to salted fish, and our humble farmer sets up his stand of produce amid this flurry of activity. Our eye focuses on a young black man dressed in the finest French fashion, strolling through the market with two servants at his side. He leans over to smell and feel various items, carefully judging their quality, instructing the servants to purchase this and that, and soon several baskets are packed with meat, vegetables, spices and more.

Cut to a scene that evening. We see a kitchen with steaming pots and sizzling pans, dozens of white cooks chattering in French while tending to dishes in various states of preparation. Moving quickly from station to station is our young black man, tasting a soup, sampling a wine, supervising preparations in fluent French. He is the master of the scene. Our eye follows one of the servants bringing an elegantly prepared terrine into a large dining room where an animated assemblage of aristocrats dines, their conversation peppered with graceful gestures, clever witticisms and understated passion. At the head of the table sits a thin, red-haired man whose dress is conspicuously less elaborate than that of his guests. He smiles bemusedly at the exchanges whirling around him; when he speaks, his words cut through the thicket like a rapier—all are eager to hear his thoughts, and he is equally eager to be heard, appreciated and liked. As the terrine is served, Jefferson’s smile broadens; it is delicious, a tribute to the mastery of his chef and earns the nods and whispered compliments of his guests.

Photo by Lee Graves

The man at the head of the table is Thomas Jefferson. The man at the market and in the kitchen is James Hemings. Before arriving in Paris in August 1784 with Jefferson, as the latter assumed his role of Minister to France, Hemings was a slave in Virginia, one of numerous siblings who constituted one of history’s most storied slave families. James Hemings had been a near-constant companion of Jefferson’s throughout his travels preceding and during the Revolution. Now Hemings was in Paris for the specific purpose of learning French cuisine. Jefferson not only paid for Hemings’ lessons at the finest French cooking schools, where he rubbed shoulders with the most privileged of French society, but Hemings also was paid a salary, took lessons in the French language and had nearly total freedom to explore Paris when his duties and convenience allowed. If he wished, Hemings could at any moment petition for his freedom, which would have been speedily granted. It was illegal for French citizens to own slaves, and any visitor who brought slaves to the country was required to register them. Jefferson, however, never registered Hemings (or Sally Hemings, who would arrive on a later ship with Jefferson’s youngest daughter), so for all intents and purposes, Hemings was a free man in France. We see in our mind’s eye his sessions at the culinary schools, his exploration of taverns and inns in Paris, his flirting with fawning ladies smitten by this dashing, cultured black man.

Now the camera cuts from the Parisians dining with Jefferson to a mountain estate in Virginia where a ragged, hunched slave pushes a small cart bearing produce to the rear of Monticello. Martha Jefferson, Thomas’ daughter, appears in everyday clothes befitting a plantation mistress, and she picks among the items, finally emptying much of the cart and handing a handful of coins to the hunched slave. He departs, taking the vegetables to a small shanty, and our scene follows in a parallel of the French episode, only here there is but a single pot over a fire that warms the entire earthen-floor cottage. Stew fills wooden bowls as a family of slaves gathers around a rough-hewn table. They pray; they dip crusts of bread into the stew; they talk quietly in a vernacular as foreign to outsiders as any French; they eat with an urgency driven by gnawing hunger; they laugh as well at each other’s stories, and the meal ends with smiles and thanksgiving. One of the men retires to a chair by the fire, picks up a needle and thread, and stitches a seam in a pair of trousers. This is Peter Hemings, brother of James Hemings, and tailoring is his talent. Much of Jefferson’s clothing worn on the voyage to France came from Peter’s hands (though Jefferson quickly realized he needed to upgrade his wardrobe to hobnob with the French elite).

Now let us cut to a less cinematic and more straightforward telling of our story. James and Peter—along with Sally and other siblings—were members of a family sired by the father of Jefferson’s wife, Martha, who had died in 1782. The Hemingses were thus related to Jefferson’s wife and enjoyed special status in the enslaved community at Monticello. They saw to household chores rather than working in fields or in the nail factory that provided income to the estate. There are few physical descriptions of the Hemingses other than that they were light-skinned; Sally, renowned for her role in Jefferson’s life, was described as being very attractive. She was 14 when she was tagged to accompany Polly Jefferson to France. Abigail Adams remarked on Sally’s youth and how ill-prepared she seemed for her responsibilities, so a question looms about why Sally was chosen for the trip.

A larger question arises about why James and Sally did not stay in France, where they would have been free. James could certainly have earned a living as a chef, probably enough to support Sally as well. Why return to Virginia? Sally might not have realized the nuances of her possibilities, but James, being out and about and circulating in French society, would certainly have known his options and communicated them to Sally. Our camera would depict his learning, his telling to Sally and their discussions. Our source for much of this comes from The Hemingses of Monticello, required reading along with the books of Cinder Stanton (my one-time neighbor) about the enslaved people at Monticello.

One factor in the tale is the role of family. Slaves in general had strong family ties, perhaps partially because of the threat that at any moment a family member could be sold, never to be seen again. The Hemingses were tight; remember that they had been inherited by Martha as a group, and they were allowed to remain as a family at Monticello. Another factor is that, despite its appeal, France was a foreign land, particularly to Sally. One can imagine her feeling of alienation in a culture she didn’t understand, in a society experiencing extreme volatility. Still, she and James plotted to stay. The fact that each of them struck a deal with Jefferson indicates they were aware of the leverage they had in the situation. Jefferson’s bargain with James was that he would be granted his freedom in Virginia as soon as he trained someone to be an equally competent chef. With Sally, who initially refused to return to Virginia (she was pregnant with Jefferson’s child), he promised that all her children would have their freedom upon turning 21.

Let’s insert some spice. There are suggestions that James developed a romantic relationship while in Paris. We should insert this into the story, for reasons explained in a bit. Also, Jefferson had an affair of the heart (and possibly other parts of anatomy) with Maria Cosway. Though she would never say so to Jefferson, this might be a thorny topic with Sally and James, and we can imagine conversations about the dual standard of Jefferson bedding Sally and romancing Cosway. Not that Jefferson owed Sally any romantic allegiance, but it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that having a taste of freedom in France would have fed Sally’s desire to be treated as a human being rather than a slave.

We return to Virginia. Sally is great with child, but our camera focuses largely on James and his tutelage of Peter in French cuisine. James is known to be a borderline alcoholic (if not full-fledged) and have a hot temper (his rages were noted in records); both these, plus his impatience to earn his freedom, would be part of our story here. Peter, whose intelligence is often remarked upon by Jefferson, is a quick study and soon is able to handle the culinary responsibilities at Monticello. Keep in mind that Jefferson entertained often, was a gourmand of great distinction (a foodie of the first order) and demanding in his expectations. His guests spanned the spectrum, from plantation neighbors to the fledgling nation’s most powerful and sophisticated figures. We can assume Peter Hemings developed a sophisticated appreciation for food, its presentation and its importance in the Jefferson household. After all, he must learn the nuances of preparing macaroni and cheese and crème brûlée—novelties James brought to this country from France.

A display at Monticello pays homage to Peter Hemings’ skill as a brewer. He was trained by Capt. Joseph Miller, who had worked professionally as a brewer in London. Photos by Lee Graves

So, 11 days after returning to Monticello in 1794, James begins training Peter, his younger brother. He also travels with Jefferson to New York and Philadelphia; the relationship with Jefferson is complex—Hemings arguably knows him better than any person, having traveled with him, served as his personal valet, prepared his meals and been by his side during intense times. In February 1796, James achieves true freedom, despite Jefferson’s efforts to sweeten his attachment and loyalty through gifts and privileges. James departs for Philadelphia, then begins a restless period of travels at home and abroad. His return to France opens the door to suggestions of the romantic connection mentioned (conjectured) earlier; spice for the pot. James’ behavior and actions indicate his continued attachment to Jefferson and expectations that the master of Monticello will hire him back into service. Those expectations ratchet up when Jefferson is elected president in 1801. Meanwhile, we see Peter settling into his chores as chef and tailor. We dwell on the foodie part here on three levels—what was served at Monticello, what the Hemings family ate, and what was consumed by other slaves in their meals. There must have been an interesting dynamic for Peter, what he prepared, what he ate, and what others of less privilege ate.

Our tale reaches a climax after Jefferson’s election. James Hemings has every expectation of being requested to fill the role of White House chef. He has traveled far but never left the pull of Jefferson’s personality. He indicates several times he is eager to work for Jefferson again, as a paid free man. James has settled in Baltimore; Jefferson knows he is there and five days after his election writes to the innkeeper where James is staying. “Could I get the favor of you to send for him & to tell him I shall be glad to receive him as soon as he can come to me,” Jefferson writes. The innkeeper responds that his message has been relayed but that Hemings said “he would not go until you should write to himself.” It seems Hemings is offended at Jefferson sending for him, summoning him like a slave rather than contacting him directly. “He was an adult free man now,” a historian writes. “He could read and write. He knew that Jefferson spent hours at his desk writing to anyone under the sun. Why not a line formally asking him to come to Washington? Being the president’s chef de cuisine was a serious job. Why not spell out in writing all that was expected?” The interchange turns into a matter of egos, both men feeling the sting of being slighted. Jefferson, after all, had just been elected President of the United States. Who was this man, a former slave he had known since boyhood, to be so demanding? Hemings also wants respect, especially from the man he had served in the most intimate of situations. Neither person communicates directly with each other at this point. The complexities of their relationship speak volumes—matters of loyalty, mutual affection, self-respect, newfound freedom in a former slave, newfound stature in the country’s most powerful man. Jefferson quickly turns elsewhere, on the surface because he needs to fill the chef’s position speedily. He hires Honore Julien, former chef for George Washington. Oddly, here again the whole transaction of procuring Julien is carried out through a third party.

We can assume this constitutes a serious blow, bruising if not crushing for James, whose ego borders on the prima donna. He returns to Monticello briefly to work as a paid chef and to enjoy the company of family. But working as a free man in the plantation setting proves more than he can handle, and in September 1801 he leaves Monticello. It is the last time any of his family see him alive.

Within a matter of weeks, Jefferson receives word at the White House that Hemings has killed himself. “The news appeared to have stunned Jefferson, and he wrote for confirmation.” The same innkeeper, William Evans, writes back that Hemings had, in fact, “committed an act of suicide.” Hemings had been “delirious for some days previous to his having committed the act, and it is as the General opinion that drinking too freely was the cause.” It was, Jefferson wrote, “a tragical end.” Indeed. Hemings, trained in the most sophisticated of culinary arts, had ended working at the equivalent of a greasy spoon, having been passed over and disrespected. His final days, we can assume, were spent in a drunken spiral, his spirit torn by conflicting currents—a free man who would never be treated as an equal human being, whose family still lived in slavery.

No records document the reaction of Peter to news of James’ death. We know they were close—Peter named one of his sons after James. But the camera shows us a different personality in Peter, one never tantalized by the prospect of freedom, perhaps a soul more resigned to his plight, aware of his privilege within the Monticello community and glad to have special skills and knowledge. A fascinating interplay of scenes would be glimpses of James’ downhill slide into alcoholism and Peter’s training by a professional brewer from London. Peter was, after all, the first African-American to be so trained, adding to his value as a tailor and chef.

We fast forward to the end of days. Jefferson dies on July 4, 1826. His estate is deeply in debt. An auction is held the following January, and it will have immense impact on Monticello’s slave community. Attending the auction is a man named Daniel Farley, a free black man living in Charlottesville whose reputation suggests something of a lovable rogue—gambler frequently in trouble with the law, a talented fiddler, a ready host for rowdy friends. Records suggest he was Peter Hemings’ nephew. Hemings is 57 at the time of the auction; his value is appraised at $100, a respectable sum for an aging man thanks to his many skills. Farley made a single purchase that January day—for one dollar, he bought “Peter. Old Man.” As one historian notes, “The token sale price suggests that the wish for his family members to purchase his freedom was recognized by those present at the sale.” Peter Hemings lived out his days as a tailor in Charlottesville, sharing a house with Sally and, we assume, fixing their meals. Our tale ends with scenes of quiet resolution, particularly in contrast to James’ end. However, many questions will never be resolved, and the peace of the final chapter does not untie the Gordian knot of complexities regarding freedom, slavery, self-dignity, family, loyalty, affection, power and privilege.

As a coda, these words from Annette Gordon-Reed: “James Hemings’ was a singular life: an eighteenth-century Afro-Virginian who lived abroad in France, who was passionate and intellectually curious enough to hire a tutor to teach him to speak and think in a different language, who was literate, who became a chef de cuisine, who negotiated his freedom, and who continued to journey far and wide after he became a free man. Surely it broke his family’s heart to lose him.”


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Beeristoric Tour spotlights RVA beer, past and present

Folks on the Richmond Beeristoric Tour gather at the former Home Brewing Company spot.

Why are these people grinning?
They’re on the Richmond Beeristoric Tour, standing in the courtyard of the former Home Brewing Company, one of the iconic spots in the city’s colorful brewing history. And they’ve just tasted one (maybe two) samples of the current brewing boom that has made RVA a beer destination. Join Mike Gorman, one of the Beeristoric founders and guides, on the RVA BEER Show, WRIR-FM 97.3 Independent Radio, with Jay Burnham and me as we talk about the tour, which launches on Sunday, Nov. 18.

If you weren’t able to listen to the Friday morning broadcast, click on the link below. It’s the last show for the forseeable future!
Also, here’s the link to order tickets for this year’s Richmond Beeristoric Tour (I’m a volunteer, so no kickbacks for me!!!!). Don’t delay–the buses will fill up quickly.

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O’Connor, GABF medals and more on RVA BEER Show

Kevin O’Connor (center) and Ashley Simard of O’Connor Brewing Co. join Jay Burnham and me on the RVA BEER show. Burnham photo

What’s up with agave in beer? Kevin O’Connor explains the evolution of El Guapo IPA, O’Connor Brewing Company‘s best-selling beer, and Ashley Simard takes a look at the retail beer scene around Virginia on the RVA BEER Show on WRIR 97.3 FM Richmond Independent Radio. Join Jay Burnham and me every other Friday at 11:30 a.m. If you can’t tune in, you can listen to the show at the link below.

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Historic recipes getting new life among craft brewers

Danny Fain (right) and Ryan Kelly at Ardent Craft Ales in Richmond get the mash started for the historic molasses beer. Graves photo

John Marshall, fourth chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and a Richmond resident, was known to favor other drinks over beer, but he would certainly smile on the historic molasses beer brewed at Ardent Craft Ales in collaboration with the John Marshall House in Richmond. Brewer Danny Fain talks about the beer and the recipe’s history, taken from an 1824 cookbook by Mary Randolph, on this week’s RVA BEER Show on WRIR 97.3 FM Richmond Independent Radio. Join Jay Burnham and me for the broadcast, Friday at 11:30 a.m., or click on the link below.

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Precarious Beer Project balances edgy, traditional styles

Precarious Beer Project is adding one more feather in the cap of Williamsburg’s beer scene with a mixture of styles ranging from traditional Bohemian pilsner to a watermelon gose using 600 pounds of locally grown melons.

Greg Fleehart (left) of Precarious Beer Project joins Jay Burnham and me on WRIR FM’s RVA Beer Show.

Greg Fleehart, head brewer at Precarious, joins Jay Burnham and me for the August 31 edition of the RVA BEER Show on WRIR 97.3 FM Richmond Independent Radio. If you weren’t able to listen to the morning broadcast, check out the show at the link below.

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From Waynesboro to Manchester–Basic City comes to RVA

Basic City Brewmaster Jacque Landry (left) and co-founder Bart Lanman are preparing the former Twisted Ales brewery site in Manchester. Graves photo

The vacant Twisted Ales brewery site in Richmond’s Manchester area didn’t last long, as Waynesboro’s Basic City Beer Co. quickly moved to stake out its second location in Virginia. Basic City co-founder Bart Lanman and brewmaster Jacque Landry join Jay Burnham and me for the July 27 edition of the RVA BEER Show on WRIR 97.3 FM Richmond Independent Radio.

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New brewer, new brews and the latest in RVA beer


Aaron Thackery (left) and Willey Broaddus (with mic) at Three Notch’d RVA Collab House. Graves photo

Aaron Thackery and Willey Broaddus of Three Notch’d RVA Collab House join Jay and me on the RVA Beer Show as we discuss Willey’s new duties as head brewer at the Broad Street location and Aaron’s perspective on Three Notch’d’s role in the beer community. The show airs every other Friday at 11:30 a.m. on WRIR-FM 97.3, but if you weren’t able to catch the broadcast, the link below will fill you in. Cheers to all!

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Talking about beer cup awards, SAVOR and more

Tyler Shifflett (from left), Chris Ward and Jason Shifflett of Brothers Craft brewery in Harrisonburg hoist the gold Best in Show award for Lil’ Hellion Lager at the Virginia Craft Beer Cup awards. Graves photo

Which region in the state scored the most awards at the recent Virginia Craft Beer Cup awards? What’s the story behind the Best in Show Lil’ Hellion Lager by Brothers Craft Brewing in Harrisonburg? Find out by listening to Jay and me on the RVA BEER Show, WRIR 97.3 FM Independent Radio. We get an exclusive interview with the folks at Brothers talking about the beer and their brewery. If you can’t check out the morning broadcast, the can still hear the show at the link below.

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