Talking about diversity, black history in the beer world

Leon Harris (center) talks about being an African American brewer in the craft beer industry. Photo by Jay Burnham

With the craft beer industry eager to attract more African Americans into the brewing business, Jay and I talk with Leon Harris, former head brewer at Heroic Aleworks and currently assistant brewer at Caboose Brewing Co. in Vienna, on the RVA Beer Show, WRIR 97.3 FM, about his experiences as a minority in the beer world. We also talk about black history and the contributions of men such as Peter Hemings in beer lore. And with March just around the corner, it’s time to brew Märzen! Check out the link below if you missed the original broadcast.

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Time to raise a toast to brewer Peter Hemings

The intersection of black history and beer is a narrow one. Most folks, I believe, would be hard pressed to name two African-Americans who have made a mark on the chalkboard of beer history.

Beer cellar at Monticello. Photo by Lee Graves

I say two because Garrett Oliver has become a household name among beer aficionados. He started as an apprentice at Brooklyn Brewery, rose to head brewer in 1994 and has written and edited numerous books, including two of my go-to resources, The Brewmaster’s Table and The Oxford Companion to Beer.

Beyond Oliver, few African-American names jump to the tip of the tongue of Joe Blow beer lover. That’s a shame, because the history of black involvement in American brewing is a rich one, reaching back to colonial times and rubbing shoulders with the nation’s founders. Black History Month affords an opportunity to tell that story, and I’d been struggling to find a springboard to launch into the subject until yesterday, when a friend shared a piece published in USA Today. The headline reads: “Craft brewers seek to involve more African Americans.” The article quotes Oliver and several others in the industry, such as Kevin Blodger of Union Craft Brewing in Baltimore and Mark and Sharon Ridley, owners of a Brass Tap franchise in the D.C. metro area of Maryland.

It would have been unreasonable to expect the article to go back centuries to include names such as Peter Hemings. Or Bagwell Granger. Or Daniel Farley. Or the Nottoway Negroes. Or a ditcher named Botswain who sold George Washington six pounds of hops in 1798.

All of these Virginians were slaves except for Farley. He was a free black man living in Charlottesville who probably made his own homebrew and definitely sold hops to Thomas Jefferson for brewing at Monticello. And there we come to the most luminous intersection of black history and beer, in the figure of Peter Hemings. I contend that Hemings was the first black person professionally trained in the brewing arts in this country. His story exists within a broader context, though, which deserves wider appreciation for the role of slaves in making beer. The past can inspire the present, and it’s my hope that stories of Virginia’s black brewing history can frame a proud legacy and a sense of identity for African American beer lovers.

First, a bit of background. Beer has been with us since the dawn of civilization, perhaps even before hunter-gathers settled into an agrarian lifestyle. Beer was brewed by Native Americans before Europeans arrived. Beer was on board the three ships that delivered English settlers to Jamestown in 1607. And beer was a staple on plantations as those settlers moved westward into the Virginia wilderness.

The chore of producing sufficient ale to fortify family members and guests in this part of the country fell to the plantation mistress. Her role was largely supervisory—securing recipes, procuring ingredients, scheduling batches, ensuring quality—while the actual hands-on brewing in the kitchen was conducted by slaves. Brewing was a skill much valued, as shown in this ad in a Virginia newspaper: For sale: A valuable young Negro woman, very well qualified for all sorts of Housework, as Washing, Ironing, Sewing, Brewing, Baking, &c.

To brew good beer, you need the right ingredients. Although everything from persimmons to pea pods was used in colonial brew pots, traditional elements such as hops and barley provided the best ale. Virginia’s climate frowned on efforts to cultivate barley, but hops, which are a native species (according to Thomas Jefferson), grew readily, both wild on river banks and on homesteads. Landon Carter, son of Robert “King” Carter and one of the colonial era’s most prominent plantation owners, wrote a 16-page essay in the mid-1700s on growing hops. He described how to choose the best site, prepare the soil, train the bines to grow properly, harvest the cones and dry them for brewing. Being a wealthy planter with many civic and military duties in addition to running the Sabine Hall estate, Carter probably spent little time digging holes, shoveling manure or picking the sticky, rough hops. Those chores fell to slaves.

And at least some of those slaves paid attention and learned, as numerous records indicate. In addition to Botswain’s transaction with George Washington, bookkeepers at the College of William and Mary (where evidence indicates that a brew house existed in the 1700s) noted purchases of hops from a group named simply the “Nottoway Negroes.”

Martha Jefferson, wife of Thomas Jefferson, recorded numerous brewing dates in her accounts.

The most telling tale comes from Monticello. Martha Jefferson, Thomas’ wife, was a prolific brewer. Her household accounts mention sixteen batches brewed her first year there, 1772-73, and from all indications those ales were well-hopped. She bought some hops from slaves at neighboring estates, but the gardens of slaves at Monticello served as a source for many of those hops. Though the Jeffersons purchased all kinds of produce, fish, game and other consumables from their slaves, “Hops was among the most frequently purchased product from the slave community by Martha,” writes author Peter Hatch, former director of gardens and grounds at Monticello.

On Oct. 24, 1774, Martha noted: “Bought 7 lb of hops with an old shirt.” At the other end of the spectrum, in 1818 (well after Martha’s death in 1782), Thomas Jefferson paid Bagwell Granger, a notable figure in Monticello’s slave community, the amount of $20 for sixty pounds of hops. That equals about $800 today. “That seems like a lot,” noted one historian/author I consulted. “Still, it’s a fraction of what it would have cost to buy a family member’s freedom, when you think of it in that context.”

Hops grown at Monticello. Photo by Lee Graves

By the time of that purchase, brewing at Monticello was progressing on a sizable scale, thanks to Peter Hemings. A brother to Sally, James and others of the Hemings family, Peter served primarily as a tailor and chef. In 1813, however, Thomas Jefferson invited Capt. Joseph Miller to stay at Monticello and train Hemings as a brewer. Miller had been a professional brewer in London before coming to America to claim family estates and “to establish a brewery in which art I think him as skillful a man as has ever come to America,” Jefferson wrote.

Peter Hemings apparently was a quick study in brewing as well as his other skills and absorbed sophisticated brewing techniques. Jefferson described him as possessing “great intelligence and diligence both of which are necessary.” Improvisation also was required because barley, beer’s grain of choice, was not grown at the plantation and was expensive to import. So in 1814, they began to malt wheat; corn followed after Miller’s departure.

So, what was the beer like? Jefferson kept no recipes, but he did not tolerate insipid beer. He specified a bushel of malt for every eight to ten gallons of “strong beer, such as will keep for years.” And three-quarters of a pound of hops was used for every bushel of wheat.

Monticello’s brewing schedule was seasonal. In the fall, three sixty-gallon casks of ale were brewed in succession. Similar brewing followed in the spring. For production on that scale, Monticello needed a brew house, built in time for brewing in the fall of 1814. An undated drawing shows Jefferson’s plans for a Palladian-style brew house, but it is unknown if it was ever built. The location of the brew house that was used has not been determined, but Hemings would have been the hands-on supervisor of the ales it produced. Hemings was so accomplished that Jefferson invited his friend James Madison to send someone to learn from Peter.

Little else is known of Hemings other than a touching episode after Jefferson’s death in 1826. A lifetime of debt saddled the estate, and Jefferson’s heirs decided to hold an auction of property, including slaves in January 1827. The aforementioned Daniel Farley was one of those at the auction. Records suggest that Farley was the oldest son of Mary Hemings. That would have made him Peter Hemings’ nephew, though Farley was only two years younger than Monticello’s brewer, who was 57. Despite his age, Peter Hemings was appraised at the auction for $100, probably due to his multiple skills. Farley was able to purchase him for $1. “The token sale price suggests that the wish of his family members to purchase his freedom was recognized by those present at the sale,” noted one historian.

Peter Hemings lived out his days as a tailor in Charlottesville. No records indicate that he continued brewing. His legacy of making beer at Monticello, however, survives. Visitors to the “little mountain” will find a display of his brewing tools in a special exhibit. It falls to us to spread the word of his accomplishments and honor his name.

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Brewers eye taxes, legislation and a big feather in the cap

Did you know that Richmond was tagged as the No. 1 beer destination in the world by VinePair magazine?

Join Neil Burton of Strangeways (from left), Brad Cooper of Steam Bell, co-host Jay Burnham, me and Eric McKay of Hardywood on the RVA Beer Show (see link below). Neil Burton photo

Or that a proposed meals tax in the city has weighty implications for breweries? Or that the Virginia General Assembly is eyeing legislation affecting craft breweries around the state? Eric McKay of Hardywood Park Craft Brewery, Neil Burton of Strangeways Brewing and Brad Cooper of Steam Bell Beer Works join Jay Burnham and me on the RVA Beer Show, WRIR-FM 97.3. If you missed the broadcast (we air every other Friday at 11:30 a.m.), the link below will bring you up to speed.

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Legions of Fans on Facebook make beer scene bubble

Fans of Virginia Craft Breweries, founded by David Hunter (at far right), has created a forum on Facebook for more than 14,000 craft beer lovers. What are their concerns and issues? What’s the No. 1 thread that the site has created? Hunter joins Jay Burnham and me to talk about these and other issues–a documentary about Virginia beer, legislative issues–on the RVA Beer Show on WRIR-FM 97.3. If you can’t tune in during the broadcast, here’s a link to the audio file.


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McAuliffe cuts ribbon at Hardywood, ties bow on term

When Gov. Terry McAuliffe cut the ribbon at Hardywood’s West Creek facility in Goochland County, he also tied a bow on his four years as Virginia’s craft beer governor.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe (center, holding scissors), Patrick Murtaugh, Eric McKay and their family members take the stage for the ribbon cutting at Hardywood West Creek on January 8. Lee Graves photo

Join Jay Burnham and me on the RVA Beer Show (WRIR-FM 97.3) as we play some clips from McAuliffe’s remarks and give our own insights on the state’s craft beer scene, including the effect of a change in the federal excise tax, highlights of 2017 and some the exciting things ahead in 2018. Click the arrow below and you’ll be there!

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A Virginia craft beer pioneer visits RVA Beer Show

Join Jay Burnham and me on the RVA Beer Show as we talk with Mark Thompson, one of the seminal figures in Virginia’s craft beer scene.

Mark Thompson (left) joins Jay and me at The Veil in Scott’s Addition.

Thompson founded Starr Hill brewery in 1999 on West Main Street in Charlottesville–in the same building that held Virginia’s first brewpub–and led Starr Hill to becoming the state’s largest craft brewery. As chairman of the Virginia Craft Brewers Guild, Thompson worked with state officials and other brewers to improve the landscape of craft brewing in the Old Dominion. Listen as he recalls those early days, takes a look at the current scene and describes his new project, The Brewing Tree in Nelson County.

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Richbrau and more on RVA Beer Show

Photo by Lee Graves

When it comes to beer names, Richbrau is one of the most iconic in Richmond. It started as the most popular post-Prohibition beer of Home Brewing Company, became the banner identity of Richbrau brewpub in Shockoe Slip, and now is about to enter a third phase under new ownership. Join Jay Burnham and me as we talk about Richbrau, barleywines and more on the latest edition of the RVA Beer Show on WRIR 97.3 FM.


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Beer and cheese and more!

Join Jay and me on the RVA Beer Show (97.3 WRIR-FM) as we talk with Maggie Bradshaw of Truckle Cheesemongers about pairing beer and cheese. Let her tell you which of her favorites is like “a party in your mouth.”

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Greg Koch, Stone co-founder, is on the RVA Beer Show

Greg Koch, co-founder of Stone and one of craft beer’s most energetic and colorful figures (read “rock star”), and Jeff Martin, director of Stone’s brewing operations for the East Coast, join Jay Burnham and me for the latest RVA Beer Show on WRIR FM 97.3. If you missed the show, here’s a link to the broadcast. And don’t forget about the Stone Throw Down on Brown’s Island tomorrow (Saturday, September 9)


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Small brewers continue to have big impact

If you ever thought small brewers were small potatoes, the folks at the Brewers Association would like a few words with you. Or a few beers.

Described as constituting the “long end of the tail” of craft brewing, the small and independent brewers in the country have been the pioneers of a

Thousands of craft brewers and beer lovers are in Washington, D.C., this week for the 2017 Craft Brewers Conference. Photo by Lee Graves

movement that has spread from the neighborhood taproom to more than 50 countries.

“[That’s] illustrating how local the craft brewing movement has become,” said Bob Pease, president and CEO of the Brewers Association. The non-profit trade group based in Colorado represents the nation’s small and independent brewers, thousands of whom are in Washington, D.C., this week for the 2017 Craft Brewers Conference.

“Small and independent does matter–it matters big-time,” added Rob Tod, chairman of the association’s board of directors and founder of Allagash Brewing Company in Maine. He noted that craft brewers are producing nearly 25 million barrels of beer annually. And while the industry’s rate of growth had declined steadily over recent years–growth was 6 percent by volume in 2016–the number of microbreweries in the country grew by 21 percent, boosting the total number of breweries in the country to 5,301.

Tod praised early craft brewers such as Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada, Jim Koch of Boston Beer and Fritz Maytag of Anchor Brewing Company for their early efforts. “[They] stuck their neck out in a world of commoditized and industrialized beer.”

“We need to remind ourselves that before those pioneers got their start, there really weren’t too many communities in this entire country where someone was commercially making beer,” he said. “Fast forward to today. Instead of making that 25 million barrels in two or three facilities, we’re making it in thousands of facilities.” After illustrating how things have changed by taking a sip from a bottle of Optimal Wit brewed at nearby Port City in Alexandria, Tod added, “It’s no wonder the U.S. is the creative epicenter of beer today.”

Small brewers are hiring workers, spurring urban renewal, contributing to local causes and creating gathering places. “People are spending time together in our breweries,” he said.

Pease also stressed the importance of craft brewers adhering to their defining values–“independence, authenticity, a collaborative spirit and community-mindedness.”

A slightly different set of values–persistence, flexibility and not fearing failure–came into focus during the keynote address. Alison Levine, adventurer extraordinaire and author of the New York Times bestseller “On the Edge,” sprinkled nuggets of hard-earned insight in a lively recounting of her two attempts to climb Mount Everest.

The first came as leader of the American Women’s Everest Expedition in 2002. After preparing and hiking for two months to reach the tip of the 29,000-foot peak, a storm forced the team to turn back when only a few hundred yards from its goal.

“Backing up is not the same as backing down,” she stressed. “If the conditions aren’t right, you turn around, cut your losses and walk away.”

In a second solo eight years later after the death of a friend, Meg Berté Owen, she reached the summit. She had hiked without the team, but the effort required the concerted efforts of sponsors, friends and more. “Nobody gets to the top of the mountain by themselves,” she said.

The conference had its official kickoff reception Monday night with area brewers pouring beers at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. At the latter, crowds of brewers and beer lovers drank craft brews from plastic cups while gazing at the Hope Diamond or chatting in the shadow of a giant elephant frozen in mid-charge.

The conference continues through the week with seminars, roundtables, tap takeovers and a trade show.

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