Black Heath making its mark with elegant meads

Mead can lay claim to being one of the oldest fermented beverages, but it’s the cutting-edge creative approach of owner Bill Cavender and fellow mead-makers Mike Palese and Zack Napier that sets apart Black Heath Meadery in Scott’s Addition.

Mike Palese (from left), Bill Cavender (owner) and Zack Napier join Jay Burnham (right) and me in the WRIR studio. Graves photo

Join co-host Jay Burnham and me on this week’s broadcast of the RVA BEER Show, 97.3 FM WRIR Independent Radio at 11:3o a.m. for a spirited discussion of mead, its ingredients, its history and the success of Black Heath. If you can’t catch the show, click on the link below for the broadcast. And don’t forget to support local breweries during American Craft Beer Week!

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Starflies make their seasonal debut in my meadow

The meadow of a thousand starflies–be patient. It’s not night yet. Photo by Lee Graves

Two nights ago, fireflies appeared in my meadow for the first time this season. A blink here, a flash there, tentative sparks floating above the meadow. In coming weeks they will increase by the score until at season’s height they will create a spectacle of magical proportions—a silent fireworks display on the grandest scale, challenging the mind and the eyes to fully absorb the glittering display. Sunday night, though, the sparks were sporadic, nomadic, minutes apart, so that I felt I could trace the individual insects hovering above the grass. There was an intimacy to the moment that will not come again.

I struggle with their names. Calling them fireflies doesn’t really capture their presence. They don’t burst into flames, like some single-handed conflagration. Nor are they bolts of lightning, as the name lightning bugs suggests. How about starflies? I like the grace of that, and in my meadow they certainly create a flickering galaxy of ever-changing constellations.

The accompanying photo is of my meadow as I look out this evening from my deck. The air is soft tonight and less fragrant than Sunday, when the first starflies emerged. Then there was a thick honeysuckle pudding of smells in the air. Regardless of the weather, the view is a jewel. Deer often nestle among clumps of grass below during the night; my flashlight catches their eyes, red coals in the beam. Skunks, possums, turkey, foxes—I even saw a bear waddle across the creek once. The deck is sheltered by four trees—a pine (Virginia pine, I believe), a sweetgum (damn those pesky spiked balls they shed) and two grand old oaks, one a pin oak, the other a red oak. They are the lords of the meadow, reigning from this ridge over the poplars, oaks, pawlonia, locusts and others that form an amphitheater below. A perfect setting for a starfly festival.

I started renting this cottage three years ago. My stated purpose was to have a base in Charlottesville as I worked on my second beer book. Those who know me know better—I am a lover of the outdoors, of solitude (though I’m not a recluse), of birds, of breezes, of feeling the ocean of change swirl in waves, seen and unseen, passing within and without. At this moment I hear the yacking of a pileated woodpecker, its call like the sputtering of an old jalopy. A Canada goose just honked by, probably headed for the pond on the other side of the hill. Earlier I saw my first scarlet tanager of the season; Sunday, an indigo bunting. Wrens have built a nest among the beams that hold up the deck, only a few feet from where I sit now.

This cottage, this meadow, these trees and birds and all—they have changed me. Perhaps it’s my age as well—I’ll be 70 in November—but my soul finds rest here, like the artificial snow in one of those watery globes you shake up and watch as the flakes settle. Peace comes if you let it. Also, I have read more extensively in spiritual matters and tried to put into practice some of the disciplines of mindfulness. Meditation, yes, though I lack the discipline at the moment to make it part of the daily routine. Still, I try to pay attention to the small things I might ignore if I were in a hurry. The swallowtail butterflies clustered around a puddle in the driveway. The bumblebees that police their territory like buzzing bullies. The tracks in the mud—two hooves, like knuckles pressed in the ground, showing that a deer has passed recently. And, yes, the starflies. I’m eager to see the first one tonight. Wish I may, wish I might…Can you wish upon a starfly? I don’t see why not. If so, I wish you were here to share this with me.

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Beer news you can use from Nashville to RVA

Thousands of brewers from around the world gathered for the Craft Brewers Conference & BrewExpo America in Nashville this week.

The Craft Brewers Conference & BrewExpo America draws thousands of brewers and beer industry folks for the latest in trends, innovations and programs. Graves photo, taken at the 2017 conference in Washington, D.C.

We bring you some insights from that event, plus a look at stubby lager bottles, some fun aspects of Cinco de Mayo and the latest new beer releases and upcoming events. Join Jay Burnham and me on the RVA BEER Show, WRIR 97.3 FM at 11:30 a.m. today. If you can’t make it then, click on the audio below and we’ll bring you up to speed. Cheers, and tune in May 18 at 11:30 for the next show with our guest Bill Cavender, founder of Black Heath Meadery in Scott’s Addition. P.S.–a big shout-out to Center of the Universe, Port City and Devils Backbone–all Virginia breweries that brought home medals from the prestigious World Beer Cup. Congrats!

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Fastest-growing breweries, anniversaries and Bière de Garde

So much good stuff for Jay Burnham and me to talk about this week on the RVA BEER Show, WRIR-FM 97.3.

Tuesdays always draw a line at The Veil for the weekly can release, but this week is special as the Scott’s Addition brewery celebrates another anniversary. Lee Graves photo

Three Virginia breweries made the list of 50 Fastest Growing Breweries in the U.S. The Veil is celebrating another anniversary, joining Triple Crossing, Legend and other local breweries toasting another year of growth. Plus we take a look at Biére de Garde, a complex Belgian farmhouse style dating to 1888 that straddles the line of ales and lagers. Click the link below to listen to the April 20 broadcast.

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All the beer news that’s fit to print–and share

Jeff Maisey, founder, publisher and editor of Virginia Craft Beer magazine, joins Jay Burnham and me on the RVA Beer Show this week. Tune in at 11:30 a.m. today (Friday) to hear the broadcast on WRIR 97.3 FM. If you can’t catch the broadcast, click on the link below and you won’t miss a thing. Cheers to all.

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What’s new? Hazy beer guidelines and Stone’s plans

You might know it as New England IPA. The Brewers Association calls it “juicy or hazy” in new style categories announced this week. Jay Burnham and I also discuss Stone’s change in plans for its bistro and beer gardens at the intermediate terminal site, plus we add a bit of history about the introduction of lager beer to Virginia in the mid-1800s. Join us every other Friday on WRIR 97.3 FM at 11:30 a.m. If you missed today’s broadcast, click on the link below.

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Women play prominent roles in craft beer growth

Ashley Ray of Center of the Universe, beer writers Robey Martin and Annie Tobey, and Cheyenne Burnham of Final Gravity joined us on the RVA Beer Show. Photo by Lee Graves

Women make up about 12 percent of weekly craft beer drinkers but about 50 percent of the adult population. What’s with that? Join Ashley Ray of Center of the Universe, Cheyenne Burnham of Final Gravity, beer writers Robey Martin and Annie Tobey, co-host Jay Burnham and me on the RVA Beer Show as we talk about the roles of women in craft beer. The show airs every other Friday at 11:30 a.m. on WRIR fm 97.3 Independent Radio. The link below accesses our March 9, 2018, program.

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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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