Persimmon Beer: From African Roots to Southern Icon

             When Ardent Craft Ales in Richmond, Va., used a recipe from a 1700s cookbook to make a batch of persimmon beer in 2014, the effort made international headlines.

               “A drink brought back from the grave!” trumpeted the Daily Mail in England.

               The excitement was palpable when aficionados gathered at Ardent to toast the first public pouring of the light, effervescent brew.

               “You can feel a connection across time when you’re drinking something that maybe hasn’t been drunk for a couple hundred years,” said Paul Levengood, then president of what is now the Virginia Museum of History & Culture, sponsor of several “History on Tap” programs. “It’s a fun way to bring the past into the present.”

               That past has a richer context than many realized when they drank Ardent’s version of “Jane’s Percimon Beer.” The history of persimmons and persimmon beer in early America represents a unique intersection of three cultures—English settlers, Native Americans and enslaved West Africans—and a beverage that became iconic in the Old South.

               “This beer when properly made, in a warm room, is an exquisitely delightful beverage as the writer knows from personal trial and experience,” wrote a South Carolina journalist in the Anderson Intelligencer in 1876.  “[It] is to the connoisseur of temperate taste, not inferior to the fermented juice of the grape.”

Persimmons ripen in the fall; an unripe persimmon will have potent pucker power. Lee Graves photo

               During persimmon beer’s heyday, newspapers from New York to New Orleans carried recipes, including ones credited to Thomas Jefferson. Virginians can claim particular connection to the fruit and the beer. The scientific name, ascribed by Carolus Linnaeus in 1753, is Diospyros virginiana. The fruit’s common name is derived from Native Americans; Powhatans called it “putchamin;” others, “pessamin” or “pasiminian.” One scientist writing in 1896 said the Native American name translates to “choke fruit”—biting into a persimmon before it ripens in the fall will turn your mouth inside out.

               Persimmons were a staple among the Powhatan, Cherokee, Rappahannock and others, “so valued for their fruit that sometimes the Native people would build their homes near the trees,” says a Virginia Foundation for the Humanities publication. The fickle fruit was eaten raw or dried for use in a variety of foodstuffs, including bread that was shared with English settlers during Jamestown’s infancy.

               To those Old World newcomers, the persimmon was a novelty; persimmons are not native to Europe. The first description is credited to an anonymous author writing in 1557 about Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto’s expedition in the North American Southeast. Englishman Thomas Hariot penned an account in 1587, and Capt. John Smith followed with this: “Putchamins grow as high as a Palmeta; the fruit is like a Medler; it is first greene, then yellow, and red when it is ripe; if it be not ripe, it will draw a man’s mouth awry, with much torment, but when it is ripe, it is as delicious as an Apricot.”

The West African Village at the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, Va. Lee Graves photo

            The story takes a fascinating twist with the arrival of enslaved West Africans in Virginia in 1619. Thanks to recent research by Michael W. Twitty, author of “The Cooking Gene,” and others, we can envision a light bulb moment when these slaves encountered their first persimmons. Diospyros virginiana would have reminded them of their own Diospyros mespiliformis, the African persimmon from what is commonly called the jackalberry tree. Its fruit, known as “alom” to the Wolof and “kuku” to the Fula peoples, was used for medicinal purposes, as a food source used in bread and—wait for it—to make beer.

               “Europeans and Africans might ultimately have been the ones who brought the fermentation of Native American fruits into Southern culture,” Twitty writes. “Given some of the connections between indigenous foods and those found across the Atlantic, it might be more in the lap of West Africans that we owe the existence of beers made from persimmons mixed with honey locust. In any case, it’s clear two ancient strategies emerged.”

               What about the Powhatans, though? If persimmons were so important to their tribe and others—Rappahannock, Cherokee, Algonquin—wouldn’t they have been brewing persimmon beer?

               The consensus among historians is that alcoholic beverages were not a part of Native American culture in the Southeast before the arrival of Old World settlers (tribes in the American Southwest, however, were known to make a fermented drink called tiswin from corn).

               Two of our earliest sources—William Strachey and Capt. John Smith—state that natives they encountered drank only water. Noted author Helen Rountree told me there’s nothing in the old records about the use of persimmons in making any kind of drink. She added that there are only two clear documentary references to Powhatan drinking before the late 17th century. A 1983 paper also concludes that while there is some oral tradition for its 19th century use, “several early sources from the area deny any aboriginal intoxicant there.”

That said, there are references indicating that persimmon beer caught on among indigenous folks at some point. A publication by Washington College in Maryland states: “The fruits of Diospyros virginiana were used by the Cherokee, Comanche, Rappahannock and Seminole for food and beverages. The Rappahannock rolled fruits in corn meal, brewed in water, drained, baked, and mixed with hot water to make a beer.” Dr. Julie Markin, associate professor of anthropology at Washington College, said, “A ‘beer’ in this instance is likely to be of the root or ginger beer variety and not an alcoholic beverage.”

A 1925 monograph by Frank G. Speck titled “The Rappahannock Indians of Virginia” describes the home of an elderly Rappahannock named Bob Nelson as “typical” of the time, with several acres of cornfields surrounding log houses for Nelson and his family. “In Bob’s house the visitor will not look in vain for the old-fashioned home-brewed persimmon beer.”

And numerous newspapers in the 1800s carried this one-sentence “filler:” “Persimmon beer was the favorite drink of the North American Indians.” Without attribution, it has little historical credibility, but it certainly stirs both our curiosity and imagination. Regardless, it certainly refers to the period after European contact.

It’s not hard to envision circumstances when that first batch of persimmon beer might have been brewed. Slaves,  Native Americans and indentured servants rubbed shoulders often in work settings, and a bit of Powhatan persimmon bread or cake could easily have been appropriated for brewing along with corn or honey locust pods (frequently mentioned in colonial recipes). The first mention of persimmon beer in English by Robert Beverley in 1705 describes using dried cakes of the fruit for brewing. Beverley also ascribes persimmon beer—along with beer made from molasses, potatoes, “Indian corn” and just about any other source of fermentable sugars—as being made “among the poorer sort,” i.e. indentured servants, slaves and Native Americans.

               Actually, persimmons and persimmon beer quickly developed an esteemed position among the gentry as well as within enslaved communities. One of George Washington’s estate managers, his cousin Lund Washington, in 1778 wrote, “I find from experience there is a fine spirit to be made from persimmons, but neglected to gather the item for that purpose; only got some for the purpose of making beer.”

1859 TJ Persimmon recipe

Thomas Jefferson was notoriously cagey about beer recipes, saying he had none and “I much doubt if the operations of malting & brewing could be successfully performed from a [recipe].” Yet in 1805 he responded in detail to a request for persimmon beer (see sidebar).

 The drink was more than a nicety among African Americans. “That old persimmon beer was half of our living,” said an elderly Nick Waller when interviewed for the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s. “Us chillun would gather persimmons by the bucketfulls. Mother would cook ’em with wheat bran and make it out into the big pones that she used to make the beer mash and she put lots of [honey] locusts in it. That beer was really good and so refreshin’ after a hard day’s work.”

It was a special treat at Christmas. “Apple cider and ’simmon beer,/ Christmas comes but once a year” was a popular couplet.

Persimmon beer technically was more a cider than a beer, given that the fruit is actually a berry. Both the American and African persimmons are ebony trees, and the hard wood proved ideal for everything from furniture to firewood—it was even used for golf club heads. Confederate soldiers used persimmon seeds for buttons and ground them to make coffee during the Civil War. Both African and American ebonies were prized for their medicinal value and used to treat diarrhea, dysentery, diphtheria, hemorrhoids and sexually transmitted diseases.

“Shavings of the [jackalberry] wood, combined with the pods of Acacia nilotica and roots of Borassus, are pounded in water and boiled for about two hours, after which the liquid is used in Nigeria to rinse the mouth for treating toothache,” says a Plants for a Future publication.

               The jackalberry range extends through a score of African countries, including Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Angola, Benin and others that were central to the transatlantic slave trade. A 2013 article calls Diospyros mespiliformis “the best fruit in Africa.” After all, diospyros translates to “fruit of the gods.”

               Beer made from the jackalberry fruit was but a small part of a rich brewing tradition in western Africa. From the origins of mankind in southeastern Africa, nomadic tribes migrated northeast to the savannah that was rich with wild grains. While barley was prized as the soul of beer in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, millet and sorghum filled African clay brewing pots. (That tradition has continued among peoples such as the Kofyar in Nigeria, who “make, drink, talk and think about beer. It is a focus of cultural concern and activity,” according to a 1964 anthropological study.)

               The African slaves who arrived in the New World were forced into an alien brewing culture—growing hops in the fields (and in their own gardens for sale to plantation owners), brewing ale from barley, corn, wheat, molasses, potatoes, even pea pods in plantation kitchens. So it’s little surprise that persimmons—a balm for homesickness as well as an ingredient for fermented beverages—were embraced and became a matter of communal identity.

1838 Persimmon beer dance amazing

From an 1891 newspaper.

 A long article from the Farmers’ Register published in an 1838 edition of the Martinsburg Gazette in Virginia gives an insight into that communal importance. Under the headline “The Persimmon Beer Dance,” the story describes “Virginia slaves dancing jigs and clapping ‘juber,’ over a barrel of persimmon beer.” Dancers moved “in perfect unison” to a plunking banjo as a “black man held in his right hand a jug gourd of persimmon beer, and in his left, a dipper or water gourd to serve the company; while two black women were employed in filling the fireplace, six feet square, with larded persimmon dough.”

               A different but equally vital identity existed on the other side of the racial divide. Essayist George Bagby, writing in 1866, declared that persimmon beer was among the food items needed to be a “true Virginian” (his list also included eating squirrel, “old hare” and “snappin’-turtle eggs,” so we won’t go there).

               A 1915 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared, “The only fruit that equals the persimmon in food value is the date.” A 1912 article in The Progressive Farmer and Southern Farm Gazette stated, “It has been said that the blackberry is the king of wild fruits of the South. If it be true, we can safely add that the persimmon is next to the throne.”

               Thomas Jefferson and others said their recipes yielded a “very strong” beer. Yet when Georgia teetotalers rallied in support of Prohibition in 1885, “Persimmon beer and ginger cakes were served in abundance.” They claimed it had no alcohol.

               The U.S. Supreme Court concluded otherwise. In a case decided in 1887, “The Supreme Court of the United States has decided that persimmon beer, blackberry cordial and currant wine are intoxicants, and that the inherent right of a citizen does not grant him the privilege of putting persimmons into a receptacle and fermenting them for his own use, if the State in which he lives decides the contrary,” according to an article in West Virginia’s Wheeling Daily Register. The case grew out of a Kansas Prohibition law “because its Legislature does not think persimmon beer good for [people]. The next thing will probably be to arrest every child caught shaking a bottle of ‘licorice water.’”

               Jefferson and Washington weren’t the only chief executives with a taste for persimmon beer. President-elect William Howard Taft accepted an invitation to speak in Atlanta in January 1909, and the politician made a point of requesting a particularly Southern dish—possum and “sweet taters.” Persimmon beer, long associated with that delicacy, was selected as a necessary accompaniment, and preparations had many biting their fingernails.

               “All Georgia is anxiously watching the daily bulletins from the barrel of persimmon beer that is being brewed for the ’possum supper to Mr. Taft next week,” read one local newspaper account. “It is already in the process of fermentation, under the prayerful guardianship of the committee on entertainment, and no true Georgian will breathe easy until it is announced that the beer is ‘right.’ The reputation of the state is at stake on this barrel, as, any Georgia farmer will say, you never can tell about a keg of persimmon beer until it is ready to tap.”

               The Georgians’ reputation proved secure. The banquet featured 100 gallons of the beer, 100 possums (the largest weighing 24 pounds), champagne and great cheer among the 500-plus attendees. Taft, who did not carry the state in his presidential campaign, raised a toast with a glass of “good old ‘simmon’ beer: ‘I may not have been successful in winning the South, but the South has already won me,’” he said.

               Not everyone thought as highly of persimmon beer, however, as the Georgians and their guest. The Omaha Daily Bee scowled: “Persimmon beer was served at some of the banquets tendered to Mr. Taft in Georgia. The only good thing about persimmon beer is that it makes a man regret having ever drunk anything but water.”

               While that opinion might seem harsh, the American persimmon was waning in popularity and prevalence by the new century. Among beer drinkers, lager became the national darling. Many African Americans moved off plantations and out of the tree’s natural range. A 2005 scientific treatise adds another factor: “Common persimmons never caught on as a horticultural crop and were eclipsed at the end of the 19th century by the recently introduced larger fruited Japanese persimmon or kaki (Diospyros kaki).”

               The decline was roundly lamented by old-timers. “We wish to say that in truth time brings back no joys like those it takes away. It has not brought us a glass of persimmon beer for sixty years, and we are grown as thirsty for it as old RIP VAN WINKLE could have grown for any Dutch beverage,” claimed an 1878 Richmond Dispatch writer with obvious tears in his beer.

               Though persimmons and persimmon beer have lost their prominence, they are still celebrated in various ways. The town of Mitchell, Ind., has held a Persimmon Festival since 1947. And Ardent Craft Ales isn’t the only craft brewery to bring persimmon beer “back from the grave.” Fullsteam Brewery in North Carolina has produced a seasonal, First Frost, using foraged persimmons. In addition, noted brewer and historian Travis Rupp of Avery Brewing Co. in Colorado researched Thomas Jefferson’s brewing to produce Monticello Ale in 2020, the 10th of his Ales of Antiquity series. The beer incorporated persimmon, malted wheat, bran, English hops and English yeast. It was fermented in oak and cellared before its release.

“Without a doubt, this persimmon wheat ale is extremely unique and the most bizarre of the turn of the 19th-century beers I’ve produced in the last 12 months,” Rupp wrote.

“Sali” is the Cherokee word for persimmon, used in this sour ale brewed by 7Clans brewery in Asheville, N.C. Photo courtesy of 7Clans BC.

The brew has come full circle with Morgan Crisp and 7Clans brewing in Asheville, N.C. A native Cherokee, Morgan told me about memories of her father and grandfather eating freshly ripened persimmons, and that was one inspiration for the brewery to develop its Sali Persimmon Sour (Sali means “persimmon” in Cherokee). The fruit’s pucker factor inspired them to choose a sour ale, she said, which uses Liberty hops, persimmon extract and kettle souring with lactobacillus. “We’re choosing ingredients that are not typically used now. A lot of the traditional foodways were lost,” she said. “It’s been very personal with me.

“My story is told through my beers—as a woman, as a mother, as a Cherokee tribal member,” she added in a magazine interview. “I want to pass on all that I have learned.”

Thomas Jefferson’s Persimmon Beer

The following is based on an 1805 letter from Jefferson to a Mrs. Duval. He credits the recipe to a Col. Ludwell—presumably Col. Philip Ludwell III—and notes the recipe “has been deemed there, for 50 years past, the best method they have ever known.” At least one other recipe has been attributed to Thomas Jefferson.

To Make Persimmon Beer.—Gather the Persimmons perfectly ripe and free from any roughness, work them into large loaves with brand [sic] enough to make them consistent, bake them so thoroughly that the cake may be brown and dry throughout, but not burnt—they are then fit for use—but if you keep them any time it will be necessary to dry them frequently in an oven moderately warm. Of these loaves broken into coarse powder, take eight bushels, pour on them 40 gallons of cold water, and after 2 or 3 days draw it off, cool it as other beer, and hop it. This makes a very strong beer. By putting 30 gallons of water to the same powder and letting it stand 2 or 3 days longer you may make a very fine small beer.

Millie Evans’ Persimmon Beer

Millie Evans was a black woman from Arkansas who was interviewed in 1936 as part of the Federal Writers’ Project, a Depression-era effort to record the narratives of African Americans born into slavery.

“Gather your persimmons, wash and put in a keg, cover well with water and add about two cups of meal to it and let sour about three days. That makes a nice drink. Boil persimmons just as you do prunes now day and they will answer for the same purpose.”

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Brewery hit buzzsaw supporting historic Black TV show

It’s easy to imagine the pitch that must have been on the table in the boardroom of Milwaukee’s Blatz Brewing Company in 1951.

All images obtained through the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America website.

“Look, boss, the world’s most popular radio program is going to this new format—yes, television. They’re switching from these two white guys doing blackface-type comedy to using real Negro actors. We’ve been supporting Negro rights for years, and this is an opportunity to provide corporate backing and reach a whole new audience. Whatta ya say, boss?”

The answer was a no-brainer “yes.” But the decision would put Blatz in the eye of a storm of racial tensions, many of which still swirl in America.

In the early 1930s, the brewing industry found itself playing catch-up in employing Negro workers. Prohibition’s repeal in 1933 promised better times, yet the quicksand of the Great Depression swallowed much of that optimism. The federal government’s New Deal initiatives were met with skepticism in some quarters.

“The ‘new deal’ as a campaign slogan last fall elicited much favorable comment and attention from the masses of people,” reads an opinion piece in the June 10, 1933, edition of the Detroit Tribune (the self-described “Leading Negro Weekly of Michigan”). “Stroh’s brewery, a home concern, it is said does not hire a single Negro in its brewery system. Yet, according to their advertisement, they are conscientious new deal enthusiasts. I wonder if they realize just what the new deal means to a Negro?” The editorial singles out Schlitz for making “good beer” and hiring “Negroes in all capacities,” but the writer questions why Negroes should support restaurants, cabarets and other beer-selling businesses “which in turn do nothing to reciprocate their patronage.”

Big brewers began making small changes, particularly in hiring Negro salesmen. By 1935, Pfeiffer in Detroit had a dozen black employees in sales and office positions; Eckhardt & Becker Brewing Company, also of Detroit, boasted a handful in similar jobs. Anheuser-Busch was petitioned, however, to remedy shortcomings after representatives of the Chicago NAACP toured its St. Louis plant that year. “Not one American Negro was seen working in the entire plant [but] two colored men are employed as personal servants in the Busch family,” says a July 27, 1935, article in Detroit’s Tribune Independent (its banner reads “On Guard for Negro Rights”).

While these slight inroads were being made in sales and office jobs, little progress was seen among production workers. The Detroit chapter of the American Federation of Labor faced accusations in 1935 that Negroes were being kept out of the Detroit Brewery Workers Union “because of prejudice.” The union countered that it was not accepting new members, white or black, because so many existing members were still unemployed in the wake of Prohibition, according to the Tribune Independent.

Boycotts surfaced. A 1938 effort targeting Stroh Brewing Company alleged racial discrimination; an investigation revealed the brewery had two Negro employees when the boycott was launched a year earlier, and two more were hired after. Charges were dropped after the executive committee of the Paradise Valley Consumers League in Detroit had an “audience” with John Stroh, grandson of the company’s founder.

“We found the circumstances and policies of said brewery…were entirely different, when once we were in the presence of the official family,” reads the report from the League’s executive committee. “The parties accused knew not of any reason why they could be justly accused of unfairness by any group or groups, of displaying any attempted prejudices at any time. They stated that they are willing at any time to concede to our group an open-door policy.”

Oddly, the boycott of Stroh continued, as did protests elsewhere. In Texas, a Black nightclub owner named Julius White assembled fellow Houston businessmen in early 1939 and formed the Houston Colored Beer Dealers Association to protest the absence of Black employees in the state’s brewing industry. They claimed that despite Negroes consuming more than 50 percent of the beer sold in the city, “none of the Texas breweries and the out-of-state ones selling beer here had Negroes in sales positions.” They threatened a boycott unless “a Negro salesman called at the establishments to handle the sale of the product.” The breweries capitulated. “Today, every firm selling beer in Houston has one or two colored sales representatives,” reads an Associated Negro Press article in August 1939.

Black women as well as men were used in ads promoting Fox De Luxe beers from Grand Rapids, Mich. Taken from the Detroit Tribune of Saturday, June 21, 1947.

The Negro presence in the brewing industry continued to grow. Back in Detroit’s Paradise Valley—a Black community where entrepreneurship flourished—the Paradise Valley Distributing Company (“the world’s only Colored beer distributorship,” it claimed) stood as a beacon to Black enterprise. Fox De Luxe ads in the late 1930s and 1940s showed Black men in suits and ties (and the occasional well-dressed woman) hoisting pilsner glasses of beer.

On the other side of the coin, a 1947 Budweiser ad showed a Negro porter grinning obsequiously while serving two besuited white men in a railroad dining car.

It wasn’t until 1950 that a true breakthrough occurred. “Breweries Lift Ban,” shouts a front-page headline in the July 29, 1950, issue of the Detroit Tribune. “A half-century-old pattern of employment practices in the brewery industry of the United States has at last been modernized, according to the National Urban League Department of Industrial Relations. With employment of some 25 Negroes in production phases by three major firms in Milwaukee, the capital city of brewing industry, exclusion of Negro workers has at last been superseded. This, said the League, signals the opening of a new and important occupational field for Negro labor.”

The Blatz, Pabst and Schlitz brewing companies had worked with the CIO Brewery and Distillery Workers Milwaukee local to achieve the step after years of negotiating. Blatz, which was owned by Schenley Industries, stated, “For many years our organization has employed Negroes on its sales staff, and now, with the addition of personnel we are confident that they, too, will be a strong and useful addition to our company.”

This integration of the brewing industry was occurring while a starkly different representation of Black life was holding the country in thrall. “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” a radio program started in 1928 and featuring two white men doing blackface-type comedy, built a following that bordered on mania. The stars were invited to the White House, their appearances in public drew thousands of fans, their names were emblazoned in stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and by 1930 they were the world’s highest-paid radio  comedians.

“Not since Lindbergh flew to Paris and Babe Ruth began batting home runs has anything so captured the interest of the public as these blackface radio comedians. Wherever you go, you hear about them,” Lillian G. Genn wrote in an April 6, 1930, full-page feature in the Washington Evening Star.

Amos, described by Genn as “simple, hard-working [and] imposed-upon,” was portrayed by Freeman F. Gosden. He grew up in Richmond, Va., former capital of the Confederacy, and his father, W.W. Gosden, rode with the 43rdBattalion of the Virginia Cavalry, led by John Singleton Mosby (aka “the Gray Ghost”). Freeman Gosden had a hankering to be an actor, and when a Chicago company came to Richmond to produce a minstrel show, he landed a job. “His first assignment was Durham, N.C., and it was there he met his future Andy.”

Charles J. Correll, a native of Peoria, Ill., also had some experience in minstrel shows. The two hit it off and ended up in Chicago, where they developed a show called “Sam ‘n’ Henry,” a short-lived precursor to “Amos ‘n’ Andy.” Gosden and Correll wrote the scripts, portraying two Negroes living and doing business in Harlem, N.Y. The characters were caricatures—speaking in dialect, mispronouncing words, getting into all kinds of mishaps and mischief as they operated the Fresh-Air Taxicab Company of America, Incorpulated. The scripts were so funny, the personalities so endearing and the fan base so fervent that the National Broadcasting Company gave them contracts guaranteeing $100,000 annually. A feature film, “Check and Double Check,” included celebrity cameos by stars such as Duke Ellington and was a top box office hit until hurled down by “King Kong” in 1933. Freeman and Correll, however, were unhappy with the film. They appeared in blackface, and what had been implied in radio looked forced on the big screen.

So when television arrived on the scene, producers seized the opportunity to cast the show with Negro actors. “Amos will be played by Alvin Childress, veteran New York stage actor; Andy by Spencer Williams Jr.; and the Kingfish by Tim Moore,” read an announcement in February 1951.

Blatz Brewing Company trumpeted its sponsorship. “For the first time on television, America can see—is privileged to see—an all-star cast…an all-Negro cast…in a sterling half-hour of human drama and warm comedy,” hails a 1951 full-page Blatz ad (italics in the original). “This is not just another television program. This is the start of an era—an even greater era than the one Amos ‘n’ Andy created in the past.”

That proclamation was prophetic, but not in the way Blatz intended. The first TV program aired on Thursday, June 28, 1951, at 9 p.m. EDT. What had previously been imagined now took shape—Amos in his bowtie and “Taxi” hat, Andy in his suit, bowler hat and ever-present cigar, talking in dialect and bumbling good-naturedly through misadventures in Harlem with Kingfish and other members of the Mystic Knights of the Sea Lodge.

Controversy erupted immediately. The show debuted during the NAACP’s annual convention in Atlanta. Publicity leading up to the gathering had scant mention of “Amos ‘n’ Andy” in either format; headlines centered more on starlet Josephine Baker’s cancellation because of strict segregation policies among hotels in the city. But attention quickly shifted when Dr. George D. Fleming of Texas presented an emergency resolution “condemning the derogatory manner in which Negroes are depicted on TV.” He contended that “such entertainment makes the uninformed and prejudiced believe that Negro is inferior.”

NAACP Secretary Walter White quickly fired off a telegram to Blatz officials asserting that the program was “a gross libel on the Negro and distortion of the truth.” Pull the show, he said. In addition, White wrote to the heads of roughly 100 national organizations asking them to join the fight and suggest that future scripts “be written so as to eliminate the present uniform presentation of the Negro in so unfavorable a fashion.”

The firestorm came as a surprise because the radio show had drawn few critics. The NAACP, however, came out blazing, listing 12 reasons for fighting the show.

“It tends to strengthen the conclusion among uninformed and prejudiced people that Negroes are inferior, lazy, dumb and dishonest,” it stated in an October 1951 Ohio Daily article. “Every character in this one and only TV show with an all-Negro cast is either a clown or a crook. … There is no other show on nationwide television that shows Negroes in a favorable light. Very few first-class Negro performers get on TV and then only as a one-time guest.”

The NAACP’s initial outburst of protest included “The Beulah Show,” a radio program begun in 1939. Similar to “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” it began with a white voice portraying a Negro, but in prime time it starred Hattie McDaniel, the Oscar-winning mammy of “Gone with the Wind.” McDaniel was signed to star as Beulah in the TV series, also set to air in 1951, but she fell ill, the debut was rescheduled and the role eventually went to Louise Beavers.

The upside of having Blacks on TV in any capacity spurred some pushback against the NAACP and support for the shows. A council of the Negro Actors Guild in New York City commended CBS “for its stand on the program because of what it termed the expressed willingness of CBS to increase Negro employment in this new medium.”

Blatz also stood by its sponsorship. “We certainly do not believe that there is anything derogatory to the Negro people in the Amos ‘n’ Andy show. It is our feeling that if there are legitimate objections they will be removed, but we do not believe the claims of the NAACP are well founded,” wrote Blatz president Frank Verbest in 1951.

Controversy continued to spread, however. The local TV station in Milwaukee, Blatz’s hometown, discontinued the show. Even Black soldiers serving in Korea weighed in after reading about the show, writing that TV’s “Amos ‘n’ Andy” was “derogatory trash” and brought down their morale. “Surely there can be found a more dignified outlet for the Negro to display his talent in the television field,” the joint letter said, according to a front-page article in the Sept. 10, 1951, Ohio Daily Express.

With continued protests and threatened picket lines in several cities, Blatz officials announced in March 1953 that the brewery would discontinue its advertising support. CBS-TV quickly followed by saying “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” despite good Nielsen ratings, would be discontinued after the 1953-54 season. Reruns were widely syndicated, however, and the radio program continued with Gosden and Correll at the microphone until 1960.

Blatz’s headaches weren’t over. Along with Pabst, Schlitz and three other Milwaukee breweries, it faced a strike in May 1953 by the 7,500-member CIO United Brewery Workers local chapter over hours and wages. The strike was short-lived, and Blatz proclaimed in ads that it was back as the No. 1 Milwaukee beer. However, Blatz had fallen from No. 3 in the nation in the early part of the century to No. 18 by the late 1950s. Pabst purchased Blatz from Schenley in 1958, but a protracted federal antitrust suit led to ultimate divestiture a decade later.

Taken from the Nov. 26, 1955, issue of The Tribune in Roanoke, Va.

In an interesting twist of history, when the Blatz brand again became available in 1969, among the bidders was United Black Enterprises, a coalition of Black entrepreneurs who had put together $8 million toward the purchase. Though that offer fell short, one of its members, Theodore Mack Sr., went on to purchase Peoples Brewery in Oshkosh, Wis., which is widely regarded as among the first Black-owned breweries in the country. (The first Negro brewery in the U.S. was allegedly started in 1955 by a Black entrepreneur in Philadelphia, but that’s a story for another day.)

Protests against brewery hiring practices did not subside with the end of the “Amos ‘n’ Andy” show. Boycotts and strikes continued nationwide with increased success, using the argument that the money spent by Negroes on beer ($300 million nationwide in 1952) was not mirrored in jobs. “In the 440 breweries in the Land of the Spree, there are 82,534 employees of whom 63,668 are production workers. They draw down $292,000,000 in pay, much of which obviously comes from Negro consumers,” says a 1952 editorial. “But, my friends, less than 500 Negroes are employed by all of these breweries from coast to coast and from Canada to Mexico. Of this group…only 25 are production workers.”

One of numerous breakthroughs came in New York in 1953. Seven of the state’s breweries promised to give preferential consideration when hiring Blacks. “Immediately available are 100 jobs which previously were denied Negroes. They will pay $87 to $100 a week,” read a wire-service article.

Despite those and other advances, racial issues continue today. A recent survey by the Brewers Association, the trade group representing small and independent brewers nationwide, indicates that while Black people make up about 13 percent of the population, they constitute less than 1 percent of brewers (one source cites 60 black-owned breweries among more than 8,000 breweries in the country as of 2020). The BA in 2018 launched a diversity program, with Dr. J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham of Virginia as its ambassador, to address discrimination, hiring and harassment issues. Individual breweries also have offered grants and other incentives to promote equity.

And as far as “Amos ‘n’ Andy” goes, the nation’s fascination with—and mixed emotions about—the program certainly did not die in the 1950s. Syndicated reruns continued until 1966, when NAACP opposition again led to the plug being pulled.

In 1983, an hour-long documentary, “Amos ‘n’ Andy: Anatomy of a Controversy,” explored the background and development of the show, including interviews with the show’s actors as well as more current Black stars such as Redd Foxx of “Sanford and Son” and Marla Gibbs of “The Jeffersons.”

Foxx credited the show with providing a springboard for other black actors—plus it was funny. “I think it was a situation comedy that depicted Black people—some Black people—in an element. It was comedy, man, and it was laughs there, and that’s what it’s all about,” he said.

Gibbs added, “I don’t think it reflected the wrong image of Black people. I think it was the fact that it was the only image of Black people… Because that’s all we had, I think the NAACP was really trying to say we needed a balance.”

One final note: While the radio duo of Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll have their stars enshrined in Hollywood concrete, no such distinction goes to any of the actors in the TV show, despite its being the first all-Negro sitcom on television.

Blatz Beer is currently produced by the Miller Brewing Company under contract for Pabst Brewing Company. The documentary “Amos ‘n’ Andy: Anatomy of a Controversy” can be viewed on YouTube at

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1930s beer ads teach lessons about Black lives that have mattered throughout history

Note: This article was written in July 2020 during the turmoil following the death of George Floyd and in the light of our ongoing struggle to confront racial issues, particularly Richmond’s monuments to the Confederacy.

Among the lessons learned during our current turmoil is that the causes and people we put on pedestals can quickly go from burnished to tarnished. The present is a fickle judge of the past, and by the time a grandson becomes a grandfather, a symbol of glory can turn to a target of disdain.

That said, certain values endure. Someone who rises above adversity to weave a tapestry of achievement and raise the bar of human endeavor continues to earn our esteem. In the American experience—especially in the light of Black Lives Matter and the deconstruction of the Confederate legacy—stories of once-enslaved women and men who became beacons of accomplishment inspire us in ways that monuments to warriors do not.

Imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon a treasure trove of such tales while researching beer history.

In 1938, the Pfeiffer Brewing Company, based in Detroit, launched a series of advertisements in celebration of Negro History Week (the precursor to Black History Month). The ads ran in the Detroit Tribune, a prominent Negro weekly, and each spot included a short profile and artist’s sketch under the title “Builders of History and Civilization.”

In launching the series in its issue of Feb. 12, 1938, the Tribune stated: “The story of America is starred with the names of illustrious Negroes who have brought their gifts to the betterment of this country. Ever since Crispus Attucks, the first man to die in the war for Colonial independence, the Negro race has maintained its contributions. America could never have become the country it is today were it not for men such as Frederick Douglass, the great statesman, Booker T. Washington, the great educator, or a woman such as Sojourner Truth. Nor would American literature possess its present richness without the brilliant poems of Paul [Laurence] Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson and Countee Cullen—nor American music its charm and power, without the great Negro spirituals written by numerous unknown composers—nor musical art its widened phases, without a Paul Robeson and countless others.”

Many of the names are well-known—Richmonders certainly would recognize Maggie Walker, John Mitchell, the Rev. John Jasper and Charles Gilpin (he of Gilpin Court). But educator John Chavis, spiritual and intellectual leader Alexander Crummell, actress Ira Frederick Aldridge, artist Henry Tanner, newsman John Brown Russman, writer/lecturer Frances Harper and others were revelations to me.

Other factors add to the richness of this moment. Pfeiffer Brewing Company, begun by German immigrant Conrad Pfeiffer in 1889, made concerted efforts in hiring blacks in the years following Prohibition—a time when segregation was rife and federal civil rights laws were but a dream. In 1935, Pfeiffer had “the first colored salesman for a brewing company,” according to the Tribune, by promoting Henry Cummings, one of 12 black employees. “Mr. Cummings’ appointment opens a new avenue for employment as salesman for the concern. … The management of the brewery plans to employ colored workers in any positions which they can be placed,” the newspaper reported.

The Negro History Week ad campaign sprang from that framework, and early entries sounded a theme that would be repeated—men and women rising from the shadows of oppression to positions of prominence. Take Dr. James Derham, for example. “[He] was born in Philadelphia over a decade before the American Revolution. Still just a young lad, he was purchased by a physician for whom he soon began to perform minor duties in a medical capacity. Barely had he reached manhood when he was again sold—this time to another physician in New Orleans.” He went on to learn French and Spanish, and “his education and medical proficiency enabled him to win his freedom” and establish a medical practice.

Another: “Henry Highland Garnet was born into slavery Christmas Day, 1815. In 1824 his parents escaped and settled in New Hope, Pennsylvania, where young Henry had his first schooling.” He went on to become a teacher, minister, lecturer and Abolitionist, giving a speech at the 1842 National Convention of Colored Citizens that “was so radical that the convention refused to adopt it, but six years later John Brown had it published at his own expense.”

Richmond’s own John Mitchell also was a child of slavery, born in Henrico County in 1863. As editor of the Richmond Planet, “he displayed courageous efforts to abolish the lynch law, and the fact that he was a Negro and lived in Richmond did not hinder his attitude.”

The ads continued through 1938 and gained such popularity that Pfeiffer announced in February 1939 that it would continue the series. “The great number of letters, telephone requests and other appeals which have been received, urging the continuation of this historical advertising, impels [Pfeiffer] to accede to popular demand.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, the brewery also reported record sales of its beer that year. And this touches on a possible reason a white-owned brewery would take such an interest in black history. An area of Detroit called Paradise Valley was known as a center of black culture and enterprise; it was called “the Harlem of Detroit.” On one level, Pfeiffer executives must have been eyeing the bottom line by appealing to black consumers. But Pfeiffer’s record of employment and the high regard for the brewery expressed in the pages of the Tribune reflect a sincere interest.

Popularity of the series continued to swell, and a year later Pfeiffer sponsored a full-page ad with condensed biographies of 54 “men and women of rare courage and talent.” Prince Hall, “founder of Free Masonry among Negroes in America”; Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, “first surgeon to make a successful operation on the human heart”; John Langston, “first Negro to hold an elective office in the United States” (and a native of Louisa County); William Wells Brown, “first Negro historian” (born a slave); Benjamin Banneker, “an early American astronomer [and] mathematician” (Thomas Jefferson invited him to help lay out the design for Washington, D.C.); Lott Carey, “first American missionary to Africa” (another Richmonder born into slavery)—the list sparkles with people of achievement.

Pfeiffer’s campaign continued to raise interest and praise. The Tribune (which assuredly was happy to have the ad revenue as well as the history lessons) congratulated the brewery “for their foresight in bringing this worthwhile and much needed information to the public.”

The effort peaked in May 1940, when the Negro World’s Fair was held in Detroit “to celebrate 75 years of Negro progress.” The exposition included a Negro Hall of Fame, displays by Negro colleges, lectures, scientific displays, business representatives and a choral concert. It also included Pfeiffer’s exhibit with free copies of booklets profiling 25 leaders from the brewery’s history series. The Tribune’s coverage noted, “One of the most effective exhibits here was that of the Pfeiffer Brewing Company. If you went to the exhibition, you probably visited it, for a count of attendance that of some 250,000 who entered the gates, fully 200,000 dropped in at Pfeiffer’s. … Imagine the surprise and gratitude of the sponsors when [Pfeiffer’s booklet] of many thousands was exhausted and requests made for thousands more.”

Obviously, the thirst for black history was as great as that for Pfeiffer’s beer. The ad campaign waned until 1942, when another full-page ad profiled 50 men and women, ranging from Mifflin Wistar Gibbs, “first Negro judge in the United States,” to Bert Williams, “one of America’s greatest comedians.”

One final footnote to this tale. Ben Henderson, a longtime black employee at Pfeiffer who rose to become general sales manager, left the company in 1942 for another sales job in Detroit. His new employer? The Paradise Valley Distributing Company, which at the time claimed to be “the world’s only colored beer distributors” (see my story).

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Beer and race: a complex history still playing out

     More than 80 years ago, Reuben Ray and Grady Jackson, both African-Americans, sat in a bar they co-owned in Detroit and wondered why whites, rather than those of their own race, were delivering beer to black businesses on their street.  

     “‘Grady, do you see what is happening here, man?’” recounts Reuben Ray II, Ray’s son, in the book Paradise Valley: Detroit. “‘The white boys are making money off us, delivering beer to our stores. Partner, I do believe we need to be in the beer business.’”

This ad by Paradise Valley Distributing Co. stakes its claim as “the world’s only colored beer distributors.” Taken from the Detroit Tribune of Saturday, March 23, 1940.

     And so they gave birth in 1938 to the first black-owned beer distributorship in America—and in the world, according to their newspaper ads at the time. For years, the Paradise Valley Distributing Co. stood as a beacon of black enterprise—and success in the beer world—in what was called “the Harlem of Detroit.”

     Their business in Paradise Valley stands out in the complex history of beer and race in America. Field slaves grew hops under the yoke of plantation owners, yet they also cultivated hops in their own gardens to sell for profit. Black women brewed beer in colonial kitchens, but always under the thumb of their mistresses. After Prohibition, national breweries hired blacks as sales representatives to increase business among minorities, but it took strikes and boycotts to open more sustainable union jobs on the production and delivery side of things.

Fox De Luxe Beer ads, such as this one from 1946, regularly portrayed black men and women enjoying their products. Taken from the Detroit Tribune of Saturday, March 9, 1946.

     Even now, the Brewers Association—the nation’s strongest representative of craft breweries—finds the racial component of the industry so tilted that it funds a diversity ambassador to address business practices. Dr. J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham, known as Dr. J among friends and students in her classes at Randolph College in Lynchburg, Va., is scheduled to be the keynote speaker at the Michigan Brewers Guild annual conference Jan. 8-10 in Kalamazoo. Dr. J. has established such prominence in the U.S. through her efforts that Imbibe magazine recently named her “Beer Person of the Year.”

     Her appearance in Michigan seems well-timed after a tumultuous episode in the state’s craft beer sector last year. Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids was involved in a lawsuit brought by a black employee who charged that racial discrimination existed in the workplace. The suit, which was settled in October, alleged that the state’s largest craft brewery tolerated a “racist internal corporate culture.” One of the claims was that the “N” word was used without repercussions. Testimony by one of the brewery officials was so evasive—he claimed he couldn’t confirm whether the employee or even Barack Obama was truly black—that a firestorm erupted on social media. Terms of the settlement were not disclosed, but Founders suffered bruises among many beer lovers and retailers.

     Coincidentally, Grand Rapids also was the home of a production facility owned by Peter Fox Brewing Co. in the 1940s and ’50s. One of its flagship beers was Fox De Luxe, which enjoyed great popularity in the Midwest and beyond.

Black women as well as men were used in ads promoting Fox De Luxe beers from Grand Rapids, Mich. Taken from the Detroit Tribune of Saturday, June 21, 1947.

     Fox De Luxe was featured in numerous ads showing black men and women enjoying beer. In our day and age, that doesn’t sound like a big deal. But in the 1940s, you were more likely to see blacks in stereotypical subservient settings, such as the Budweiser ads showing Negro train porters serving beer to whites. (To be fair, Anheuser-Busch hired and promoted blacks in sales and executive positions in mid-century.) Paradise Valley Distributing Co., however, set an earlier mark in history. The sense of excitement crackles in a Nov. 26, 1938, article in the Detroit Tribune describing the opening of the business under the headline “New Distributing Agency Opens Office.” “This time it is the real agency. A real honest-to-goodness beer distributing agency. Negro from the front office to the mop man. The new distributing agency will be … owned and operated by [Paradise Valley] people. Reuben Ray, who made Negro history during the past year as the only distributor of coin phonograph machines, will be president. And when you buy a bottle of [beer] … remember, you are really helping Negroes.”

     That echoed earlier rallying cries. In a 1933 editorial in the Detroit Tribune, a black newspaper, Theodore R. Barnes wrote about the lack of jobs for Negroes among regional breweries and beer retailers despite President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the impending repeal of Prohibition. 

     Ray was a prominent figure in Paradise Valley, a black community similar to Jackson Ward in Richmond, Va., in its entrepreneurial vigor during Jim Crow days. In the 1930s, Ray found a profitable niche with his jukebox business; then he began lending money to other blacks to start their own businesses. The beer distribution venture started with one truck and a small shop on Beacon Street but soon relocated to larger quarters nearby. New partners joined and expansion continued with a fleet of “six street trucks and two highway truck units which hold 600-700 cases,” according to a Detroit Tribune article of Sept. 6, 1947. In 1941, the company had “22 employees of their racial group on their payroll with drivers of their trucks averaging from 60 to 80 dollars per week.”Initially, they represented beers from Koppitz-Melchers and other Detroit-area brewers. Early stalwarts in their portfolio (which also included wine and malt liquor) were Friar’s Ale and White Seal Beer, “the only beer obtainable in Detroit that is brewed with fancy malt.” Ads proclaimed, “Help Make Jobs for Colored Men and Get More for Your Money.”

     “Suppose our cabarets, clubs, restaurants, and other businesses selling beer would demand that some Negroes be hired in these places. The men so hired would spend more money in these Negro businesses, thereby allowing them to do more business with the brewers. This matter should be considered.

     “The Negro must awaken to the fact that sentiment means absolutely nothing to him, unless it is so constructed as to increase and enhance his economic status. To this day, with some people, the Negro is still ‘the forgotten man.’ He can expect nothing, only that which he through his own ingenuity and conquest can bring to pass in his favor. His courage as a fighter is legend. Let’s see it in action. The way is open; let’s take every advantage. They say a new deal—let’s see if they mean it.”

     Those words still resonate, in Michigan and elsewhere. Dr. J’s topic is “Fans, Hands and Brands: Strategies and Tactics for Being Inclusive and Building Diversity in Craft Beer.” Given that Michigan lays claim to being “The Great Beer State,” with more than $2.4 billion in overall economic impact and 17,000 full-time jobs in its brewing industry, there seems ample opportunity to learn from history, in all of its complexity.

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Starr Hill adds bright light to RVA’s constellation of breweries

Pardon me if you sense a bit of sentimentality sprinkled in this account.

In September 1999, I drove to Charlottesville to interview Mark Thompson for one of my “Beer Guy” columns in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Thompson had moved into a spot on West Main Street—the same spot formerly occupied by Virginia’s first brewpub, Blue Ridge Brewing Company—to open a brewpub. With a music hall upstairs and a tasty array of award-winning beers, Starr Hill quickly became an icon in Charlottesville, and Thompson became one of my fast friends in the state’s brewing community.

After leading Starr Hill to become Virginia’s largest craft brewery, Thompson has moved on to establish the Brewing Tree Beer Company in Nelson County. And Starr Hill, still an iconic presence in the Old Dominion, is opening a new spot in Richmond’s Scott’s Addition.

When the Opening Blowout begins at noon tomorrow (Saturday), Starr Hill’s location at 3406 West Leigh Street will be the largest taproom among Starr Hill’s group of satellites, which will include Lynchburg in 2020 along with Roanoke, downtown Charlottesville and the main production facility in Crozet. The 9,000-square-foot facility can hold 450 people in a setting that features high ceilings, bright murals of the James River and city scenes, framed music and event posters and, on the rooftop, a view in three directions of a bustling urban community. Twenty-four taps will be pouring beer both downstairs and on the rooftop while live music—part of Starr Hill’s identity—keeps toes tapping.

Starr Hill will have 24 taps both upstairs and downstairs at the Leigh Street location. Lee Graves photo

Despite its long history and its stature in the state, Starr Hill will face the same challenge as any new spot in a competitive market—creating identity. In Scott’s Addition, where Starr Hill is rubbing elbows with Väsen, The Veil, Ardent, Strangeways, Isley, Three Notch’d and Bingo, as well as three cideries, a distillery and a meadery, that will be no small feat.

Allie Hochman, general manager, sees Starr Hill gaining a new twinkle in RVA with a 10-barrel brewing system accompanied by oak barrels for aging and fermenting with wild and mixed yeast cultures.  “This is an opportunity for us to experiment a little more,” she said. “We’ve never really had this extensive a setup before. You thought you knew Starr Hill—now guess again. We still have a few tricks up our sleeve.”

Secondary fermentation using wild and mixed yeast cultures in the oak foeders will be part of the appeal for Starr Hill brewmaster Robbie O’Cain. Lee Graves photo

Brewmaster Robbie O’Cain will oversee the initial brewing on the German three-vessel system (that doesn’t count the fermentation and bright tanks). The first brew, anticipated in January, will be an IPA, but you can expect more exotic offerings once the five horizontal foeders of American white oak are put in play. They are clean slates—no bourbon or wine in their history—and will provide a variety of brewing opportunities, from sours to fruit beers to you-name-it, as they mature. “It will be interesting to see how these things change over time,” O’Cain said.

Saturday’s Blowout has been a long time coming, Hochman said. “We began working a year ago to get plans in place. But the reception among the brewers in Scott’s Addition has been great. It’s all been so welcoming.”

For details about the Saturday Blowout, go to

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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, 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 (though that has been disputed by some historians).

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 becomes 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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