As homebrewer J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham puts it, the false idea that the founding fathers brewed their own beer has had surprising longevity. However, along with Good Beer Hunting and Champion Brewing Company, she hopes to change that.
On Friday, Champion unveiled a new ale called Diligence and Intelligence in tribute to Peter Hemings, an enslaved brewer responsible for much of Thomas Jefferson’s alcohol.
Though unable to directly brew what Hemings would have, as a result of incomplete notes, Jackson-Beckham and Co. worked to make something that evoked the time period, drawing from known regional ingredients and hints left by Jefferson.
Made of 60 percent malted wheat, 20 percent corn and 20 percent pilsner hops, the bittered ale will be available at Champion Brewing for the next few weeks.
Though the brew may be new, Jackson-Beckham said its story stretches back centuries, to a time when the accomplishments of enslaved people were routinely ignored or misapplied to slave owners.
After being approached by Good Beer Hunting to do an article on the history of homebrewing on plantations, Jackson-Beckham began research Hemings. While working on her doctoral dissertation on the history of U.S. brewing, she said she started to wonder about the history of enslaved brewers.
“I had this idea in the back of my head for years that there has to be a brewing tradition among enslaved people,” she said.
The accomplishments of enslaved people are rarely recorded, she said, and after consulting a friend who studies the culinary traditions of enslaved people, she began looking through Jefferson’s notes and letters for clues.
“In that particular social structure, those were not people worth documenting, and that makes it particularly challenging,” she said. “That’s why Jefferson was such an interesting case, because he was this super-meticulous note taker; he wrote down everything.”
Through Jefferson’s extensive paper trail, Jackson-Beckham was able to piece together some of Hemings’ life and works, including what she muses may have been the first hazy pale ale.
“You get [Jefferson] talking about [Hemings] in all these tangential ways, like in one sense he’s bragging about him to James Madison or he’s complaining to someone else that he put too much hops in the beer,” she said.
After the article on her findings, “Missing Ingredients — The (Incomplete) Story of Thomas Jefferson’s Unsung Brewer,” was published by Good Beer Hunting in December, the publication’s founder, Michael Kiser, floated the idea of making a beer in homage to Hemings.
The idea took off, and, after a few emails and DMs, Kiser managed to get Hunter Smith, president of Champion Brewing Company, on board as well. Using her research, Jackson-Beckham, Smith and Kiser worked together to put together the brew in a matter of weeks.
“Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have really had a reference point of the market for something like that, but it sounds like something you would make right now,” Kiser said. “For us, to be able to do this event is about bringing it to life in the most visceral way.”
Intelligence and Diligence is currently available at Champion Brewing Company in Charlottesville.