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Levi on the Monticello Reserve Ale

March 08, 2011

Could the coolest job in the world get any cooler? The answer is yes! During the late summer and early fall of 2010, Mark Thompson saw fit to have me begin working on research and development of many new brews that will be forthcoming this year. Here I was, finally a full-time pro-brewer, and then I was given the opportunity to begin developing recipes and honing processes for our brewery—it could not get cooler than that! ..Or so I thought.

In October, Mark and I were discussing the R&D process and I was updating him on my progress. That was when it got cooler.

Mark began telling me how he and the Assistant Curator at Monticello, Justin Sarafin, had been working on an agreement for Starr Hill to make the Official Beer of Monticello for about 8 years, and that all approvals had been completed. He showed me the bottle and the approved label and asked me if I would take the lead on developing a Monticello-inspired beer for the project! You have to be kidding me!  “Yes!” was my answer. I like to think of myself as an amateur historian, and I read history books almost exclusively, so the opportunity to draw on two of my passions was more than I could hope for.

I began with research. The staff at Monticello was extremely helpful, and through their resources, I learned what I needed to know:

1. Jefferson didn’t use a recipe for brewing. Contrary to popular belief, he took stock of his harvest at the plantation and that was what dictated the recipe, not a carefully designed house brew, as people would expect.

2. Anytime he was asked about recipes or brewing processes, he would refer people to a treatise on brewing written by Michael Combrune in 1804.

3. Barley was expensive and was not grown at Monticello, so it was rarely, if ever, used. They did, however, grow large amounts of wheat and corn.

4. Hops were grown on the plantation (and still are); however no one knows what type they were or are currently.

I began by reading the Combrune book and researching beers brewed with wheat and corn. I finished the book and felt confident I understood the process he was using, but with my need to use our ingredients in the present, the beer would not really be feasible. That is where “inspired” in the description comes from; it is inspired by what Jefferson had available to brew with. Combrune’s book was the state of the art in the early 1800s; he was, after all, the first writer to recommend the use of a thermometer in brewing! Needless to say, to make it “accurate” would also include utilizing airborne bacteria and yeast which would make a sour (and unpalatable to most) low-alcohol beer. Don’t think I am not going to try to do it that way—that will be at another time.

After clearing my information with Mark and Justin, I began making pilot batches to work out the recipe. I made a good beer in the first attempt, but a great beer on the second. People really liked it because it was very different from what we usually make and very different from other wheat beers. Score!

So here were the results: We would use only wheat and corn, as Jefferson did. We would use East Kent Golding hops, which are a hybrid of a very popular English hop and an American wild hop, both plausible types that could have been at Monticello. And finally, we would not filter the beer, as Jefferson would not have done so. Beers at the time clarified by sitting in a cellar for an extended period of time, so ours would, too. The beer has a very complex mashing procedure and takes nearly twice as long to make as a normal brew does. It also stays in the cellar longer to clarify.

The Monticello Reserve Ale is a modern example of something that would have been made and served at the time in many homes here in Albemarle County. I will certainly attempt the “historically accurate” version soon, but it will probably not be for the faint of heart.

The reviews on the Monticello Reserve Ale have been coming in, and they have been great! People are really enjoying the beer—not just the taste, but its history as well.  Remember though: every beer is history in your hands. This art has been handed down to us from brewers throughout history; we are the stewards of it until we pass it along as well—a big circle of life. We will continue to be the best stewards we can be and pass along The Gift of Great Beer to the next generation of brewers.

Until then, cheers!



Allie -

Steve, Once our next batch of Monticello Reserve Ale is bottled, it will only be available at the Brewery Tasting Room and at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello for most of 2011. At the end of this year/early next year, we may extend its distribution to other locations in VA.

Brett -

Congratulations, what a coup! Is Starr Hill making a recipe available for enthusiastic homebrewers? The use of corn sounds fascinating, and I'm guessing your distribution network doesn't include Australia...

Mike -

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