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Beer was a part of most meals at Monticello, possibly served in small silver vessels known today as "Jefferson Cups." But where did the beer come from? What was it like? And who made it?

In this episode of In the Course of Human Events, Andrew Davenport, Monticello Public Historian & Manager of the Getting Word African American Oral History Project, shares how an English brewer's fraught sea voyage led to Peter Hemings—an enslaved Monticello cook of "great intelligence and diligence"—becoming an accomplished brewer whose beer was the envy of the neighborhood.

Joining him in this episode are Holly, a tour guide at Monticello, and Dr. J. Jackson-Beckham, Principal of Crafted for All, LLC, a professional development platform that helps craft beverage organizations become more inclusive, equitable, and just.

Andrew Davenport: This is one of the central paradoxes of American slavery: that enslavers could and did coerce enslaved people to transfer their talents and skills to other enslaved people, thus exploiting not only their bodies but their knowledge.


Andrew Davenport: I am Andrew Davenport, the Public Historian of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and the Manager of the Getting Word African-American Oral History Project, which records the histories of families who were descended from people enslaved by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. Today, I'm going to tell a story about beer, a sometime English sea captain, and an enslaved cook at Monticello.

Holly: My name is Holly, and I am a tour guide at Monticello. My former life was in craft beer as part of the Washington, DC Brewers Guild and at Dogfish Head Craft Brewery.

J. Jackson-Beckham: My name is J. Jackson-Beckham. I am a diversity, equity, and inclusion strategist for the craft beverage industry. I also lead a professional development platform called Crafted For All, and serve as the Executive Director for a nonprofit called Craft x EDU that champions inclusion, equity, and justice through education and professional development.

Holly: You're listening to "In the Course of Human Events," a Monticello Podcast, and today we're going to be talking about Peter Hemings and craft brewing at Monticello.

Joseph Miller's Voyage

Andrew Davenport: I am Andrew Davenport, the Public Historian of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and the Manager of the Getting Word African-American Oral History Project, which records the histories of families who were descended from people enslaved by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. Today, I'm going to tell a story about beer, a sometime English sea captain, and an enslaved cook at Monticello.

Andrew Davenport: This story starts in October 1812, when sea captain and brewer Joseph Miller set sail from England with his daughter Maryanne on the merchant ship Lydia bound for Norfolk, Virginia. When Miller's half brother died, he left him part of his estate, which included property in Norfolk, so he was sailing to the US, to take possession of his inheritance.

It was a six week voyage under normal circumstances, but circumstances were not normal. The US and Great Britain were at war, and any ship making the Atlantic crossing risked being caught up in the hostilities. And sure enough, the Lydia did not entirely escape the conflict. She was detained first by a French privateer and then by British ships of war. She had almost reached Norfolk when she was forced by blockade to turn and sail north up the Atlantic coast. She turned into the Delaware Bay, likely making for Wilmington or Philadelphia. But after an eventful four months at sea, the Lydia was hit by a storm and sunk. 

Miller and his daughter somehow survived the wreck. Undaunted, they then embarked on a five week overland journey to Norfolk, where they were detained by the American government and ordered 120 miles inland to Fluvanna Courthouse. But when they got to Fluvanna, they were forced to keep moving because of illness in the area.

So after traveling four months by sea and two by land, after being harassed by ships and thwarted and rerouted numerous times by the authorities, the Millers arrived in Albemarle County, Virginia by May, 1813 bringing them into the orbit of Thomas Jefferson.

Holly: We don't have the exact details of Jefferson and Miller's meeting, but when it comes to food and beer and wine in this country, in this time period, it's interesting how many people we talk about today simply because of their proximity to Jefferson.

J. Jackson-Beckham: It seems like Jefferson's orbit was really large and dynamic. I actually posed the question to a culinary historian friend of mine, and she was like, Jefferson just knew everybody.

Beer at Monticello

Andrew Davenport: At that very time, Jefferson was engaged in one of the many quixotic projects he was known for, like growing wine grapes at Monticello, or encouraging the cultivation of upland rice, and the production of maple syrup in the south. This project, brewing beer at Monticello, was less grand and more likely to succeed, but he needed help and the now-stranded brewer from England with time on his hands was a godsend.

J. Jackson-Beckham: When I was looking into what was happening on Jefferson's estate, what was consumed and by whom and how much, one of the things I learned was Monticello had no shortage of fermented beverages. So, wines, ciders, brandies, beers, there were lots and lots of things being served at table with regularity. I think it's just something he really genuinely loved and something that he recognized as a way to create community and connect people.

And then you overlay this on the scientific curiosity of a mind that is observational. And we certainly know that Jefferson had a very observational mind and the depth of records that he kept over his life. I couldn't help but feel a little bit of a connection to the ways that contemporary homebrewers come to beer and brewing. I work in the craft beverage space and this is an industry in the United States that has just about 9,000 breweries right now, and many of them are headed by people who were tinkerers and homebrewers, right. They had homebrew systems in their garages and took the leap to go pro, and I think it takes a certain type of mind to be interested on that level.

Holly: Yeah, it makes total sense. Jefferson is interested in everything, and in everything scientific, botany and agriculture, especially. Just looking at the landscape architecture that he planned at Monticello, not only are there flower gardens, but vegetable garden, orchards, groves. He was an incredibly detailed record keeper. Monticello and all things related to it-- it's probably one of the most well-documented Southern plantations in American history because Thomas Jefferson wrote everything down.

Peter Hemings

Andrew Davenport: By September, Miller was at Monticello overseeing the attempt to make beer on the plantation. At his side was Peter Hemings, a multitalented enslaved tailor and cook who had already received training in French cooking, and who was now chosen by Jefferson to learn the entire brewing process, from malt to bottle. Peter Hemings was a son of Elizabeth Hemings and her owner, John Wayles, Jefferson's father-in-law. This made Hemings and several of his siblings, including James and Sally Hemings, half siblings of Jefferson's wife, Martha, and that made them Jefferson's half-brothers and sisters-in-law.

Holly: Peter Hemings was part of the Hemings family, which was the largest family at Monticello plantation enslaved by Thomas Jefferson. Peter Hemings was a husband to his wife, Betsy. He was a father to his four children. He was trained as a French chef. He cooked French meals in the kitchens of Monticello. He was a tailor and he was also the brewer at Monticello.

J. Jackson-Beckham: As I looked into the brewing history at Monticello, I only found Hemings through Jefferson's record-keeping.

Holly: Hmm.

J. Jackson-Beckham: I felt like I was only getting to know Peter second-hand and almost entirely through his accomplishments, which, as we've heard, are notable. But there's a barrier to really understanding this person and who he was and how he felt about his talents and his relationship to his enslaver and to the rest of his family.

Holly: Absolutely, and that's one of the many challenges with not only telling Peter Hemings' story or understanding who he was. Thomas Jefferson wrote everything down, but the things that he is noting about Peter Hemings, or any other enslaved person, are through a very narrow lens, and they don't often give us that window into who a person truly was as opposed to what work it was that they did.

J. Jackson-Beckham: I did a lot of my research looking through the library at Poplar Forest, which was Jefferson's getaway from the hubbub of Monticello. It struck me how many times he used the word alone or the word isolated to describe his experience at Poplar Forest, and as many as 95 enslaved people might have been working at Poplar Forest at any given time. And I think about what kind of mental framework you have to be operating in to think that you are both alone and also surrounded by the labors of nearly a hundred people. 

The enslaved community, and the Hemings family in particular, had such notable presence, and we were able to apprehend this presence through Jefferson's notes, but the absence is so palpable.

Two Brothers

Andrew Davenport: Peter Hemings had been trained to cook by his older brother James, whom Jefferson had chosen to take to France to learn French cooking in the 1780s while he was serving as US minister to France.

In France, James Hemings could have appealed for his freedom, but Jefferson promised James Hemings would be freed if he would return to the US and train his replacement. This ended up being Peter. I can't help but wonder about this. James Hemings knew he would be free but only because Jefferson insisted he transfer his knowledge to his younger brother, who would remain enslaved. Surely, both brothers and their family understood this impossible entanglement. It was an education in slavery. Peter Hemings served as Monticello's enslaved principal cook for 13 years.

Holly: When James Hemings had the opportunity to negotiate with Thomas Jefferson for his own freedom, it was under unique circumstances. There was a French law that allowed an enslaved man, like James Hemings, to petition the courts for his own freedom, even if he was from another country. So over the five years in France, James Hemings learns to speak French, he received money for his work there, and he was likely aware of that French law. We often encounter the phrase "knowledge is power." When Jefferson was ready to return to America, James Hemings had the knowledge, and therefore some power, to begin to negotiate with Jefferson for something he wanted: his own freedom. But of course, it's not that simple, because even though Jefferson agreed, that agreement did not come without a price, and we know James had to train his brother, Peter, as a French chef in order to secure his own freedom, but at the same time, that act further ensured his own brother's enslavement.

J. Jackson-Beckham: There's also the very practical question, would Peter's lot have been different either way? Sadly, I think that answer might have been no.

Holly: Maybe Peter's plight wasn't going to be any different either way, but he did something to better his brother's situation. Maybe it's an act of love. Maybe it's an act of sacrifice for his family. Whatever the feelings were between James and Peter, we can assume a lasting affection. Years after James was freed, Peter named his first-born son James, presumably after his older brother. 

Learning the Craft

Andrew Davenport: Joseph Miller and Peter Hemings started the brewing process on September 17, 1813, by malting grains, soaking the grains in water for a few days to force them to sprout, so their starches could be converted into sugars. Over the next few weeks, Miller showed Hemings how to crack the malted grains, soak the cracked grains in a mash, to strain the mash, to boil the extracted liquid, and to add hops to flavor the beer in yeast, to ferment the sugars into alcohol, before laying the beer in casks for up to a month. The final step at Monticello was to transfer the beer from casks to bottles for storage and serving.

Miller continued to be present for the next few brewings. By the fall of 1814, Peter Hemings was working out of a new brew house at Monticello, and experimenting with malting corn instead of the more traditional barley, which was not grown at Monticello. By 1815, Peter Hemings was fully on his own, brewing batches of up to 300 gallons twice a year.

J. Jackson-Beckham: It looks like some of the beers that Hemings would have brewed at Monticello, would have been probably closer to table or what we now call session strength. probably between 2 and 3% alcohol, so very low ABV. Often, fermented beverages were considered part of daily caloric intake. It was a way to make sure you were ingesting more or less clean water, because brewing beer involves boiling it. Sometimes a barrel was kept next to the front door and people would be encouraged to like grab an earthenware mug and dip it in and that was kind of your hospitality. It was certainly a part of general colonial commensality, coming together and consuming food and beverage for the sake of social ritual, for building relationships. So would have been really embedded in the social life at the time.

There's this moment where Jefferson is both extolling the talent of Peter as a brewer, but also doing a little bit of complaining that he may have over-hopped some beer. If you're a beer drinker, you know right now that the best selling craft beer style in the United States is the IPA. That is an aggressively hopped beer style. And I was doing an homage beer collaboration with someone and we were looking at this and kind of laughing to ourselves that Peter was ahead of his time if he was over-hopping a colonial beer. We always just wondered, was that just a gripe of Jefferson's or a mistake? Or was Peter maybe taking some licenses to kind of brew to his own taste? So it's this rare moment of transparency where we see Peter really clearly and I just wonder, is that a moment of choice of curation on the part of Peter Hemings?

Training Others

Andrew Davenport: Peter Hemings's beers were apparently well-received by guests who dined at Monticello. Jefferson was pleased as well, and with evident pride in his brewing skills, described Hemings as having, quote, "great intelligence and diligence, both of which are necessary," end quote. As word of Hemings's achievements spread, Jefferson's neighbors began requesting his recipe. But there wasn't one to share, only practice and knowledge, so when James Madison asked for a recipe in 1820, Jefferson invited him to send someone, presumably one of Madison's enslaved workers, to attend two brewing sessions to learn the process. When former governor James Barber also asked for the recipe, Jefferson extended the same invitation. Once the trainee, Peter Hemings was now training others. An enslaved man, he was undoubtedly a master brewer.

Again, I can't help but wonder how Peter Hemings felt about all of this. He was teaching others the skills that were used to somehow justify his own enslavement. This is one of the central paradoxes of American slavery: that enslavers could and did coerce enslaved people to transfer their talents and skills to other enslaved people, thus exploiting not only their bodies, but their knowledge.

J. Jackson-Beckham: This is somewhat of the MO, right? Two dominant narratives come through in this story. One is perhaps a level of flexibility that Jefferson extends to the Hemings, in terms of educational opportunities or elevated position in the household, and on the other side, this very suspect pattern of exploiting both the talent and intelligence of enslaved people to provide services at a cost savings, essentially. He doesn't have to pay a French chef because he can keep an enslaved French chef. He doesn't have to pay a brewer because he can keep an enslaved brewer. There's this weird tension where, you know, I recognize your intelligence and creativity and humanity enough to know that you can learn these new, interesting, skilled trades, but then I will also exploit them for my benefit on the other side.

Holly: Peter Hemings and John Miller certainly were not the only example of free and enslaved craftsmen working side by side. Take a look at John Hemmings. John Hemmings was Peter Hemings' brother, but he was also the enslaved head carpenter at Monticello who learned much of those master carpentry skills from a free white master craftsman, an Irish man named James Dinsmore. So many of the unique features of Monticello were created by Dinsmore and Hemings working together, including the parquet floor in the Monticello parlor. That was Hemings and Dinsmore, and Dinsmore actually said that the parquet floor was so difficult to create that he would never do anything like it again, even if he got paid twice the money to do it. John Hemmings, who worked right alongside James Dinsmore on that project, could never utter a sentence like that about compensation or even about choice whether or not to do it.

J. Jackson-Beckham: I think I had a very simplistic view of slavery, where it was really just about enslavers thinking of the individuals they enslaved as less than human, and I think Jefferson 100% disrupts this assumption. I don't think he thinks of the people he enslaved as fundamentally less than human. However, I do think he participates in the idea that they are an exploitable resource, and that they are inherently something that he can ultimately profit from. These are the bruising and heartbreaking complications of the time.

Jefferson's Death

Andrew Davenport: When Jefferson died in 1826, Peter Hemings was 56 years old. Unlike some of his enslaved cousins and nephews, Peter Hemings was not freed in Jefferson's will. Peter Hemings was sold in January 1827, purchased by one of his free relatives and given his freedom. But his wife and children were owned by Jefferson's son-in-law, Thomas Mann Randolph, and were not freed.

Holly: It isn't strange or unusual that Jefferson would free one family member and leave the rest of their family in enslavement. Enslaved families were split apart all the time, sometimes as punishment, sometimes by gift or by sale. An enslaved man named Israel Gillette was in his late twenties when Jefferson died, and he said that Jefferson's death was, quote, "a moment of great uncertainty to us slaves," and that's because Jefferson had only provided for the freedom of a few people.

Partial Freedom

Andrew Davenport: We know that by 1830, Peter Hemings was earning a living as a tailor in Charlottesville. The question here is why did Peter Hemings pursue work as a tailor and not as a brewer? In writing on behalf of Joseph Miller during the war of 1812, Jefferson described him as engaged in, quote, "the lucrative business of brewing," end quote. Lucrative. Peter Hemings had the training, skills, and the experience to succeed in this "lucrative" field, But he needed a brew house, large copper pots, a place for a large fire, and the ability to make an initial purchase of the grain he needed to get his business started. Peter Hemings, who had seen his brother, James, realize his freedom, and saw his teacher Miller's financial success, died probably in the mid-1830s, knowing that his wife and many of their children would remain enslaved by the Randolph family. They would remain the property of the Randolph family for the next 30 years, freed only by the Union's victory in the Civil War and the abolition of slavery.

J. Jackson-Beckham: Beer was very popular at the time, but it was also undergoing transition. Prior to this moment, you would have seen this very small-scale domestic household brewing tradition, but you are starting to see the burgeoning industrial brewing industry. So, he would have had a very marketable and profitable skill. That that was a skill that probably was inaccessible to him after leaving Jefferson's estate Is a little bit heartbreaking, it sounds as if he had, you know, a fair amount of success as a tailor in Charlottesville toward the end of his life, but I always wonder, would he have preferred to have been brewing beer.

Getting Word

Andrew Davenport: One of Peter Hemings' grandsons, Anderson Robinson, is my grandmother's grandfather. Monticello's Getting Word: African-American Oral History Project has for many years researched the family histories of descendants of people enslaved by Jefferson. Getting Word has conducted several interviews with Peter Hemings' descendants, and recently, we were made aware that one of Peter Hemings's great-great-great-grandsons is training to be a master brewer.

Holly: J., to prepare for our conversation, I spoke with Gayle Jessup White. Gayle is a descendant of Peter Hemings and she's Monticello's Public Relations and Community Engagement Officer. We discussed Peter Hemings. We talked about his life, his talents, his strong family ties, but we also discussed how generation after generation, as we learn the stories of Peter Hemings' descendants, we repeatedly see the endurance, the strength, the character, and the resilience of Peter Hemings. The traditions that are passed down through his family show a cultural and a familial persistence that disproves the institution of slavery and showcases what we might imagine the individual character of a man like Peter Hemings was. That's just one of the many reasons why the Getting Word African-American Oral History Project is so vital to understanding the legacies of people who were enslaved at Monticello.

J. Jackson-Beckham: When I think about the tradition that might've been passed down from someone like Peter Hemings, I have to believe there are so many more Peter Hemings' in the world who are simply invisible to us because we don't have the window. Right now, less than a half a percent of craft breweries in the US are owned by African-American owners, and the sense that they may have a history that they simply have not been able to access is a really interesting prospect to me. I'm really invested in the idea that whatever histories we have, however incomplete or inaccessible, we can leverage to the benefit of people who are trying to achieve certain types of professional quality today.

Holly: Thank you so much to Andrew Davenport for sharing the story of Peter Hemings with us today. And Dr. J, it was a real privilege to be able to have this conversation with you. Thank you so much.

J. Jackson-Beckham: Just want to thank you, Holly, for including me in this conversation, to Andrew and to Monticello for thinking of me, and for the listeners for following us along this complicated and interesting journey. Really appreciate your time.



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Narrated by Andrew Davenport

Hosted by Holly and Dr. J. Jackson-Beckham

Direction and editing by Joan Horn

Sound design by Dennis Hysom

Production by Chad Wollerton and Joan Horn

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