The story of America’s first rockstar brewer: Peter Hemings

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Ghostfish Brewing recently created, and is currently serving, three beers to commemorate Black History Month. One of those beers is called Hemings Swan Song Colonial Amber Ale. Inspired by those beers, this is the second story I’ve posted from the intersection of Black history and beer history. (Read the first.) Recently, I had a chance to sample the beers. In the amber, I discovered some unexpected character — allspice, cinnamon, and other flavors reminiscent of a winter warmer. Pictured above, the amber ale is closest to you

“I based this beer off James and Peter Hemings of Monticello,” said Tae Shawn Caldwell, brewer at Ghostfish Brewing. “The two brothers were slaves of Thomas Jefferson but were early pioneers in bringing European cuisine as well as modern brewing to the Americas.”

Tae Shawn Caldwell with the three beers he recently created.

Following Tae Shawn’s lead, I am happy to share the story of the first black person in America to receive professional training as a brewer, Peter Hemings.

Who Really Brewed the Beer?

In a colonial home, or on a plantation, keeping a supply of beer on hand was probably the responsibility of the lady of the house. It was akin to keeping the pantry stocked and the laundry clean. Depending on her status, or her geographic location, her role in any of those tasks was quite likely supervisory at best. Enslaved people did the work.


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With regards to beer, that was the situation at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s plantation in Virginia, where beer was considered one of the hallmarks of the estate. To be fair, there are historical records suggesting that Jefferson was himself very interested in the brewing of beer. Apparently, he was fascinated by the process, the science, and the engineering. Still, he would not have been the one stirring the kettle or raking out the mash tun. So who brewed the ballyhooed beers of Monticello?

The Hemings Brothers

In 1784 Thomas Jefferson was appointed to serve as the American minister to the French court. James Hemings, one of his enslaved servants, accompanied Jefferson to France where he received training in the French culinary arts. In fact, that’s why Jefferson brought him along. After returning to America, James established himself as a trained, skilled, and talented chef, which was rare in those days. James Hemings is recognized as one of the first classically trained chefs in America and is credited for helping bring continental cuisine to the Americas.


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If the name Hemings sounds familiar, perhaps you are recognizing it because of James and Peter’s sister, Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman that was involved in a long-term, nonconsensual sexual relationship with Thomas Jefferson. Entire books have been written about that subject. In fact, historians have chronicled the story of the entire Hemings family of Monticello. The familial, blood relationship between Jefferson’s family and the Hemings family is a study unto itself.

Eventually, Chef James Hemings negotiated for his manumission. Jefferson agreed to grant his freedom on the condition that he first train another chef to run the kitchen at Monticello. James decided to pass the knowledge on to his younger brother, Peter Hemings.

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Records show that dignitaries, guests, and friends who dined and drank at Monticello raved about the beer. They asked for the recipe and hoped to duplicate it at their own homes. Presumably, making the beer would have fallen under the purview of the kitchen, and thus the chef. However, beyond that, the first person specifically identified as a brewer at Monticello is Peter Hemings.

Like his older brother before him, Peter Hemings gained a reputation as an excellent chef. After working for some years in that capacity at Monticello, Peter Hemings was trained as a brewer by a man named Joseph Miller, a master brewer who had been trained in England. He not only learned how to brew the beer but also how to malt the grain. Historians consider Peter Hemings the first black person in America professionally trained as a brewer.

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Records from Monticello show that in 1813 Peter Hemings “learned brewing and subsequently took charge of the malting and brewing operations.” According to Jefferson himself, Hemings learned brewing “with entire success” and possessed “great intelligence and diligence both of which are necessary.”

That statement speaks to the puzzling and disturbing duplicity of slavery in America. Jefferson said some of the vilest and most demeaning things about Black people, but he also spoke of them with praise and admiration. He wrote elegantly about humankind’s inherent freedoms but also enslaved over 600 people. He quite literally enslaved some of his own kin.

Shortly after Jefferson died in 1826, Peter Hemings became a free man. A “gentlemen’s agreement” allowed one of his already-free relatives to purchase him for one dollar. By then he was in his late 50s. As a free man, he did not work as a brewer but as a tailor until he died in 1834. Sadly, Peter Hemings’ wife and children were never freed, so it is far from a happy ending.

Gayle Jessup White is a descendent of the Jefferson and Hemings families. She is also the Public Relations & Community Engagement Officer at Monticello. In an article published in Food and Wine magazine, she said it best: “Telling stories of the enslaved is essential for us to understand who we are as Americans. [In] recognizing Peter Hemings’ contributions and recognizing the Black community he represents, there’s an acknowledgment of his humanity.”

Sources and more information:

https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/beer

https://www.foodandwine.com/news/one-of-americas-first-craft-brewers-was-thomas-jeffersons-slave

https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/02-02-02-0004

https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/peter-hemings#footnote3_akn4e72

https://www.monticello.org/slavery/landscape-of-slavery-mulberry-row-at-monticello/meet-people/peter-hemings/



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