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Stirring up some brew

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By John Barnhart

    Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest celebrated the 270th anniversary of Jefferson’s birth with a craft beer tasting.

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    This is something that Jefferson would have appreciated, although he certainly would have reserved the right to cut in at the head of the rather long lines that formed at each brewery tent. After all, it was his birthday, it was his house and, as third president of the United States, former governor of Virginia and principal author of the Declaration of Independence, he was a pretty important man.
    Beer was one of Jefferson’s passions, according to Kelcey Thurman, Poplar Forest’s director of communications. She said that Jefferson brewed beer at Monticello, his main home, and he exchanged letters with other brewers.
    While he didn’t do any of his brewing at Poplar Forest, he did store it there. Thurman said that the house has a cellar where Jefferson kept wine, beer and cider.
    According to Chris Molseed, Hill City Homebrewers’ competition manager, brewing was a lot more difficult in Jefferson’s day. Hill City Homebrewers is a home brewers’ club. They were there to demonstrate brewing.
    One technical difficulty those in Jefferson’s day faced is that there was something about the process that they didn’t fully understand.
    “They knew fermentation would happen, but they didn’t know why,” he said.
    It would still be some time before people realized that yeast is a living organism.
    “They knew it worked, but the didn’t know why,” he said, noting that they would scoop foam off one batch of beer and put it in the next, a process that transferred yeast to the new batch.    
    Another difficulty that brewers in Jefferson’s day encountered was controlling temperatures. Molseed said this is why they did most of their brewing in the winter, storing the finished product in wooden casks in cellars.
    “They would brew beer in the winter months to hold them through the summer,” he said.
    According to Molseed, the beer Jefferson brewed would have been a dark beer, similar to a porter. He added that Jefferson shared his beer with his slaves.
    Hill City had a three-tier brewing system in operation, Saturday. The top pot contained the mash, which consisted of hot water and grain. The mash is kept at a precise temperature for 60 minutes, which cooks all the starch out of the grain. The result of this is called the wort. The wort goes in another pot and is cooked at at a precise temperature for another 60 minutes to convert the starch to sugar. The result is then placed in a fermenting vessel, yeast is added, and it ferments for two weeks at a temperature of 68 to 70 degrees “because yeast does not like high temperatures,” Molseed said.
    “Now it’s beer,” he said.
    Hops is also added during the process. Molseed said that they added bittering hops at the beginning of the cooking process that turns the starch in the wort to sugar. Without the bittering hops, the beer would be too sweet to drink. Aroma hops are added at the end.
    “This is what you are going to smell when you drink beer,” Molseed said.
    Molseed said that some people looked at their setup and asked if they were making moonshine.
     Actually, what they were doing would be the basis of whisky. After the wort was fermented, it would be run through a process that would vaporize the alcohol, which would then be condensed back into liquid. Moonshine would use a corn mash.
    Another big difference between making beer and making moonshine, besides that fact that home brewing beer is legal, is that it’s also safe. According to Molseed, the worst outcome that could happen with home brewing is that you could end up with bad beer if you make mistakes. Make a temperature mistake when running a still and the end result could poison you.
    Saturday’s craft beer tasting was Poplar Forest’s first.
    “This is the inaugural event,” said Thurman. “Today is all about trial and error. We are definitely learning a few things.”
    Thurman said that the success of a wine tasting, which worked out well, led to the idea of the craft beer tasting.
    “It brought a lot of people out that have never been here before,” she said.