Thursday, December 15, 2011

Monticello Reserve Ale

While perusing the beer section of a local supermarket, I stumbled upon a bottle of Starr Hill's Monticello Reserve Ale.  The label displays an image of Monticello's famous facade, which was once the home of Thomas Jefferson and is a popular local historical attraction.  The label also proclaims the Reserve Ale is the "Official Beer of Monticello."  Intrigued, I purchased the bottle, intent on doing some research and posting tasting notes.

From the bottle label: "Beer produced on the Monticello plantation was served during dinner, with wine served after the meal.  From her first arrival at Monticello in 1772, Jefferson's wife Martha oversaw the periodic brewing operations, producing fifteen gallon casks of small beer - beer with low alcohol content - about every two weeks."

"Larger scale brewing began with the appearance of a British brewer detained in Albemarle County during the War of 1812.  Captain Joseph Miller improved upon the equality and quantity of Monticello beer, introducing ale, stronger beer better suited to storage.  Joseph Miller trained the enslaved Peter Hemings in the arts of malting and brewing.  Hemings - a brother of Sally - carried on the brewing operations, making one hundred gallons of ale every spring and fall."

Starr Hill's site lists Monticello Reserve Ale as an unfiltered American wheat beer, made solely with wheat and corn.  It is moderately hopped with East Kent Goldings (27 IBUs) and weighs in at 5.5% ABV.  It also won a silver medal at the 2011 Great American Beer Festival, in the Indigenous Beer category.  According to a blog post by Levi, one of the Starr Hill brewers, the beer was 8 years in the making, as Monticello and Starr Hill worked out the legal and other details of brewing an official Monticello beer.  Levi collaborated with the Monticello staff and utilized a historical text to come up with the final recipe, including the exclusion of malted barley, which was not grown at the plantation.

The beer poured an incredibly light straw color, almost as light as a cider.  The pour left very little head in the glass, which is surprising given the large wheat component in the malt bill.  The carbonation of the beer appears fairly light, given the low levels of foaming and bubble formation during the pour.  The beer had an extremely mild aroma, though my perceptions were dulled by the end of a head cold.  I did detect a mild floral smell, perhaps similar to jasmine or honeysuckle, along with a slight herbal character along the lines of fresh mint.

The initial flavor of the Reserve Ale was strongly floral and slightly harsh.  Honeysuckle and chamomile explode on the palate in an interesting manner.  If I had not read information on the beer ahead of time, I might have thought it a gruit flavored with flowers.  Some bitterness appeared mid-palate, but it was fairly subdued.  The flavor finished fairly dry, though the floral character of the beer lingered for almost a minute afterward.  I also detected a slight corn flavor at the end of the taste, which was interesting, but slightly distracting.

Overall, the beer was enjoyable and different than anything I had tasted from Starr Hill before.  However, the lingering floral character continued to build throughout the pint, and it was slightly off-putting.  While interesting, I do not think I would order another pint in the same sitting.

Thanks to Starr Hill for undertaking a historical beer of this nature and making it available in quantities that the local general public could taste.  Have any of you had the opportunity to taste a historically-based beer?  Leave a comment and let us know about your experiences.



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