Recently I have been completing research for an upcoming History at Sunset Program at the park. During the last week or so I have been combing through available transcribed letters written by Isaac Hite Jr. and others related to the plantation. The letters reveal numerous aspects of everyday life on the plantation. They also allow historians insight into the various business endeavors of Hite and Belle Grove Plantation. As any successful business owner, Hite kept meticulous records of his goods being shipped and sold to market. Most of his flour and grain was shipped to Alexandria. Once there, certain merchants would hold and sell his goods locally and across the Atlantic. During my review of these letters I came across a certain letter of interest.
The letter is dated February 3rd, 1806 and written by one William Hay to Isaac Hite Jr. Hay was one of Hite’s legal advisers and close friends of the time. The letter is a short two paragraph letter. The first paragraph deals with Hay telling Hite about the happenings in his family at the time. He wrote in part, “The family is well and Polly begins to suffer by a comparison with Ann’s daughter.”
The gold of this letter is in the second paragraph. The whole second paragraph deals with Hay sending Hite beer, in the nature of three barrels of porter. Hay apologizes that he cannot send the beer in bottles when he wrote, “sorry that I cannot send you porter in bottles.” This is the only recorded evidence of beer being on Belle Grove’s property. Hite was known for making whisky in his distillery on site, and shipping in large quantities of wine regurarly.
What I find interesting is the comparison between the modern craft beer movement and this letter. Personally I love beer, all types of beer. Trying new beer and comparing them to others is a great pastime of mine. I recently have dabbled in homebrewing. One of the themes of this new craft beer/homebrew movement is people being highly particular about how the beer is made, served, and stored. What is interesting is that in the letter of note, Hay spends the rest of the letter describing how the porter should be stored and consumed:
“I know Mrs. Hite is a good housewife and will take a pleasure in having it bottled as soon as it settles. Let the bottles be make perfectly clean and dry and when it is well corked, lay it away on its side. In about a fortnight it will be rife and by this means you will drink Porter much cheaper than usual. If you are inclined, you may use it from the cask, but take care when you draw any that the vent hole is immediately shut [so] that the beer may not loose its air. My best respects to the Family.”
These instructions are eerily similar to that of a modern day home brewing recipe! Both beer drinkers of today and in the early 19th century were concerned about how their beers will be bottled, and how long to store it. I find it interesting that the public sees history as foreign and distant. But I would argue, and this letter shows it, that we are more similar with our historical ancestors than we think.