Improving on a tradition as old as Alexandria
By Kris Gilbertson
When Bill and Karen Butcher launched the Port City Brewing Company on Wheeler Avenue in 2011, they revived a tradition dating to 1771, the year Andrew Wales established Alexandria’s first brewery near what is now Wales Alley in Old Town.
At that time, safe municipal drinking water was still 80 years in Alexandria’s future. Beer was the common thirst quencher of the general population. Until the mid-1800s, at least ten local breweries functioned, but they disappeared during the Union occupation of Alexandria, from 1861 to 1865.
Post-Civil War, the local Robert Portner Brewing Company grew into the largest brewery in the South, only to close its doors in 1916 when Virginia went dry three years before Prohibition was enacted nationwide. That brought a halt to brewing near the Capital City.
A local brewing revival
The craft beer movement took root in the 1980s but did not explode on the beer scene until 2008. In 2010, Bill Butcher, an 18-year veteran of the wine industry, discovered that DC was the only major metropolitan area in the country without a packaging brewery.
(A brewpub is a restaurant/bar that brews beer mainly for consumption on the premises. A packaging brewery produces large quantities that are sent to market.)
The popularity of craft beer seems to be part of a refining national palate. During the 1980s, people moved away from generic to higher-quality wines and were willing to pay more for better taste. In the 1990s, artisanal coffee developed a following of people who would spend a bit more for a good quality cup of coffee. The same process took hold in the 2000s with beer. A growing segment of the market is turning away from the huge breweries’ products in favor of fresh, often local beers.
According to the Brewers Association, there were 4,269 breweries of all sizes in the U.S. at the start of 2016, and new ones were opening at a rate close to two a day. Over 98 percent were craft brewers.
Still, there is little concern so far about market saturation. “Craft beer is only 12 percent of the market right now,” says Butcher. “That’s the biggest it’s ever been, but it’s still only 12 percent. The Brewers Association has a 20 percent market share targeted by 2020. And we are on track to make that.”
“Craft beer’s growth has come from making craft a larger percentage of the beer drinking segment,” says Chris Van Orden, Port City’s Marketing and Outreach Manager. “There are so many people who don’t drink craft beer yet, and as soon as you get them to try it, chances are they’re going to enjoy it more and continue buying it.”
This has been true with Port City. Starting in 2011, the brewery has won dozens of positive reviews and important awards nationwide, including 2015 Small Brewing Company of the Year at the Great American Beer Festival (Denver). It is currently a finalist for Beer in the 2017 Good Food Awards (San Francisco). In late November, Heurich House Museum in DC capped its History & Hops season by showcasing Port City.
But the most important measure? In five years, Port City Brewing has increased capacity from 5,000 to 20,000 barrels and recently acquired a second warehouse, making enough room to triple output and to double the current bottling line to 120 bottles per minute.
The expansion is vital because it can be a struggle to keep up with sales. “We often times are filling orders with beer that we packaged that morning,” says Butcher. “We’ve got our wholesaler coming this afternoon to pick up a truckload of beer and we’re out there packaging it right now. It will be out on the market tomorrow. It’s great because the customer gets fresh beer but it’s a difficult way to run a business.”
Butcher credits his crew with delivering Port City’s optimal quality and freshness, especially Head Brewer Jonathan Reeves, who joined the staff when the company was at the consultation stage. Reeves was essential in designing the production floor of Port City and has developed the company’s beers. He has been a judge at the Great American Beer Festival, although never in any category of his beers.
Microbiologist Abbey Temoshchuk is another essential crew member. The State of Virginia welcomes and promotes craft breweries for their contributions to tourism, the tax base and, in Port City’s case, support of Virginia agriculture. (The brewery buys 175 tons of Virginia wheat a year.) But with support and encouragement comes regulation.
“We’re regulated by the FDA, the TTB (federal Tax and Trade Bureau), the Virginia Department of Health, and the tasting room is regulated by the Alexandria Health Department,” says Butcher.
That’s a lot of inspectors regularly on site, which mandates that a large part of the brewing staff’s job is to keep everything spotlessly clean. “A lot of compliance, and rightly so,” adds Van Orden. “It’s for health, obviously, but we do it for quality as well.”
What exactly is beer?
Mostly water. The ingredients that make it beer are malt, hops, and yeast. But the mineral content of water, the vigor of the yeast, the source and amount of malt and hops—combining and controlling these are the skills that go into brewing great traditional beers. Then factor in any additional spices or flavorings in the recipe.
“There are traditions as to the different combinations,” says Chris. “You can break those traditions but it will result in something different. Our head brewer Jonathan can tweak a proportion in something and he knows what the flavor change will be. It’s incredibly complex.
“Part of why we have a staff microbiologist is making sure that we are pitching the right volume of yeast, that CO2 (carbon dioxide) dissolved in our beer is at the proper level for the style. There’s a lot that goes into it.”
Enter the Hopzooka
Brewing beer has been compared to operating a commercial kitchen. The cooking vessels are on a gigantic scale, of course, but time, ingredients, and temperature are critical factors. And oxygen.
“Oxygen is the enemy of fermenting beer,” says Bill. “Every step of the way we look for ways to minimize the amount of air that gets into our beer.”
There is a point in the fermentation phase when it’s desirable to add additional hops for flavor and/or aroma. This “dry hopping” process usually requires opening the fermentation tanks, which lets in at least some air.
But not at Port City, where they use the Hopzooka, a portable system for injecting hops into the fermentation vats oxygen-free. “Jonathan Reeves invented this and we patented it,” says Bill. “It took four and a half years to get our patent, but it’s an innovation that improves the quality of our beer. We get virtually zero oxygen pickup.”
Traditional beer, classic styles
Port City Brewing is known for producing traditional styles of beer. “Our brewers can make beer in any style out there,” says Chris, “but in general our styles are easily explained to people who are not craft beer devotees.
“There’s always a bit of oscillation, where people want the new flavors, but it’s really interesting—they drink three ounces and say ‘I could go for a really good Pilsner right now.’ And we make one of those,” he adds.
“I saw this when I was in the wine business,” Bill says. “People were looking for more flavor, so the growers would leave the grapes on the vine longer to get more concentrated flavors. You would end up with a 15 or sometimes over 16 percent (alcohol) Cabernet or Zinfandel.
“People got tired of that because it beats your palate up. It’s hard to drink more than a few sips, like Chris was saying, of something that is so over the top. People tire of extreme styles and want flavors that are more balanced and elegant. I believe that the styles we brew fall into that category.”
What’s in a name?
Anyone strolling a crowded beer aisle likely realizes that’s naming a craft beer is not an easy thing to do. Still, finding a novel and original name is critical.
“It’s part of the creative process,” says Bill Butcher. “We’re fortunate in that my wife is a trademark lawyer. She taught me early on that the name has to be distinctive and something that we can own. We do a lot of research. It’s been said that [names are] one of the great scarce resources in the brewing industry because all the good names are taken.”
Bill Butcher is a fourth-generation Alexandrian whose great grandfather moved here in 1908 to work at Potomac Yard. The fact that the DC area lacked a packaging brewery in 2011 was serendipitous, and he and Karen work to keep Port City in Alexandria as it grows.
But more than just making beer, Port City Brewing Company is active in the city. “Craft beer is about bringing people together around a great quality beer,” says Butcher, “but there’s a lot more to it than just making beer.
“We are committed to giving back. We are very involved with charitable organizations in the area. [Bill and Karen Butcher were recently named Grand Marshals of Alexandria’s 2017 St. Patrick’s Day Parade.] And we are committed to treating our employees right, making sure that they are paid well, that they’re happy and they like working here. We’re committed to being a positive force in this community.”
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Port City Brewing Company
3950 Wheeler Avenue
Alexandria, VA 22304
Port City Brewing’s World Headquarters is tucked down on semi-industrial Wheeler Avenue, a quiet neighborhood off Duke Street, some two miles west of Old Town.
The tasting room is open seven days a week (with holiday exceptions). On a recent Friday night it felt like a welcoming neighborhood tavern, filled by a multi-generational crowd ranging from suits to jeans and flannel, and even men in kilts.
It is the best source for fresh tasters, flights, pints, growlers, six packs, cases and kegs to go, and usually serves more styles of Port City beer than you’ll find anywhere else.
Port City cannot serve food, but a regular rotation of food trucks set up in the parking lot. When fine craft beer makes you hungry, sustenance is close at hand. (You can eat it inside.)
Brewery tours are conducted Thursday through Sunday, in a $12 package deal that includes six six-ounce tastings of whatever is on tap. Check the online Events Calendar and plan to join Port City in a wide range of fun and charitable activities in Alexandria.