Full to Port
Introducing Port City Brewing Company
Monday 13 April 2020
This article is from
Welcome to Virginia
Share this article
The Port City taproom isn’t exactly at the heart of a thriving residential area. And yet, a short cab ride (or walk, if you fancy) from downtown Alexandria, it’s packed with punters, both at the bar and in a roped-off overflow area on the brewery floor itself. The seven smiling folk behind the bar face a queue several deep, while the BBQ truck in the forecourt is doing a roaring trade. It’s fair to say that, a few days after it celebrated its ninth birthday, Port City is a mainstay of the community it calls home.
A lot has changed over this time, of course. When Port City opened, there were only 40 breweries in the state and 2400 in the entire US; there are now 260 and 8000 respectively.
“It's much more competitive than it was, and quality is more important now than ever,” says founder Bill Butcher. “Fortunately, that's something that we've always focused on. We didn't open with the goal of being the best local brewery, we set out to compete with beer from all over the world because Washington is a very international marketplace and there's beer coming in from all over the world.”
This ambition has been part of Port City’s business plan since day one. As well as bringing on experienced head brewer Jonathan Reeves, Bill deliberately over-specified his 10,000 square foot brewery in a way that allowed a high level of control and enabled Port City to simply ‘plug and play’ new fermentation vessels to facilitate growth.
“Jonathan has 25 years’ experience as a brewer, and we’re lucky to have had him as our brewmaster since the beginning. So, he had a big hand in designing the brewery itself, according to his knowledge and the types of beer he wanted to brew. He also worked on all the recipes and trained all of our younger brewers on this specific system and how to get the best from it. Everything we’ve done has been very deliberate.”
The result has been 11 medals at the great American Beer Festival, all proudly displayed behind the taproom bar. It was also named small Brewing Company of the Year in 2015, at the great American Beer Festival, and has won more medals at the Virginia Craft Brewers’ Festival than any other brewery. This record has been achieved purely by championing classic European styles, so I try to be delicate when asking whether Bill feels any pressure to keep up with the trends sweeping the rest of the East Coast (including his Virginian peers). He laughs at my awkwardness.
“No, we won’t be doing hazy, or fruit, or adjunct beers,” he says with a grin. “We're not trying to invent new styles of beer, but brew the very best examples of the styles that we love. For example, the Optimal Wit is a traditional Belgian style, so it’s brewed with the traditional Belgian spices. We have orange peel, coriander, and then we add grains of paradise, which is kind of like a peppercorn.”
I’m glad he’s brought up Optimal Wit, not only because it’s going into the Beer52 box, but also because it’s been my go-to Virginian session beer since I landed. Somewhat reminiscent of Allagash White, it’s Port City’s runaway success, much to the surprise of Bill, who expected his original IPA to be the big seller. Supremely quaffable, but still with bags of character, it’s a real year-round beer and goes brilliantly with food.
Coming to brewing from 20 years in the wine industry, the ability to take his beers out into the restaurant industry was a key part of Bill’s plan. He was already a well-known face among restauranteurs in Alexandria, Washington and beyond, so to a certain extent was pushing at an open door. Connections aside though, his experience has proven useful in other ways.
“The most successful wineries I was involved with had a very active education programme and tasting rooms. It was all about that style of hospitality where people would come in, do a tour and buy some bottles to go. The idea was not originally to have this type of crowd,” he says, gesturing around the thronging tap room. “So, we're accidental publicans, I guess.”
But having taken a wine market approach to beer for the best part of a decade, does Bill see his brews now getting some sort of parity in terms of respect?
“I think beer is starting to get the recognition it deserves, yes, and I think we’ve been a big part of that,” he continues. “I've always been convinced that while it is a different beverage, it's just as complex and just as complementary to a fine meal. And we certainly treat our beer with the same respect that you’d see with a fine bottle of wine, which I think carries over into the market; I'm sure you've seen this week in your travels that people here really treat beer well, taking care of their draft lines, using the correct glassware and so on.
“We open up our doors here, and we encourage restaurants to bring their staff here so we can do a tour, we can show them our process, show them our ingredients and show them the care that we take to ensure that our quality is right.”
Port City’s roots extend beyond working closely with local restauranteurs. Named Small Business Philanthropist of The Year in Alexandria in 2016, Bill and his team have worked hard to make themselves an integral part of the community – a fact that no doubt contributes to tonight’s packed tap room. Activities include working with the local food bank, running a regular canned food drive, at the grocery store, and supporting many local charity auctions and fundraisers, by donating beer or free tours.
I think beer is starting to get the recognition it deserves
“We also open up the tasting room on Wednesday nights, if there's a local non-profit that wants to kind of take over for that evening. They'll bring their people in and do an event or a tasting for example, and then we'll kick back 10% of that evening’s sales back to the organisation. So that way, the better turnout that they can bring, the more that we're able to give back to their organisation. People love it,” says Bill.
It’s no wonder that Bill is keen to put something back. He raves about the support the state has given to its home-grown craft breweries, and to the growing agro-tourism sector in general, creating the right environment for good businesses to succeed.
“Where we are, we talk a lot to our peers, people in DC and in Maryland, because they're right across the river. And in terms of the support we have in Virginia, it's night and day. Yeah. The state of Maryland makes it very difficult for a small brewery to compete. The same is true for export – it’s not a huge part of our business, but it’s still important, and something we want to foster. The state has been very supportive of that, in terms of spreading the word, getting us into beer festivals in other markets and helping us understand what they’re looking for. As a state, there’s no doubt we punch well above our weight internationally
I’ve already taken up enough of Bill’s time, and bid him goodbye for the afternoon. Still, the taproom continues to fill up, so I decide to hang around Port City and continue exploring its awesome line-up of beers. I strike up a conversation with a group at the end of my table; they’re colleagues, but met up this evening quite by chance. For a country that doesn’t really have a long-standing pub culture, Americans are really great at the art of welcoming strangers and, several rounds later, Caitlin, Kataleen, Josh and I are all firm friends.
Caitlin kindly volunteers to show me around some of her favourite local bars, so we leave the others and grab an Uber up to the cool waterside streets of old town Alexandria, on the western bank of the Potomac. For reasons that escape me, I decide it would be a great idea to mark my visit to this famous river by anointing myself with its waters. I have wet feet for the rest of the evening, but don’t really notice.
From here we head to Don Taco, where I hoover up more than my fair share of amazing tacos and a punchy margherita. It’s my experience that you can go literally anywhere in the US and find tacos that are infinitely better than anything you’ll find in the UK, and Virginia is no exception (though the deep-fried avocado is the winner).
It’s then just a short stumble to the Rock It Grill, a quintessentially American bar with pool, darts and, to my delight, karaoke. “Wait, you’ve actually put your name down?” asks Caitlin, visibly horrified. I have, though I quickly realise this probably isn’t really the right crowd for classic British rock. Still, Sympathy for The Devil goes over reasonably well, and one kind soul even finds me afterward to say I’d absolutely nailed “that Beatles song”. I’ll take it.
At some point, we switch from credible local craft ales to pints of Full Moon, make a bunch more new friends and all dance to songs that seem to have very specific set moves (that are a mystery to me, obviously). Nobody believes what I do for a living, but I can’t be 100% sure at this point that I haven’t made it up, so we all agree to let it slide.
All too soon, it’s time for bed, and I wander back to the wonderful Alexandrian hotel, taking in all the quirky charm of this beautiful, vibrant neighbourhood. I have one more morning to enjoy here, and am looking forward to skipping across the river, to the weird world of Washington DC.
OLD TOWN ALEXANDRIA
Alexandria’s buzzing waterside Old Town packs a lot of good times into a relatively small space, making it the perfect spot for any beer lover looking for a quick hit of local culture. Here are some of our picks.
Torpedo Factory Art Center is a naval munitions factory that was converted into a super-cool art center on the banks of the Potomac River.
Virtue Feed and Grain offers great food, from fresh, local flavors and ingredients, with a seasonal perspective.
Potomac Riverboat Company conducts regular tours along the water, stopping at Georgetown and The Wharf.
Share this article