I recently got a chance to get with Bill Butcher and Jonathan Reeves of Port City Brewing. These guys have been working like mad men to bring us local beer early next year. Port City will begin brewing within the next few months and offering a Pale Ale, IPA and Belgian Wit. Be sure to check back with us as we let yo know the very minute Port City is available. For now, enjoy the interview !
Did you have any clue about the history of brewing in Alexandria or was this something you discovered while planning your brewery?
Bill: I’ve always been interested in local history. Growing up in Alexandria, I had always heard of Portner’s Brewery that was located in Old Town long ago. When I was writing the business plan, I also tried to learn as much as I could about this Robert Portner Brewing Company.
I had no idea what a fascinating story that the brewery had, and what an innovative and visionary man Mr. Portner was. He started the brewery right after the Civil War, and hired workers solely based on their skills and willingness to work, without regard to race, North/South allegiance or any other factors. This was a pretty big deal in the day and carried certain risks. I admire the courage in his hiring practices, and it obviously helped him build a successful company.
Robert Portner also was very innovative. People are always surprised to learn that one of his innovations includes inventing the technology that enabled modern air conditioning. Yes, it was a brewer that invented air conditioning! His application was for cooling his beer cellars. Portner was among the first American brewers to use refrigerated rail cars; they put blocks of ice on the cars with the beer to keep it fresh. His brewery also had the first electric lights in Alexandria, and his beer garden brought the first bicycle as an exhibition and attraction for locals. The brewery grew to be the largest employer in the city, and it was the biggest brewery in the southern United States.
Given all of this, along with my own family’s 100+ year history in Alexandria, it made sense for our company to revive, celebrate, and continue this rich brewing tradition here in Alexandria.
What has been the most significant challenge, thus far, in making your brewery a reality?
Bill: The real estate search was a very long, arduous, drawn-out process. It took me about a year and a half to find the right location for our brewery. Our small brewery has very specific needs in a building; high ceilings, ample warehouse space, a space for retail, and the right zoning. Alexandria has limited areas with Industrial zoning, and it was quite challenging to find the right space. Fortunately, after a long search, we ended up in the perfect spot for our brewery, which was an old electric supply company. We have an 11,000 square foot warehouse for the brewery, an old showroom which will become our tasting room and retail shop, great office space, and room for expansion. It was important to me to have room to grow. I’ve talked to so many craft brewers who have gotten successful, only to outgrow their space and equipment in a short period of time, before they were ready. It becomes a huge problem for the business and its customers. I took that lesson to heart, and made sure that we have room to grow in our space for the long term.
If the past 2 years of planning, procuring and building your brewery had a soundtrack, what would it sound like?
Bill: The soundtrack of this brewery is the soundtrack of my life: roots rock, alt country, American folk and bluegrass… I listen to a lot of The Gourds from Austin, Texas, who bill themselves as “music for the unwashed and well-read.” If we can brew great craft beer for the unwashed and well-read, I’ll be happy!
Jonathan: I listen to so much stuff. I think it would sound like anything I really like. The common parameters would be that the musicians are largely self taught, that they started off emulating a certain style, and that they ended up morphing into their own sound. All my favorites are like that: Thelonius Monk, Capt Beefheart, Fela Kuti, The Minutemen, even LCD Soundsystem.
Has the brewing community been of help with your planning efforts?
Bill: Extremely. Jonathan and I have made several field trips in the past 18 months to visit other breweries to check out their operations. Flying Dog, Dogfish Head, Clipper City and others have welcomed us and let us peek in on their breweries, watch their bottling lines run and look around at what they’re doing. We bought our bottling line from Southern Tier Brewing in New York, and they’ve been very helpful in helping us get to know the machinery. Jonathan just spent a week with them training on the bottling line in preparation to move it here. Closer to home, Bill and Rick at Mad Fox have been great, letting us barge in on them to see how they’re doing and to taste their beer. We were also very happy that Mike McCarthy of Capitol City invited us to participate in their huge Octoberfest celebration, even though we aren’t brewing yet. It was a great opportunity for us to introduce ourselves to craft beer drinkers in the DC area. These brewers are friends, and have made us feel very welcome. We plan to do the same as the local brewing scene grows.
Jonathan: Everybody has been very helpful and supportive. Many of the folks around town have been here for quite some time, we all came up together and there’s a certain brotherly love. Nick Funnell, Bill Madden, Favio Garcia and Mike McCarthy are all great guys and from my experience traveling around, they are the kind of guys you want to have in your brewing community.
Our market for great beer in DC is always expanding and bringing in new breweries. Why drink local?
Bill: I am a hardcore locavore. I believe in buying food that is produced nearby. It is the best way to get the freshest, best quality, best tasting food that is healthiest for you and your family. The same is true for what you drink, including your beer. We all know that when you eat and drink locally, you are supporting your local economy. Spending your dollars close to home supports your neighbors, their companies, their jobs and their families. Port City Brewing is committed to using local vendors as much as possible. All of our packaging; labels, bottles, six packs, and cases all will come from local and regional suppliers.
Ultimately, it comes down to the quality of the beer. It’s very simple. Craft beer lovers are always looking for something new and exciting, but if it’s not great, they won’t order it again. I know this because I am one! We expect to be judged not just as a new local beer, but alongside great beer from all over. Quality trumps local, especially in a sophisticated market like DC, where there are endless options.
As a local brewery, we have the chance to connect with the community in a unique and meaningful way. We want people to feel welcome in our tasting room, to come by and see what’s going on, fill up a growler, and taste our beers as fresh as possible. We want people to bring their out of town friends for a tour and show them their local brewery. We’re extremely proud of what we are building, and we can’t wait to share it with everyone!
One year from now if I walk into your brewery, what are you going to be excited to tell me about?
Bill: If we have done things right, and we are brewing the great quality beer that we plan to make, and we are delivering it to our customers in great condition as they expect, then you, Jonathan and I will be looking at a second row of new fermentation tanks that we will have just installed to supply our customers’ demand.
Where exactly is the mechanical bull going to placed?
Bill: Right under the huge, retro 80’s style crystal chandelier that the former tenant, the electric supply company, left us!
Be sure to check out Port City’s blog as they continue to update us on their progress. And of course, drink local!