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Checking in with Port City: Sustainability, Bottling, and Hand-Eye Coordination

A recent conference call about the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Brewers for Clean Water campaign got me wondering: what steps can a local brewer take to mitigate their impact on the environment?  To find out, I stopped by Port City Brewing Company for a chat with founder Bill Butcher about their environmental stewardship initiatives.  While there, I learned about their plans for the near future and lent a decidedly unpracticed hand at bottling.

When I arrived at 8:30 am, brewers Will and Craig were already cleaning the automated bottling line while head brewer Jonathan checked the bright tank to ensure the beer was ready to package.  Port City uses an 18year old repurposed wine-bottling line from Italy it purchased from Southern Tier.  Much of the industry operates in this secondary market – as breweries outgrow their tanks, kettles, even facilities, their smaller peers step up to reuse them.  While there’s some risk associated with second-hand equipment – costly breakdowns, hard-to-find parts, decreased efficiency – Port City’s experience with this particular apparatus has been positive, thanks in no small part to Craig’s mechanical background.  The rest of the gleaming brewery is new, as old equipment can be extremely wasteful during the more energy-intensive steps.

During my visit, a half-batch of Optimal Wit was ready to see the inside of a bottle – the day prior, the other half had been force-carbonated and kegged.  Demand for Optimal kegs has been through the roof this year and the brewhouse has been firing on all cylinders to keep up.  Some of this pressure will be alleviated when two new 120-bbl fermenters arrive this week. 

For now, though, batches must be split, and the two portions have very different fates: unlike the kegged version, bottles of Optimal Wit are now dosed with additional yeast to provide natural carbonation.  The beer in front of me would soon be just the third batch of bottle-conditioned Optimal.  In order to illustrate the yeast’s anti-oxidation and flavor-enhancing properties, Jonathan cracked a bottle he’d been ‘warm-storing’ in the sweaty boiler room since January.  Despite the heat, the delicate carbonation was noticeably finer than its CO2-injected analogue in kegs.  Black pepper floated up from the glass.  The ultimate goal is to bottle condition all their beers, and it’s no mystery why.

Founder Bill Butcher and the rest of the crew (Josh and Drew) arrived, and we were ready to start bottling.  I started out offloading.  The process typically entails grabbing filled bottles off the line, spot-checking them for bad fills and other mistakes, quickly feeding them into waiting cases, taping and date-stamping full cases, and arranging those cases into stable arrays on expectant pallets.  Into that orderly routine I added the extra steps of dropping (though not breaking) bottles and wrestling with the tape dispenser.

Owens-Illinois plant - cool, huh?Josh, in contrast, was a pro.  Deftly snagging and packing away four soldiers at a go, he made small talk about Philadelphia and the advent of the grocery store bar while I fumbled to keep up.  In my defense, my packing pace slackened in part due to my inquisitiveness about Port City’s packaging materials. The case carriers, I learned, were printed in Ashland, VA, while the bottles that were flying off the line were born at the Owens-Illinois plant in Toano, VA (pictured at right), using all local raw ingredients, like sand and limestone.

When possible, the beer inputs are local as well.  While the barley and hops produced in the region aren’t of sufficient quality or quantity for large scale brewing, PCBC procures its raw unmalted wheat from Billy Dawson, a grain farmer on the Northern Neck of Virginia recommended by Copper Fox Distillery.  In fact, the whole Port City crew would visit the farm just a few days later, following a Virginia Brewers Guild meeting at the aforementioned Owens-Illinois facility.  At left, Dawson gives Cook, Jones, and Reeves a tour.  As far as I know, there were no immediate plans for field trips to check out the producers of other local inputs, like Chesapeake oysters (for Revival Stout) or Maryland honey (Tidings ale).

For the Optimal Wit in front of me, it was all about the wheat.  Lots and lots of wheat.  PCBC’s relationship with Dawson has provided a secure, high-quality source of local grist, and they’ve looked back to the farming community as a way to offload the spent grain.  When a friend introduced Bill to a Virginia cattle farmer, he saw a productive venue for the sweet, soggy mess coming out of the mash tuns.  Although it took a bit of convincing, the farmer eventually committed to coming to Port City every brew day to collect the drums of spent grain for use as cattle feed.  It’s been so successful – and PCBC has grown so much– that they’ve upgraded to larger bins, and the farmer now stops at DC Brau to pick up their spent grain, as well.  Efficiencies upon efficiencies.

That is, except for me.  I’d done enough damage to productivity on the offloading station, so I was shifted upline to load bottles.  Again, my inexperience and lack of dexterity showed, but the job was easy enough for me to ask Bill about Port City’s future plans.  There was, of course, the big fermenter delivery in the near future, but he was almost as excited about a new partnership that would bring the assembly and storage of cases and carriers into one facility.  Sexy it isn’t, but it’s just the kind of incremental change that can bring greater environmental and economic efficiency.

And with that, my questions and my workday were done.  Joining the other workers near the planned in-brewery bar, I sipped on some Maniacal (highly recommended, by the by) and thought of all the interests and concerns that every brewery weighs when producing a simple pint: economics, trendiness, taste, environmentalism.  I felt good about local breweries’ stewardship.  I took another sip.

Photos courtesy of Port City Brewing Company

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