Last week, we wrote about the launch of the Portner Brewhouse in Alexandria’s West End. This week, we had the chance to speak via email with Catherine Portner, co-founder of the brewhouse and great-great-granddaughter of Robert Portner. She offers insight both on the launch of her endeavor with her sister Margaret and on the local beer scene overall. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.
DCBeer: The Portner Brewhouse's opening was a long time coming. What were some of the stiffest challenges you surmounted in getting to this point?
Catherine Portner: Finding the right location within the City of Alexandria was very important to us from the beginning. Initially, we limited our search only to the Old Town area, as this was also the original location of our family’s brewery. The site is presently occupied by a Trader Joe's. It became apparent that the Old Town neighborhood had significant restrictions on how we would be permitted to operate as a business and also on changes to an existing building, since almost the entire neighborhood is part of a classified historic district. The location that we ultimately landed in is 5,500 square feet on the same level—virtually non-existent in Old Town. As it turns out, the Robert Portner Brewing Company was located in Alexandria’s West End of its time, and we are in the West End of ours.
Can you tell us more about brewer Brian McElvaney's brewing background?
Brian spent the last five years brewing in Germany, most recently at Stone Brewing in Berlin. He trained at Einbeck brewery and then went to work for a German craft brewery, Vulcan. Brian’s love of brewing and Irish heritage come through if you meet his black French bulldog, Guinness.
Which styles did the Brewhouse open with? Did your family’s recipes play a large role in the styles you chose?
Portner Brewhouse will offer three series of beers—the pre-Prohibition series, Brewmaster Seasonals, and Craft Beer Test Kitchen® series. The pre-Prohibition series includes the Tivoli Cream Ale, Hofbrau Pilsner, Vienna Cabinet Lager, and Portner Porter—all of which are reconstructed recipes from our family’s brewery and will be available year-round. In addition to these, we open with four Brewmaster Seasonals: Winter Bronze Belgian Dubbel, Four Points German IPA, Modera Pale Ale, and “I’d Give Up Chocolate But…” Chocolate Stout. The initial Craft Beer Test Kitchen® offerings will appear on tap about three weeks after opening. Since we are committed to brewing two lagers year-round, all of our current seasonals are ales. Also, as the historic styles tend to feature malt more, we want to provide a variety of beers for all to enjoy, thus a hop-forward beer will almost always appear as a Seasonal selection.
There is a lot more competition in the DC metro beer market now than there was when you first envisioned opening Portner Brewhouse. Which elements of your model do you think will stand out to consumers?
There are two unique facets to Portner Brewhouse that we believe are important to both our overall concept and the greater beer community. (1) Our history in the local area was the original inspiration for Portner Brewhouse and is even more valuable as time passes. Sharing this rich history and telling the story of an immigrant who came to this country, learned the language, and started a business that grew beyond what he ever imagined is the epitome of the American Dream. This pursuit remains relevant today. (2) In considering the beer marketplace, we developed a program that would assist homebrewers in their own pursuit to become professional brewers by providing experience and feedback on one of their original beers within a brewpub setting—this is our Craft Beer Test Kitchen®. Even though time has continued to tick by, during that stretch between initial concept and opening, the program we have designed is still intact, and a similar program is still not found in the area.
On the Craft Beer Test Kitchen®, can you elaborate a bit more on what its role will be? Will it be an early way to drive hype or a long-term incubator of new beers?
The greater vision of the Craft Beer Test Kitchen® is to create a new distribution network within the existing three-tier alcohol system. We will be fine-tuning the program at Portner Brewhouse and then look to offer the program to other breweries/brewpubs around the country so that other aspiring brewers in different areas may take part in such a program or any other location within the network.
How much was brewing a part of your family's lives after the original brewery closed? Or was it the craft beer movement that got you into brewing and really thinking about reopening the brewery?
Growing up, we would hear stories every now and again about a member of our family owning a brewery, but it was only much later in life that my sister and I really gained a greater appreciation for our own history and also how much others appreciated it. After graduating from college, I became interested in craft beer at a music festival, and the rest is history. I began exploring new beers, tasting, and learning, which then led me to start homebrewing with some friends over a decade ago. My sister, Margaret, her passion lies with food and the culinary arts. Together with our family’s history, the three merged as a trifecta into the genesis of Portner Brewhouse, where we could give this history a proper home back in Alexandria.
What do you think some of the strongest elements of the local beer scene are now, and where are there stumbling blocks that we could be overcoming?
One of the things that I love the most about the beer scene here is how diverse and distinct most of the breweries are from one another. Each has its own identity. Of late and weighing on us in particular as a fellow brewpub was the closure of Sehkraft Brewing in Arlington. They ran into permitting delays with the City of Arlington, which delayed their first brewing until after opening their doors. This was likely detrimental to their success. Sehkraft could have used more support from the local community—businesses and patrons—to help influence city officials.
The West End of Alexandria is slowly being revitalized, and there hasn’t been a brewery in the area since Shenandoah closed its doors. How do you envision Portner Brewhouse’s importance to the surrounding neighborhoods?
We hope Portner Brewhouse will grow to become a cornerstone of the West End community, and we have sincerely appreciated everyone’s support thus far. We strive to provide a comfortable environment where friends can gather together and will continuously make improvements and offer innovations along the way. We are grateful to be a new neighbor.
Thank you for making the time for DCBeer, Cat!