Just in time for dry January, Port City has canned Hopwell, a non-alcoholic hopped seltzer, available at the Alexandria brewery and a few select retailers in Virginia and the District, including H Street’s Craft Beer Cellar. It’s the first non-alcoholic option available in cans from a brewery inside the Beltway, and made its kegged non-brewery debut at last fall’s Mindful Drinking festival. We chatted with Port City’s founder Bill Butcher about the new beverage, plus a few other alcoholic Port City and Brewers’ Association happenings.
We began the conversation by asking Butcher why make seltzer instead of non-alcoholic beer. Was this about price point, taste, or both? Primarily taste, says Butcher, noting that over the last year or so more people requested a non-alcoholic option at the brewery, as have some Port City staff. At least one Port City employee has a subscription to Hoplark, notes Butcher, which makes a variety of non-alcoholic hoppy teas and seltzers–we’re partial to the Sabro hopped seltzer.
Both customers and staff alike grew increasingly familiar with two other prominent breweries’ hopped seltzers as well, Sierra Nevada and Lagunitas, which along with the price point, made this product an easier sell than NA beer. Currently two Maryland breweries, Flying Dog and Brookeville Beer Farm, make near beer.
Having ceded some of the NA space and early entry to larger brands–those mentioned above, as well as Athletic, Gruvi, Surreal, and others–Butcher cites the ongoing pandemic as one barrier to joining the NA market for a brewery of Port City’s size. “The focus of the pandemic was really about survival for us, keeping our heads above water as we lost a lot of draft accounts, and we didn’t have the time, the headspace, for innovation until recently.”
Hopwell is made with extract from Amarillo and Lemondrop hops. “Port City has worked with Amarillo from the get go,” says Butcher, highlighting its grassy flavor. Director of Brewing Operations Adam Reza suggested Lemondrop as a complement, adding notes of citrus rind and–you guessed it–lemons.
The process of dialing in the hopped seltzer and shepherding it to market became a family affair for the Butchers. Karen, Bill’s wife, took on the development of the drink as a special project, working with Quality Manager Crystal Fraley and other brewery staff. For the past nine months, Hopwell has been on tap at the brewery’s tasting room as both Butchers and Port City staff tinkered and gauged reactions to the carbonation and balance between the hop extracts. Bill Butcher adds that they may use different extracts in future batches, but happy with the end result, Hopwell was canned late last year. It’s $8.99 for a six-pack of twelve-ounce cans, in line with pricing from Sierra Nevada and Lagunitas.
Butcher also sits on the Brewers’ Association events committee, so we had to ask about SAVOR, which won’t return to DC for 2023. “We need to stay flexible and evolve,” says Butcher. “It was time to sunset it. The BA isn’t scheduling anything for July’s ‘hill climb,’ but we’re already brainstorming for 2024 for a potential BA event in DC. It may happen, stay tuned.”
In other boozy news, Port City will release its Dunkel for the first time since 2021 as part of its rotating lager series, as well as the renamed Beacon Brown, a hoppy brown ale, on January 6th. February’s release is Colossal 12 anniversary ale, a rebrew of the imperial smoked porter Colossal 2–something to look forward to if you’re doing dry January.
A second Mindful Drinking festival is coming to Union Market’s Selina Hotel on January 21st. It’s billed as the largest non-alcoholic beverage festival in the United States.