By Jefferson Evans
Busy worker ants scuttle across the bones like they are trying to pick the carcass clean, but these bones are strong and this isn’t a death, it’s a rebirth; it’s the scene of a phoenix rising from the ashes. And though a joyous scene it be, you can bet it includes more than a few people who could use a long, long nap. After all, it ain’t every day that a brewing tradition dating back to pre-prohibition days and even earlier has a chance to live again, and making such dreams a reality involves some seriously hard work. You may have heard the story how the Portner sisters, Catherine and Margaret, decided to revive the good beer works of their great-great grandfather Robert Portner, who opened the Robert Portner Brewing Company in Alexandria, VA in 1869 and stewarded it to the position of largest pre-Prohibition brewery in the southeast United States. The brewery closed in 1916, and now, just over 100 years later, the Portner Brewing name is set to live again.
“We’re down to mostly cosmetic work,” Catherine tells me as she shows me and my wife around the space. Brewing began January 4 with a batch of Tivoli Cream Ale, one of the pre-Prohibition series beers that represents the true rebirth of the previous beer history. Tivoli is “I Lov It” backwards and the Tivoli name is a core part of Portner history. Portner Porter was being brewed the day we toured the facility, brewing that is only happening due to the City of Alexandria granting the brewery a temporary Certificate of Occupancy so that brewing can proceed even with the restaurant space still being built out. Soon to follow will be a German IPA, a Chocolate Stout, the Hofbrau Pils, and the Vienna Cabinet Lager. Behind the brewing wheels is Brian McElvaney, a fluent German speaker and veteran of the Stone Brewing facility in Berlin, Germany. Brian brews on a 3.5 barrel brew house with five 7-barrel fermenters and five 7-barrel bright tanks that are a hybrid combination of USA and Chinese systems with a few German parts thrown in for good measure.
Once the restaurant is open it will officially include 72 outside seats and 156 inside seats, serving a combination of German classics and contemporary American cuisine under the leadership of Chef Donnie Dennis, formally of Blacks Restaurant Group and Heirloom Catering (and whose uncle is the owner of Bilbo Baggins restaurant in Old Town Alexandria). Catherine indicates there will be about 40 employees total once both sides of the business are up to speed. Parking is available in the Modera Tempo complex parking lot, and on Pickett Street on both sides of Van Dorn Street, not to mention the Van Dorn Street Metro Station is a stone’s throw away and Modera Tempo has a shuttle van that runs back and forth there between. The new target date to open is Valentine’s Day so come see the Portner Brewhouse with someone you love and if you see Catherine, ask her about the fun adventure that is a chiller unit on the roof and a glycol reservoir in the basement. And then buy her a beer.
A little further east, closer to Old Town Alexandria, Port City Brewing Company is enjoying the fruits of expansion plans starting to come to pass. Part A of this expansion is obtaining warehouse space right down the street from the brewery where a 3,000 sq. ft. cold storage facility will soon house all the brewery’s finished product and serve as the shipping hub where distributors will come for Port City packaged beer – cans, bottles, and kegs (although the only canning is via Old Dominion Canning mobile canning line of just the Wit for the Washington Nationals).
Part B of the expansion takes the form of three new 120-barrel fermenters and a new 120-barrel bright tank. These were finally delivered January 3 after originally being expected in October 2016. Port City Brewing Company owner Bill Butcher III tells me “we essentially maxed out our brewing capacity in 2016 at around 17,000 barrels of beer and at the end of this phase of expansion we will have 25,000 barrels capacity and we are targeting to be at around 21,000 barrels produced in 2017, with that being within our existing market footprint.”
Presently, Port City distributes in six states and DC.
Part C will involve removing the old cold storage space and installing a brand new bottling line that will double their bottle line speed from 60 bottles-per-minute to 120 bottles-per-minute.
The newest Port City Colossus Series beer, Colossus VI, the first Imperial Stout the brewery has produced, will become available Friday, February 3. Based on this writers experience with the previous Colossus series beers, I can confidently say you should probably go by and get some. Yep.
Further south in the once but no longer beer desert known as Woodbridge, VA, Heroic Aleworks experienced a successful soft opening on January 6. These guys are wonderfully whacky, yet serious, combining superhero comic nerds and beer lovers with men who have military experience in multiple branches, including the Army and the Air Force. They have gone big with a 15-barrel, 4-vessel system and are brewing a wide variety of styles including a German-style Kolsch, an English Porter, an American IPA, and a Belgian Dubbel. And then there are the Dr. Who and Lord of the Rings his and her bathrooms. Speak, beer friend, and enter.
Beer friend Shelton Greenberg contributed to this article.