Port City Brewing Company: It’s All About The Beer

Port City Brewing Company has had an eventful summer.

Having already faced the challenge of expanding production to keep up with demand (and already harboring plans to expand again sooner rather than later), Port City successfully launched its seasonal brew Downright Pilsner just in time to grapple with the raging derecho that ripped through Northern Virginia. Fighting a loss of power to their entire facility, and thus critical cooling apparatus, and brews warming up to dangerously tepid temperatures that would destroy whole batches, Port City bounced back and is looking towards a prosperous summer and fall.

Bill Butcher Begins the Tour of Their Facility, Beer in Hand.

For those of you following the huge explosion of artisanal and micro brewing, Port City is a rarity in the DMV region. Unlike the brewpubs in DC, Port City is a full blown brewery – the only one in the entire region. It is a significant distinction for a budding business undergoing massive expansion in a short amount of time. Opening their doors in February, 2011, with just four tanks of brewing capacity, Port City produced approximately 3,000 barrels in their first year – and they barely kept up with demand. With the addition of two new tanks, production this year is expected to hit 6,000 barrels easily. And thanks to Virginia law changes starting July 1, the company is now able to serve full pints to customers willing to make the short trek out to their Alexandria, Virginia, warehouse (3950 Wheeler Avenue). The changes coincided with the expansion of Port City’s tasting room, which added more seating and a second bar to accommodate demand. If you don’t feel like hanging around to drink, you are welcome to purchase their brews on site, in bottles or in growlers. (Recommendation: if you are drinking the beer that evening or the next day, get a growler. Otherwise, opt for bottles – they’ll keep longer.)

Port City is already pushing their product to the limit of what we call standard beer and standard beer practices. None of PCBC beer is pasturized, therefore retaining more flavor, but shortening shelf life. This means that owner Bill Butcher will not let vendors buy more than what they can sell in one month. The last thing he wants to see is PCBC going bad on the shelf – or worse, a vendor selling a six-pack that is past its date. This ethic of producing the best has led to challenges as well as triumphs. In purchasing equipment for their bottling line, Port City opted for purchasing a used Italian bottling machine with a capacity of 12,000 barrels, from a company that had grown out of it. It was more cost effective than purchasing a new machine, and since it was hand-made and well taken care of by the previous owners, Port City was confident it would last them for the next three to five years before they too grow out of it. The one hitch? The instruction manual is in Italian.

Bill Butcher Shows Off Two Hands Full of Spent Brewing Spices.

Another challenge is creating better, or even just different, brews than their competitors, while maintaining a standard of quality that will keep consumers coming back for more. In pursuit of this, Port City has created their very own equipment for adding hops during the fermentation period. As Butcher put it, most microbreweries ‘dry-hop’, meaning they just open up the top of the tank and dump in the new hops. The problem with this practice is that it introduces oxygen to the brew during fermentation – which can lower the quality and taste. Port City’s solution, dubbed the ‘Hop Cannon’, is a cylindrical canister sporting a long hose that reaches the top of tanks. After adding the hops to the cannon, they can purge the oxygen from the cannon, replace with carbon dioxide, and pressurize so that the hops go shooting from the cannon into the awaiting tank. It’s an ingenious mechanism, and Port City has applied for a patent for their design.

“Where’s the Beer?” Chalkboard Wall in Port City’s Tasting Room. Updated Every Week.

When finally settling down to taste Port City Brewing Company’s beers, it was interesting how different they were. Having only tasted five of their offerings, it was apparent that they all fit within a flight quite nicely, while also remaining distinct. It is a testament to Port City’s veteran (and award-winning) brewmaster, Johnathan Reeves, and his vision for Port City beers.

Downright Pilsner is their newest brew, a small batch perfect for the summer heat that beats down on the DMV region. Using imported Saaz hops, it is a hoppy, creamy pilsner that has a strong finish but is very sippable for those who might not prefer the hoppy IPAs currently gaining popularity. Most has disappeared from the region, but positive response from consumers has Port City considering bringing Downright Pilsner back as a seasonal or even a regular ‘Essential’. (Fingers crossed.)

The Optimal Wit is Port City’s flagship beer, in a way, thanks to its wheat and oat base that is extremely accessible to all beer enthusiasts. The brew has a lemony, bright smell that is echoed in the taste: smooth, light, and even a little sweet on the back end. If any of Port City’s beers are ‘gateways’ to the rest of their line of microbrews, the Wit definitely tops that list.

The Essential Pale Ale is a medium brew, slightly hoppy, and a summer beer in and of itself. There are hints of honey and white grapes that fill your nose like a nice white wine. (Not surprising, considering Butcher started his career in the wine business.) The Essential is a stark contrast to their heavier, earthier beers, and it nicely rounds out the middle ground between the lighter Wit and Port City’s heavier offerings.

Downright Pilsner

Their Monumental IPA is a tasty study of how many hops can be piled into one brew while still maintaining a quality taste. It is hoppy with a strong malt flavor on the back end, that lingers on your tongue. It isn’t as creamy as the Pilsner, but I suspect the Monumental would stand up better to strong food pairings. (Even now, Reeves is tweaking and perfecting the recipe for the Monumental – the most recent change was he stopped filtering the beer. This means that any given day, each beer is undergoing a constant review by Reeves to make sure they are making the best version possible.)

The motherlode, the Revival Oyster Stout, is truly a beer to behold. Rich and chocolatey, the stout’s brewing process includes actual oysters. Yes, Port City has thrown the rulebook out the window. Using Chesapeake Bay oysters brought in fresh by War Shore, a local company on the Eastern Shore, the oyster shells are steeped in the beginning of the first boil to retrieve minerals while the whole oysters are thrown into the brewing beer in the last thirty minutes of the first boil. Creativity aside, the result is a complex, almost briny stout unlike any other I’ve tasted – one that gives any standard, commercial stout a run for their money. The one drawback is it only available at Port City on tap (or to take home in growlers), or in select locations around the region. Take my word for it – if you are not a vegetarian or allergic to shellfish, the Revival will fascinate your tastebuds to no end.

Port City has done a miraculous thing. Opening a business in one of the toughest economic periods of our time, Butcher, Reeves, and Port City brewing crew have succeeded in creating amazing beers at affordable prices that depend on fresh ingredients, unique perspectives, and a dedication to beercraft that is unparalleled. If you feel like venturing over to Port City, and just happen to be there during one of their tours, and just happen to notice the sheer size of the warehouse and the amount of space that Port City has available, it will not come as a surprise that their ultimate goal is to expand production to a jaw-dropping 19 tanks that will put out 25,000 barrels a year. Butcher and his team had planned the expansion over a period of ten years, but that timeline is getting cut shorter with every new batch. The thirst for Port City is growing week by week – and the customer is always right.

Useful Links:
Port City Brewing Company
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Tasting Room Hours:
Wednesday, 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Thursday, 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Friday, 3 p.m. to 9 p.m., with tours at 6:30 p.m.
Saturday, noon to 8 p.m., with tours at 1 p.m., 2 p.m., 3 p.m., 4 p.m., and 5 p.m.
Sunday, noon to 6 p.m., with tours at 2 p.m. and 3 p.m.
Port City Brewing Company is also available for private parties and private tours.