Freshly Tapped spotlights one recently released beer, whether it be a flagship, one-off, seasonal, or modified recipe.
Today, our beer is Colossal 6, a 10.2% Russian Imperial brewed to celebrate the sixth anniversary of Port City Brewing.
Previously in Freshly Tapped: Ocelot and Meridian Pint’s Talking Backwards; Right Proper and Pizzeria Paradiso’s Maslow; Union and Ocelot’s Lucifer’s Trees; 3 Stars and Charm City Meadworks’ Two-Headed Unicorn; Aslin and Meridian Pint’s The Adventures of Audrey; Atlas Brew Works’ Dance of Days; Old Ox’s Funky Face; Handsome Beer’s White Ale; Ocelot and Bluejacket’s Raised on Promises; and 3 Stars’ #ultrafresh.
This is the year of elegant beer.
Or at least Jonathan Reeves thinks so.
To be honest, he hadn’t given much thought to it up until now, but, yes, elegant beer. He likes the sound of that. Clean. Simple.
2016 was his year of reddish brown beer. That’s outright drab in comparison, but it wasn’t exactly planned, either. These things just happen.
First came Colossal Five, a chestnut-hued Old Ale rich with the flavors of dark, dried fruit. Two months later, Metro Red – a West Coast double red ale whose color you can presumably guess – was bottled for the first time. Not long after, a slightly hoppy Dunkel called Zehn Von Zehn swung things back to dark brown end of the spectrum. And, finally, at the cusp of summer, VaStLy Mild arrived in all of its ruby brown glory.
Indeed, it was a caramel-painted year for Reeves and his employer, the Port City Brewing Company.
But the future is looking brighter. Helles bright. Czech Pilsner bright. Dortmunder bright.
“We have a tank that we were going to turn into a hot water vessel, but then we thought, ‘Why don’t we throw 30 barrels of lager in there every five or six weeks?’” says Reeves, sitting in Port City’s tasting room late one afternoon. “I really like German beer. I’d like to make more of it.”
On a trip to Nuremberg last November, Reeves drank some brown lager called Landbier. It’s basically a lighter, softer Dunkles, if you’re not familiar. Anyway, he’s thinking of making one of those. All of this is tentative, of course, but ever since Port City secured new warehouse space down the street – thus unclogging a bottleneck in its production capacity – its brewers have been pondering new beers to produce.
“I would love to do a dark Mexican lager,” says lead brewer Adam Reza II. “I want to make a simple beer – well, not simple, but a nice, drinkable beer that’s complex and difficult to brew. I mean, that’s kind of what we do at Port City: Either we stick to the classic style or we make it our own within those guidelines.”
Before joining me, Reeves and his team had been transferring a new project out of its primary fermentation tank and into another for conditioning. It is not a simple beer. It is arguably quite elegant, though, if we accept Merrian-Webster’s definition: something marked by refined grace and tasteful richness of design. Because of that, it could be said that the Port City brewers have made its style their own.
But there is one descriptor that is unimpeachable: This beer is colossal.
“Our anniversary is in the deepest, darkest days of winter, so we want have a huge beer – something that’s big and dark and built for the season,” says Port City founder Bill Butcher. “That’s the whole idea behind the Colossal series.”
Today is January 19, which means that Port City is two weeks away from the release of its sixth anniversary beer, Colossal 6, an ink-black and 10.2% alcohol Russian Imperial Stout.
Since it opened in February of 2011, Port City has prided itself on approachable, typically sessionable offerings, but the Colossal series is where it constructs the slowest of sippers. From the strong smoked porter to the Quad, a Heller Bock to an Old Ale, every Colossal beer has packed a punch – within reason, of course.
“We’re not trying to make a massive beer that will bowl you over in terms of the intensity of the alcohol, but sometimes a style calls for higher alcohol,” says Chris Van Orden, Port City’s Marketing and Outreach Manager. “At 10.2%, Colossal 6 is our biggest beer ever, but it’s also beer that you can enjoy. A bigger beer doesn’t have to be something that you dread finishing after two sips.”
Colossal 6 is Port City’s first full-scale take on a style that, in many ways, has become the default American strong ale. For the vast majority of breweries, the Russian Imperial Stout is where they start for a high-gravity offering. And it sells. That it would take six years for Reeves and his team to make one reflects a dichotomy within the company: While Port City always has an ear turned towards the market, the brewery stays true to itself and the beers it wants to produce.
In other words, Colossal 6 is a Russian Imperial Stout because it took six years for the time to be right for one.
“A couple people within the brewery were like, ‘Hey, I’d really like to see our version of this, especially now that people get who we are,’” Van Orden shares.
There are a lot of people outside the brewery who would like to see Port City’s version of a Russian Imperial Stout, too. Granted, all of its releases garner a high level of attention, in part because the brewery is so methodical in their formulation and rollout. But anticipation is particularly elevated with the Colossal series. With each passing year, with each new award, the prestige of Port City’s anniversary beers grows.
“Every time we brew a Colossal, we have to fill some big shoes,” Reza admits. “I mean, three of them are medal winners at the Great American Beer Festival. So, we want to have a powerful beer every time.”
As soon as one Colossal is released, the next is set in motion.
“It’s something the brewers get excited about,” says Butcher. “Everybody will immediately start throwing out ideas, asking, ‘What are we going to do next year?’”
Styles are bandied about, and perhaps some preliminary research is conducted, but it’s not until the end of the summer that the planning really kicks into gear. Once a beer is settled upon, a recipe is “piloted” – that is, brewed as a test batch on a glorified homebrew system. Then it’s tweaked and piloted again. And then it’s tweaked and piloted again, and so on. Few if any breweries are as rigorous in their refinement as Port City.
Colossal Five introduced a new level of consideration, though. Port City’s Old Ale was the first Colossal to go into bottles, and while that may seem like a minor footnote, the decision to package the series isn’t just a byproduct of its popularity. As its label notes, this was “a dark ale built to age.”
A few years ago, Reeves read an article about a dozen recently discovered cases of 140-year-old beer. Contained within its bottles was Allsopp’s Arctic Ale, an 11.24% beer produced for an 1875 English expedition to the Canadian Arctic. First brewed 23 years earlier for a different Arctic rescue mission, this brand was touted at the time for its ability to withstand freezing temperatures. Almost a century and a half later, it would be celebrated for something else: still tasting good.
This sent Reeves down a rabbit’s hole, researching the specifics of that recipe and, more generally, the history of vintage beers.
“I started thinking about what it would take to brew a beer that could last a hundred years,” shares the head brewer. “That was the original inspiration for Colossal Five – just the idea of beer being that old and still drinkable.”
Beers don’t age well by accident. They’re constructed in a way so that as they oxidize – i.e., gradually and inevitably undergo a chemical reaction due to oxygen exposure – they’ll change in an appealing way.
One way that Reeves brewed Colossal Five for the long haul was by avoiding caramel malts. Typically, such specialty grains are used in beers to provide a small charge of malt sweetness. Over time, though, these favors devolve into cloying territory. Instead, Reeves used Golden Promise, a high-end Scottish pale malt that would reveal a more stable caramel flavor as it oxidized.
Tasting the Old Ale a year later, Reeves can tell that transformation is well in progress.
“The raisiny, datey, pruney flavors are definitely picking up, but not in an offensive way,” he says between sips. “Maybe, as it gets older, it’ll get almost a soy saucy, umami kind of flavor.”
Another means of ensuring a smooth transition to the afterlife is hops.
“It’s not what people think of as a hoppy beer, but Colossal Five has a lot of hops in it,” the head brewer shares. “It has about pound per barrel in the kettle, and then maybe another half-pound in the dry-hop.”
More than just the amount of hops, it’s about the type of hops. Hops contain both alpha acids (which add a surge of bitterness in the boil, but fade with time) and beta acids (which intensify as a beer oxidizes, resulting in a cleaner and more pleasant bitterness). If you’re constructing a beer to age, you want a higher proportion of the latter acids.
“With a lot of hoppy beers, you get this nasty, metallic bitterness over time,” says Reeves. “This beer will be one way when it’s new, and another when it’s older, but that bitterness should always be pleasant.”
With over fifteen years of brewpub experience prior to joining Port City, Reeves is familiar with making almost every style of beer, but that’s not always true of his younger brew team. Such was the case with Old Ales.
“Old Ale was a style that I didn’t really know, and a style that isn’t really in the market,” Reza says. “It ended up being a good learning experience. We kind of dug in and did a bunch of research, and we also have Jonathan, who he has a library inside his head.”
Port City’s sixth anniversary beer would give its brewers the opportunity to apply these techniques to a new style – another designed to cellar. What it would be remained to be seen, however.
“With the Colossal beers, I step back and let the brewers talk it out,” says Butcher. “Colossal Four was a quad because it was our fourth year. With Colossal Five, it was a style that Jonathan really wanted to do. This year, it was kind of wide open.”
In conversation with his team, Reeves heard one request again and again.
“The brewers kept bugging me to do a Russian Imperial Stout,” Reeves remembers.
Why is that?
“Because everyone likes Russian Imperial Stouts,” the head brewer shoot back.
But why is that?
Russian Imperial Stouts generally come three ways: big, roasty, and with a dash of mythology.
As a style, these intensely flavored dark beers are marked by notes of chocolate, burnt malt, and dark fruit, and can clock in between 8.0 and 12.0 percent alcohol.
Much like the India Pale Ale, the “king of stouts” was named not for its origin but its destination. Both styles were born during the Industrial Revolution, when the British – enabled by technological advances in brewing – began to export more and more beer around the world. In the first few decades, those beers included Burtons (a viscous, sweet style of brown ale that has since gone extinct) and porters (the darker ales with which you are more likely to be familiar). With their relatively high alcohol content, these beers could survive trips across the Atlantic and to the Baltic states, but they ran into difficulty when shipped to the British colonies in India. On longer trips through warmer temperatures, they spoiled easily.
The solution? Increase the amount of alcohol and hops in the beer. These ingredients serve as preservatives, helping to stave off a bacterial infection, and hiding off-flavors should one occur. Thus, the India Pale Ale was born, and by the end of the 18th century, British breweries had begun to crank out these hoppy pale ales.
As the common lore goes, Russian Imperial Stouts were a product of similar necessity. As the story goes, westernizing Russian tsar Peter the Great grew enamored with porters during a 1698 trip to England, so he requested that some be sent to the imperial court in Russia. Unfortunately, that stout spoiled by the time it had completed its journey across Europe. Undeterred, one London brewery decided to give it another go, but this time it upped the alcohol and hop additions. Thus, the Russian Imperial Stout was born.
It’s a good story. It’s what I first heard back in college, and as recently as a local brewery’s beer dinner a few weeks ago. But like a lot of good stories, it’s not exactly true.
According to Jeff Alworth’s The Beer Bible, a boozier beverage would not haven’t been necessary for a trip to Russia because “the cool temperatures and relatively short distance would have been perfect conditions to ship beer.” Historian Ron Pattinson similarly dismisses the idea, albeit with a little more flair: “God, these extra hops and extra strength for the long voyage stories. Did the writer look at a map? Standard porter was regularly shipped to the American colonies, a journey more than double that to St. Petersburg.”
Pattinson also pokes holes in the timeline, observing that the Peter the Great’s 1698 doesn’t jive with the history of the style. “The first porter was brewed… around 1720,” he writes. “[Peter the Great] died in 1725, when porter was still barely known, even in London.”
The real reason, he and Alworth posit, for brewing and exporting strong porter for Russian consumption: That’s just how the Russians liked them. And British brewers were an enterprising bunch. By the latter half of the 18th century, some had set up trade relations with Russia, which provided wood for barrels in exchange for beer.
“This was very much a case of brewing for the client,” says Mike Stein, a local beer historian and the president of Lost Lagers. “It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, man, I know we’ve been making this 6% stout, but now we’re gonna do a 9% stout.’ It was calculated. All of the nobles in Petrograd wanted a 9% stout. But the story is sometimes better than the fact. The truth can be boring”
One of the biggest patrons of the style was Catherine the Great, who commissioned boatloads of Russian Imperial Stout starting in the 1780s. This export would come to a screeching halt during the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century, and according to The Economist, “when trade was set to recommence the Russian court decided to encourage a home-grown brewing industry by slapping prohibitive duties on imported beer.”
Subsequently, Russian Imperial Stout was sold mostly in England, where the style would eventually wane in popularity. Much like the IPA, however, these strong stouts received a shot in the arm during the modern craft era, particularly in the United States and back in England.
Over this swath of time, the range of flavors and ingredients associated with the style have broadened significantly. According the BJCP guidelines, American versions tend to have more bitterness, roasted character, and finishing hops, while English varieties reflect a more complex specialty malt character and a more forward ester profile, but brewers on both sides of the pond readily color outside these lines.
“The longer a beer is around, the more it’s open to interpretation,” Stein observes.
The historian attributes the style’s renewed popularity in the States, in part, to its booziness.
“Generally, the American beer drinker wants more bang for their buck,” he says. “It’s like, ‘I’m out. I made it here. I’m plunking my money down. Let’s have a strong drink.’ That’s always been historically true, and it will remain so.”
There are a number of higher alcohol beers, though. There are barleywines and quads and triple IPAs. The appeal of a Russian Imperial Stout may lie in easily recognizable flavors. The same can not be said for other strong ales.
“Obviously, American brewers historically looked to England for influence, but do most Americans even know what plum pudding and sherry taste like?” asks Van Orden. “Something like barleywine can be challenging for the market. It’s a tougher style to brew, too, because you don’t have roast to act as a buffer for other flavors. With a Russian Imperial Stout, the roast will always be there, and if other, better flavors emerge, that’s great. With barelywine, if it doesn’t work, it’s a sweet, flabby mess. So, I think that explains why a lot of brewers worked on Russian Imperial Stouts for a long time, and they gained such momentum.”
Reeves has made his distaste for barleywine known to me on several occasions.
“I think that with the higher alcohol beers, there’s a tendency to become obnoxiously sweet ,” Reeves adds. “An imperial stout is the higher alcohol beer that’s not insipid. It’s interesting to drink. In addition to that roast character, it’s got a lot going on. For the same reason that I don’t like barelywines, I like imperial stouts.”
A Russian Imperial Stout also comes wrapped in the mystic of its name. Whether or nor it’s also accompanied by a slightly bogus history lesson is irrelevant.
“For so long, Russia has been the other for the U.S.,” Stein observes. “You get a little bit of history right up front with that name: Russian Imperial Stout. You needn’t go further than that. It’s easy for people to understand: Russians love vodka, Russians love strong drinks, this beer is strong.”
Jonathan Reeves is particular about a few things.
When he brews a beer, he likes to add certain ratios of hops, spaced certain intervals apart from each other. He believes certain malts interact well together to achieve a certain result – even if he can’t prove it.
“I have silly theories about how I do stuff,” the head brewer shares. “I don’t know if they’re real or not, but it seems like it works. I kind of follow these rules whenever I formulate recipes”
He’s even more particular about the brands of malts he’ll use.
“Spending money on the better quality malts is something Jonathan is known for,” Van Orden says. “And everyone knows he loves Simpsons Malt.”
Headquartered in England’s northernmost town, Simpsons Malt has manufactured some of the world’s best malted barley for over 150 years. The company’s product is expensive – often almost two times more expensive than American equivalents – but when it comes to brewing a specialty beer, there are flavors Simpsons unlocks that no one else can.
“It’s a way to set your beers apart,” Van Orden says of using them. “With the beers that are memorable, everyone remembers the hops, but not everyone realizes what undergirds them is the grains. It’s weird to say that something is ‘more flavorful,’ but somehow it is. After all these years, Simpsons is still able to make malt that appeals to brewers for various beers.”
Colossal Five was built on a base of Simpsons’ Golden Promise. For his Russian Imperial Stout, Reeves would turn to its Maris Otter.
The “Rolls Royce of malts,” Maris Otter is a British variety of pale malt known for its big flavor, but also low yield and extract.
“With a beer like this, I’m kind of leaning on the quality of an exotic pale malt,” Reeves shares. “It’s not cheap, but I think it produces a more stable beer and a more genuine flavor.”
As with the preceding anniversary beer, the sweeter notes of Colossal 6 are drawn solely from its pale malt base – not caramel or specialty malts. Aside from Maris Otter, every other malt in the Russian Imperial Stout is roasted: rich chocolate malt, lightly roasted brown malt, cocoa-imparting black malt, bready roasted barely, and Special W for body.
At a relatively modest six malts, the grist is a reflection of Reeves’ pursuit to create complex flavors using fewer ingredients than he would have earlier in his career. Or, as he says, “I’m trying to do more with less now.”
This approach stands in stark contrast with many in the brewing industry who advertise the number of malts used in a Russian Imperial Stout like it’s the thread count on an expensive set of sheets. 10 malts! 12 malts! 15 malts!
“You can reach the point where a recipe just becomes a mess,” Reeves says when I bring this up. “It’s like when you were a kid, and you took all the watercolors and mixed them together: You got mud. Sure, you can create a certain complexity with more malts, but you need a plan. Just using a bunch of different ingredients doesn’t mean that you’re automatically going to get a more complex beer. You need to be more painterly about it.”
“Jonathan is definitely a brewer’s brewer,” Stein observes. “The thinking is: Why use fifteen malts if you can get the same layers of complexity out of six? Historically, less malts were used in a beer like this. If you asked someone why, the answer would have been to conserve barely, so they could use those nine other specialty malts for nine other specialty beers. That makes Colossal 6 a more historically accurate Russian Imperial Stouts than others.”
Reeves’ insistent attention to and care for a grain bill is a quality he’s instilled across Port City over the past six years.
“The importance of mashing procedure and how you approach a beer is something he’s taught to all of our brewers,” says Van Orden. “Not every beer is single infusion with the same temperature and the same rest – you know, there are chemical processes here. The brewers have this understanding of what’s happening in the mashtun, which allows them coax different flavors from malts. If you give them the same grain bill, they can arrive at different results depending on what they do with it. And they realize that it all depends on the quality of the grains that you start with.”
Figuring out where Port City wanted to arrive with Colossal 6 was the product of negotiation between Reeves and his brew team.
“I had what I thought I was going to do in mind,” the head brewer remembers. “Of course, what I want to do is probably a lot tamer than what they want to do. We kind of met in the middle.”
Reeves is a connoisseur of old, classic standards of British beer. When the idea of brewing a Russian Imperial Stout came up, his mind wandered to a somewhat obscure York brewery whose dark beer he used to drink at the old Brickskeller. He thought of the High Desert Imperial Stout that Nick Funnell produced at Centerville’s Sweetwater Tavern in the early ‘00s. And then there was that five-year-old bottle of Bell’s legendary Expedition Stout that he tried at the Great American Beer Festival one year. Some of his brew team, by contrast, favored the newer, more aggressive Russian Imperial Stouts on the market. Over the formulation of five pilot batches, they found that common ground.
“We all had input on this beer,” says Reza. “Jonathan obviously has input on every single recipe at Port City – most of them are his – but, with that said, it was nice for the team to come together and share what we liked about the style.”
The final Colossal 6 is delightfully hard to pin down. There’s a subtle roast character. There’s an interesting ester character from the higher alcohol. It has a full body without being syrupy. It gives hints of leather and coffee and cocoa without the often-requisite rush of bitterness. It is strikingly dry.
“Like all of our beers, it’s about balance,” Reeves shares. “A lot of what I try to do with styles like this is get it to threshold and not try to go over.”
Colossal 6 was hopped and dry-hopped with Mt. Hood and Crystal, varietals that imbue a hint of herbal aroma now, while lending the beer enhanced stability for the years to come. Make no mistake, though: This is not an aggressively hoppy beer. It is not a descent into Darkness.
“There are multiple types of Russian Imperial Stouts, and we were aiming for a particular subset of that – something dryer, slightly more restrained in alcohol, but extremely nuanced, and less roasty, sweet, or boozy,” adds Van Orden. “So many big beers are under-attenuated. They’re super strong but also sticky sweet. They’re indulgent – I mean, any big beer is indulgent – but we wanted something that’s quaffable. That’s a big aim for all of our beers: You drink it, and you still want to live your life.”
“There’s no beer in here,” Bill Butcher tells me. “We’re empty.”
The Port City founder and I are standing inside the brewery’s “cold room,” where it stores kegs and bottles already filled with beer. His statement is not meant to be taken literally. There is indeed some beer in here. But there’s not as many kegs as he’d like to see. What he’d like to see is pallets and pallets of kegs, so that if his distributor showed up randomly, they’d have plenty of beer on hand.
“What we’ve always wanted to do is get three weeks ahead,” says the Port City founder, clad in a fleece with the insignia of his beloved James Madison University. “But we’ve never been able to do that. It’s always been a just-in-time situation. We’re packaging beer in the morning, and the truck is literally waiting for us. That’s not how you want to run a business. These brewers end up working so hard. This is the year we’re going to be able to get three weeks ahead.”
Almost seven years ago, Butcher drew up his initial business plan for Port City. His goal was to reach 25,000 barrels of annual production by the end of 2017, and to find a space that would facilitate that. He settled on Port City’s current home in Alexandria, which had 10,000-square feet for a production floor – 1,300 of which could be dedicated to cold storage.
“We knew from the outset that it was too small, but on balance, it was the best that we could do with the shape of this building and the space that we had available,” Butcher recalls. “Well, we outgrew that cold room probably six months into production. We knew it would be too small, but we didn’t think it would get too small that quickly.”
If this seems like a trivial inconvenience, it’s not. If your cold storage is restricted, then so is the amount of beer you can produce. You can’t make beer that you have nowhere to put. It also results in a herky jerky production schedule, where the cold room is emptied and then has to filled every few days. It’s a problem that’s more common than you might think.
“No brewery I know has enough cold storage,” Butcher says. “No distributor has enough cold storage. And no retailer has enough cold storage. It’s expensive, and nobody has enough. It’s one of the big capacity issues in the craft beer business right now.”
In conversation with other breweries, the Port City founder kept hearing one solution to this bottleneck: Move your cold storage to a separate facility, and then use your existing production space solely for brewing and packaging.
The issue for Port City is that property in the DC area is a little pricier than on the outskirts of Portland, Maine. Acquiring more space is easier said than done. Thinking that he might be priced out of anything near the brewery, Butcher began looking at warehouses in Ashburn and Sterling. Ultimately, he was able to secure something just down the road, though, with a little help from the commonwealth of Virginia.
Before we get there, let’s take a step back. In that same initial business plan, Butcher had assumed that the majority of Port City’s production would be dedicated to pale ale and IPA. After all, hops sell better than anything else these days. He also wanted a lighter, more broadly appealing offering – something he could convert the wine drinkers with – so Reeves’ witbier, Optimal Wit, was included as a flagship, too.
“Wit was kind of an afterthought,” he admits. “But the product mix isn’t really up to us. It’s up to the market.”
The market decided it wanted more Optimal Wit. A lot more Optimal Wit. Six years later, the lightly spiced, Belgian white ale accounts for whopping 40% of Port City’s output.
“As I’ve said from the beginning, the popularity of that beer is that it offers something for everybody,” observes Butcher. “For the craft beer novice, it’s something that’s easy to drink – it’s not hoppy, it’s not bitter, it’s just very approachable. For a craft beer aficionado, it holds their interest because it so complex, and it possesses layers of flavor that evolve in the glass.”
Complex beers are often the end result of complex brewing procedures. Optimal Wit is not easy beer to make. That’s largely because it’s brewed with raw wheat – a grain that requires a more labor-intensive mash-in. In an effort to be locally conscious, Butcher had decided to source that wheat from the Northern Neck of Virginia. By 2016, Port City was purchasing 250,000 annually to fuel production of the beer. Of course, Port City has always touted that local input when selling Optimal Wit – that’s savvy marketing – but it would pay dividends in a more unexpected way last year.
Through his connections with the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership and Governor Terry McAuliffe’s office, Butcher heard about a state grant program designed to boost Virginia agriculture. No brewery had ever received this grant. In fact, no business located in a metropolitan area had, either.
“They didn’t think that we would qualify for this program,” Butcher recalls. “They said, ‘Unless you’re doing business different from every other brewery in Virginia, you’re probably not going to qualify for this.’ But when I showed them how much Virginia wheat we were buying, it really opened their eyes. They were like, ‘Wow, you’re supporting Virginia agriculture by using so much locally grown wheat in your Optimal Wit.’”
If Optimal Wit was the goose that laid the golden egg, that golden egg had hatched and the goose inside just laid another. With a grant from the state, Port City was able to secure a warehouse space literally down the street.
“We were glad to be able to keep it close,” shares Butcher. “It gave us a better sense of security being able to put our eyes on stuff, to be able to get to the warehouse quickly and keep tabs on what’s going on.”
Currently in construction, this space will be used just for cold storage of beer and dry storage of unused packaging. It’s as boring as that. There won’t be a ribbon cutting ceremony. They probably won’t even put a sign on the door. But it will allow Port City to expand from 17,000 barrels annually up to 50,000 at some point down the road.
“It just relieves so much pressure from this existing brewery’s storage space,” the founder says. “It’ll allow us to bring more tanks in, upgrade our bottling line later this year, and really just become more efficient in every aspect of the business.”
When Port City won Small Brewery of the Year at 2015’s Great American Beer Festival, it changed both everything and nothing.
Outside the brewery, Butcher says “pretty much everything changed.” The honor strengthened Port City’s name recognition. It started attracting more people to its Alexandria tasting room. It bumped up sales. It drew the attention of “influential buyers” throughout the area.
“It’s had a sustained and lasting and very positive effect,” the founder tells me.
Inside the brewery, it was a different story, at least from Butcher’s perspective.
“When we got home from Denver, I gathered the whole team together and was able to tell them what I have been saying since we opened: We’re making some of the best beer in the country, and we have the best team in the country,” he says. “It just kind of validated what I was saying all along. When we opened, it was not with the goal of being the best local brewery – it was with the goal of brewing the best quality beer in the world.”
Butcher is a supremely confident individual. It doesn’t come off as arrogance – far from it. He just projects an unflappable resolve when discussing Port City.
At six years old, his company just experienced 30% growth in 2016, and there’s another 30% projected for 2017. I wonder aloud if this rate of success surprises him, even just a little.
The answer, matter of factly, is no. Not at all.
“I was convinced we could do it, which is why we did it,” Butcher explains. “I don’t consider myself a big risk-taker. A high-quality local brewery was missing in the DC area, and I’ve been doing this a long time. I was in the wine business for 20 years. What I know how to do is sell alcohol. I know this city’s hotels, I know the retailers, I know the restaurants, I know the built-in customer base. It’s up to me to bring them a great quality product that they can believe in.”
“Quality” is a word you hear a lot at Port City. It’s the buzzword used to describe what makes their beer special – or, you know, just really good.
“We hang our hats on quality,” Van Orden tells me. “That is first and foremost what we try to do.”
I push him to define what that word means to Port City.
“Whatever we’re making, we’re making the best possible rendition of it,” he answers. “We don’t generally reinvent the wheel. There’s a wide array of styles and flavors out there, so we’re not purists. We approach things from different perspectives, but we brew styles that are recognizable to craft beer entrants or neophytes. At the same, we make beer that a really experienced craft drinker will want to come back to, as well.”
A former DCBeer.com contributor, Van Orden holds a Masters from the University of Pennsylvania and left a job at the U.S. Department of Education to join Port City in November 2015. His hire is indicative of the talent that Butcher has been able to attract (and retain) at Port City, like “yeast wranger” Abbey Temoshchuk, former Arrowine beermonger Nick Anderson, and arguably the most engaged and knowledgeable tasting room staff in the area.
The founder attributes this good fortune to paying staff 5 to 10 percent more than they’d make elsewhere, and to giving perks like a “quality of life benefit,” but it’s also about his ability to articulate a vision for Port City. When Butcher says he wants Port City to become “an innovative quality leader in the mid-Atlantic region,” you believe it will.
In the meantime, though, those within the brewery are just excited to see how its latest exploration in vintage beer will mature.
“The flavor of Colossal 6 is going to start out being dry and roasty, and then over time, it’s going to kind of become sweeter,” Reeves predicts. “It’s definitely already become sweeter than it was when we made it.”
“You can imagine where it will go with some age on it – a little bit of that sherry oxidized aromatics, and then a little bit more of that savory character,” Van Orden adds. “This thing can hang for a while.”
Now that the creative process of Colossal 6 is drawing to a close, Port City is free to start pondering its sequel.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do next year,” Reeves shares. “We still haven’t done a Dubbel. We haven’t done a Trippel. We haven’t done a real Bock. I’m only concerned about not getting gimmicky. I want to stay true to how we do stuff, and not do some of these beers that other people are doing.”
“We have time to think about it,” Butcher interjects. “This one’s not even out yet.”
But his head brewer’s mind is already off to the races.
“I’d like to make a bigger beer than this,” Reeves shares. “Maybe we will actually make a barelywine at some point.”
For the complete history of Port City and its beers, revisit our Tap Takeover: Port City Brewing