Freshly Tapped spotlights one recently released beer, whether it be a flagship, one-off, seasonal, or modified recipe.
Construction of Colossal Seven commenced inauspiciously.
A day before Port City was set to brew its seventh-anniversary Scotch Ale, there was a hiccup on the production floor. It started with something called a Super Sack – a bulk container that looks like an oversized IKEA shopping bag and can hold nearly 2,000 pounds of grain. Larger breweries use these jumbo satchels when they’re making big batches of beer that call for a healthy amount of grain different from their usual base malt. For Port City, that usually means Virginia wheat – the literal “wit” in its popular flagship Optimal Wit.
As chance would have it, producing witbier was the order of business on this particular late December afternoon. That’s when Port City’s brewers, whilst feeding grain into the mill, discovered that a Super Sack had been tied too loosely. Unfortunately, this would only become apparent after the bag had ripped open, clogging the system that’s dedicated to unloading Super Sacks. Attempting to dislodge the wheat would mean potentially losing over a thousand pounds of grain and most certainly creating an unholy mess across the floor of the brewery. So, Port City decided that, for all intents and purposes, its Super Sack system would be dedicated to wheat for the weeks to come.
Normally, this would be a non-issue. The vast majority of the Port City’s beers are built on a base of pilsner malt, which is piped into the mill from an outside silo via an auger. For an ordinary beer, there’s no need for a fancy piece of equipment with a silly name. But the next beer on the production schedule, Colossal Seven, was far from ordinary.
Like all of Port City’s anniversary beers, Colossal Seven is a shrine to the flavors of high-end malt. In the case of the Scotch Ale, it’s Scottish-grown Golden Promise – a heritage UK barley prized for its clean, sweet flavors. Head Brewer Jonathan Reeves’ recipe for the beer called for a little bit of caramel malt, a little bit of crystal malt, a little bit of black malt, but, mostly, it called for whole lot of Simpsons Golden Promise.
“This is a very malt-heavy beer,” says Chris Van Orden, Port City’s Manager of Marketing and Beer Strategy. “In exchange for its additional flavors, Golden Promise is a less efficient malt, so you need to use more of it. This is also a higher-ABV beer, and it has a higher final gravity, so you need more malt to get to that 8%, too.”
Without the Super Sack handler at their disposal, Port City’s brewers were forced to hand lift 55-pound Golden Promise bags into the mill, over and over and over again. When all was said and done, they would hoist some 144 bags of the malt to produce the 180-barrel batch. That translates to roughly 8000 pounds of power-cleaned Scottish malt.
“Seven was not fun to brew,” says Lead Brewer Adam Reza II. “It was definitely not fun lifting all those goddamn Golden Promise bags. But the malt tasted phenomenal. It tasted like bready deliciousness and… sunshine. Or, a really good roasted sunflower seed. It’s an expensive malt, and Seven is an expensive beer.”
“There are cheaper and more efficient malts out there that claim to do the same thing, but there’s subtle difference that we think is worth pursuing,” Van Orden says. “There’s a character. People will try a Port City beer and say, ‘There’s this one note that I really like in there, and I can’t put my finger on it.’ Well, there’s a good chance it’s that. It’s an ineffable additional quality.”
At 8% alcohol, Colossal Seven is arguably the most approachable entry yet in the celebratory series. On the heels of the brewery’s award-winning English-style Old Ale and its savory Russian Imperial Stout – both approaching or exceeding double-digit strength – this beer feels downright sessionable.
“With all of the big beers out there, it’s nice to get away from that hotness – the smell and taste of alcohol,” says Reza. “I had a Scotch Ale recently at Moreland’s, and it was just so boozy that I could barely finish it. It’ll be nice to smell this beer and not be like, ‘I’m taking a shot.’ You’ll smell the malt rather than the alcohol.”
“Even though it’s easier to drink, this beer still feels like a treat,” adds Van Orden. “A Scotch Ale fits with what this series is about: bigger, celebratory beers that we drink in cold weather.”
That there’s a romantic quality to the story of this beer’s creation – the colossal task of lifting those goddamn bags – feels apt, too: Scotch Ale, also known as “Wee Heavy,” is an erratically defined style with a history that’s been muddled by drinkers’ romantic notions of its origins. Deciphering what’s historically accurate and what’s conjured lore is also part of Colossal Seven’s tale.
But before Reeves got there, he and his team had to decide what to brew.
Jonathan Reeves is a worrier.
He’s worried about the subtly of Colossal Seven. He worried about distinguishing it from Colossal Five. He worries how the beer will be received.
“Jonathan is always the most worried person here,” observes Van Orden, sitting with his colleague at a large oval table in Port City’s second-floor office space – the land of “carpet walkers,” according to Reeves. “Our sales people always go out confident before a beer is released that it’s going to taste good.”
Reeves has another concern, a broader one, though it’s hard to gauge how seriously he believes it.
“I think we’re running out of ideas,” the brewer admits, slipping into a nervous chuckle.
Again, Van Orden thinks his head brewer doth fret too much.
“You always say that,” he retorts. “You brewed eight new lagers this year! We’re doing more new things than we ever have before!”
It was indeed an uncharacteristically creative year for Reeves, at least in the context of his time at Port City. For over a half decade, the Alexandria brewery has been defined in part by a laser focus on producing and improving its core beers. Sure, there have been the occasional new “occasional” (Port City’s preferred term for a semi-regular beer) like Maniacal Double IPA or Metro Red, but the priority has always been satisfying the demand for flagships from its many bar, restaurant, and retail accounts.
“You don’t get to tinker with recipes very often when there’s a chance of running out of Monumental IPA,” says Van Orden, whose portfolio of responsibilities includes sussing out the feasibility of new proposals and opportunities. “Now, we can get that beer made and still have the bandwidth to do some other fun things.”
2017 was bookended by two banal but significant developments that have helped free up Port City’s tank space, and thus its brewers. First, last winter, the brewery moved its cold storage to a warehouse space down the street, removing a bottleneck in production line. Then, in the fall, it installed an almost $2 million Italian-made, heavily automated bottling line that can package nearly three times faster than the brewery’s old one.
“At this point, we’re as close to optimal as we can be without purchasing some hundred-thousand-dollar online system to maximize production,” Van Orden shares as we walk around the production floor on a Monday afternoon in January. “We’re a small company, but we are really close to firing all cylinders. We are ready to make more beer.”
With some wiggle room in the production schedule, last year brought a bevy of new beers from Port City. In the spring, it collaborated with Marble Brewery and Überbrew – two fellow winners of the Great American Beer Festival’s “Small Brewing Company of the Year” award – for a Belgian IPA called Trifecta. It produced a rye IPA for Lost Dog Café, and before that, a much larger amount of Belgian pale ale in honor of Trader Joe’s fiftieth anniversary. Most notably, in June the brewery unveiled the dry, light-bodied IPA Integral – a beer that has swiftly gone from “occasional” to flagship.
“I think we’re finally making super hoppy beers now,” says Reeves. “We actually made a beer that has three pounds of hops per barrel, which I’ve never done before.”
And then there are those eight new lagers.
Towards the end 2016, Port City found itself in possession of a decommissioned 60-barrel brite tank. Rather than convert this vessel to a hot water tank or get rid of it altogether, the brewery used it to launch a series of rotating, seasonally appropriate lagers: a Helles in the spring, a German pilsner in the spring, a dunkel in the winter, and so on.
“It was kind of like making lemonade out of lemons,” shares Reeves. “We just had this tank that we didn’t know what to do with, so why not put something in it? And the beers are fun to make.”
From the outside, these lagers are thoroughly on-brand for the brewery: Reeves is yet again taking classic world styles and putting his own spin on them. Behind the scenes, though, they’re a bit of a departure, namely because Reeves, who is known for rigorously piloting and refining his recipes, is flying by the seat of his pants to some degree.
“I get to do one-offs with this series, which is something I haven’t done in a very long time,” says the brewer, who drew inspiration for many of the series’s beers from recent trips to Germany. “Usually, we pilot something, like the Scotch Ale, some ridiculous number of times. There’s a lot that I’m pretty unfamiliar with here. I’ve never had a brewhouse where I would decoct. I’ve never had a brewhouse where I could do step mash. But I still want to try create the flavors from those methods. So, there’s still plenty more to learn.”
Even though the batches of these draft-exclusive lagers are a drop in the bucket compared to Port City’s normal output, they’ve been an unqualified success for the brewery.
“Wit sales dwarfs the whole Lager Series combined, but the volume is not the full story,” says Van Orden, an unabashed lager enthusiast. “Some bars now have a rotating lager line for these beers; they know when a new one is coming. It’s just really heartening to hear people argue over which beer is their favorite. Each one has its own audience. Everyone stumps for their favorite beer.”
A similar electioneering process played out within the brewery late last winter, when the various members of the Port City team set about determining what Colossal Seven would be.
Some plead for a doppelbock, but that malty German style would instead find a home within the lager series. The group discussed a tripel, but the sales team – noting that beer buyers frequently ask for a strong Belgian ale to compliment Optimal Wit – suggested that style might be more useful as an “occasional.” (If you’re wondering who won that debate: Port City’s new tripel, Ideaal, will debut in May.)
In the end, this colossal decision was put to a vote, and a Scotch Ale was selected.
“It’s kind of a fun departure because, like, how many barleywine and Russian Imperial Stouts are there?” Van Orden says. “Doing a really interesting, somewhat classical take on a Scotch Ale is definitely in line with who we are. I mean, we’re the brewery that appreciates good, high-quality malt.”
Brewing a classical take on a Scotch Ale is easier said than done, however, mostly because no one is completely positive what the hell one looks like.
Few if any late-modern brewing traditions are as blissfully misunderstood as Scotland’s.
“Scottish beer is an interesting topic because there’s been a lot spoken about it, most of which seems to have been just completely made up by people’s wildly romantic notions of Scotland,” prominent historian Ron Pattinson told the BeerSmith Podcast in 2016. “There’s this thought that Scotland was nothing but the Highlands and that this big industrial bit in the middle didn’t exist… People think that Scotland is a wild, wind-swept place in Northern Europe, and that’s influenced their thinking on Scottish beer, but it’s not based on the reality of what Scottish beer was really like.”
When Port City chose to make a Scotch Ale, Reeves took it upon himself to sort through those romantic notions and decipher the apocryphal from the factual. He read the books he already had, along with some of Pattinson’s newer writings. He reached out to other brewers, such as his mentor, Nick Funnell, a Brit he credits with teaching him the most about brewing. Of course, as any of us would, he “Googled a lot, as well.
Some of Reeves’ findings confirmed what he already knew but others challenged stories he had previously assumed true.
Perhaps the most common misconception about Scotch Ales – and certainly the one most easily debunked – is that, like Scotch whisky, they contain smoked malts. This is an idea that’s been perpetuated by twentieth-century American renditions of the robust style, much to the chagrin of beer historians everywhere.
“For some reason, many Americans believe that old Scottish ales would have been smoky because malting kilns must have been filled with clouds of peat smoke – as they were in the maltings of some distilleries,” Jeff Alworth writes in his 2015 tome The Beer Bible. “But even as early as the seventeenth-century, Scottish breweries were firing their kiln with coke to reduce smoky flavors. Smoke may be fine in an Islay single malt, but it has been 300 years since it was appropriate in a Scottish beer.”
Alworth also notes matter-of-factly that Scottish ales were fermented at cool temperatures, which resulted in a smooth, lager-esque beer. This idea is often paired with a few other equally believable ones, namely that Scottish ales were boiled for an extended amount of time, producing a slight caramelization, and that they were also smooth on account of a lengthier fermentation stage.
Here we enter trickier territory, though, because Pattinson begs to differ on all the above. While the historian has found proof of these three things happening at various points in the country’s brewing history, none of them persistently did so, and they essentially never appeared in a brew log simultaneously. Thus, although it is a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion, one of Pattinson’s big takeaways is that a singular classic Scotch Ale, brewed using techniques passed down from generation to generation, doesn’t exist.
“I don’t think there is one answer,” says Reeves, who takes pride in his mix of English, Irish, and Scottish heritage. “Scotch Ales were all over the place, so I kind of decided that there is no monolithic version of the style.”
However, there are a few broader characteristics of Scottish ales that recur through the various eras. The most notable is that Scottish ales were usually less attenuated than their English counterparts. In other words, the yeast converted less fermentable sugar to alcohol, leaving behind a sweeter beer with a slightly fuller body. This malty sweetness was amplified by generally lower levels of hopping in bigger Scottish beers – an indication that they were meant to be consumed fresh, since hops were most often utilized for their preservative qualities in such beers.
Historically, production of these sweeter, boozier beers was fueled initially by a demand from its southern neighbor in the wake of the Acts of Union.
“During 18th century, the reputation of Scottish beer goes up,” Pattinson says. “They start to get a name for brewing strong beers, probably because that’s what they’re sending down to England. Edinburgh Ale and Scotch Ale start to become a thing in England, and something that people value and are prepared to pay money for.”
“If you were going to run a big brewery, you couldn’t support it on the population of Scotland alone, so they were producing a lot of beer for export,” Reeves tells me. “Essentially, they were brewing their interpretations of English styles, and a Scotch Ale is a Scottish version of an Old Ale.”
Three hundred years later, Reeves is hopeful that residents up and down this side of the Atlantic are prepared for to pay for his take on the style. He’s constructed it with this historical crash course in mind, though not slavishly so.
“Seven is not a recreation of a historic recipe,” says Van Orden, “but Jonathan did a lot of research to make sure that it’s true to what the style actually is.”
If you’re looking for the toughest critics of Port City’s beer, you don’t have to stray far from the source. In Jonathan Reeves’ mind, nearly everything introduced over the past year is need of improvement, and this indefinite pursuit of perfection is something he’s instilled in his brew team.
“Part of the reason that we’re growing is because we’re the brewers that are never satisfied with our beer,” says Van Orden. “People will come up to a brewer and rave about a beer, and the brewer’s first instinct is to go, ‘Well, there this one note that could have been better. Two more IBUs would have been better.’ The recipes are not written in stone. If there’s a way to make them better, Jonathan will.”
Reeves’ mentality helps explain Port City’s penchant for rigorously piloting its beers. Even something like VaStLy Mild, a 2016 draft-only collaboration with Schlafly, went through several stages of test batches. Each time the brewers produce a pilot batch, it goes on draft in the brewers’ locker room, and eventually, the group debates where to go next with the recipe.
“We try to be egalitarian,” says Reeves, whose surname fittingly originates from the English term for an overseer or steward. “We make a pilot, and then people drink it, and then we sit around and talk about it.”
Outside the brewery, Reeves has garnered a slight reputation for being a hardass, but perhaps he’s softening with age.
“People warned me about Jonathan – that he’s a very particular guy and he likes things his way – but it was the complete opposite when I got here,” says Philip Zanello, an alumnus of Dogfish Head and the most recent addition to Port City’s brew team. “I thought he was going to be completely separate from the group, but that’s not what happened. He really likes to hang out. He’s a friend just like any other brewer. And he cares about the product, so what’s not to like?”
Given the number of directions that Port City’s Scotch Ale could have taken, the pilot batches understandably varied greatly. Reeves tried fermenting batches with Port City’s house British ale yeast, a Scottish ale yeast, and even a Belgian yeast, the last of which was part of an ill-fated exploration of Belgianized versions of the style. (“I’m not trying to knock these classic Belgian breweries, but tasting their beers, the inspiration wasn’t there,” Van Orden says. “It was like, ‘This is not something that we’re eager to do our rendition of.’”) Ultimately, Reeves settled on using the brewery’s house yeast – the same Whitbread strain used to ferment the brewery’s Essential Pale Ale, Monumental IPA and Porter.
“That produced the best pilot,” Reeves says. “The beer was really caramelly.”
The brewer attempted to amplify the Scotch Ale’s caramel notes by employing a “pseudo-decoction” technique wherein he boiled the first runnings of the beer for a half hour, scorching the wort, then added the rest to the boil. This was another method the Reeves had heard Scots used. Regardless of whether that’s true or not, the results were not for him.
“I was trying to create kettle caramelization, but I did not like it,” the head brewer recalls. “I wanted caramel, and I got burnt. So, we made a decision to go in a different direction.”
One variable that never changed was the origin of the beer’s grist.
“I’m using malts that I’m sure were grown in Scotland,” he says. “I looked over a number of historical recipes, and the mashes were generally thick and boiled about two hours, which is slightly longer than usual, and they had three hop additions, and I did all of that within a certain time period.”
Unlike the past few Colossals, Reeves refrained from adding sugar to the boil – something that, somewhat counterintuitively, would have produced a less sweet beer
“When I make a beer like the Colossal Five and the Colossal Six, I put a little sugar in it with the purpose of getting it to attenuate to be a little bit drier,” Reeves explains. “We wanted this beer to finish sweeter, like it’s supposed to, but we certainly didn’t want it to be cloying.”
Colossal Seven was also hopped less thoroughly than its older siblings. Port City’s Old Ale and Russian Imperial Stout clocked in between 60 and 80 IBUs. The Scotch Ale, by comparison, will hit about 25 IBUs. Influenced by Pattinson’s research, Reeves lightly dry-hopped the beer with the UK varietals Whitbread Golding and Spalt, as well.
“There was a lot of discussion in books about how the Scottish didn’t use hops, but apparently they used a lot of hops,” the brewer says. “What they would do is ship their beer down to southern England and then bring hops back on the same ship. They used a lot of East Kent Golding and Spalt, and sometimes even American hops. Pattinson says they were dry-hopping Scotch Ales up to over a half-pound per barrel. I was like, ‘I don’t think that will hurt at all.’ So, I’m trying to use hop verities they would have used, and I’m trying to use them how they would have.”
“Scotch Ale is undoubtedly malt-forward,” adds Van Orden, “but a pleasant, refined hop aroma can serve as a nice counterbalance for the beer.”
Before Reeves got to dry-hopping the beer, he fermented it a smidge cooler than his usual ales – though nowhere near lager temperatures – to reduce the fruity esters Port City’s house yeast normally puts off. Nothing should get in the way of the beer’s toffee, caramel flavors.
“My mom is from Canada, and when I was a kid we would go to Canada, and one of the treats she would get us was Mackintosh’s Toffee,” Reeves remembers. “It was this big slab of caramel, and it came in this cardboard box, and it was good. It tasted like toffee. I think this beer should have that kind of toffee taste to it.”
Port City wouldn’t suggest you pop Colossal Sevens like candy, but putting the beer into six-packs indicates the 8% beer is a little more approachable than Colossal Five and Six, both of which came in four-packs and were engineered to weather years of cellaring.
“I didn’t brew this as a beer to really lay down,” Reeves says. “It’s meant to be drunk pretty fresh, because it’s 25 IBUs, but we’ll see. One thing I like about the Tartan is that it changes. It starts off kind of dry and roasty, and four months in, it’s getting kind of toffee-ish and sweet. It kind of changes. We’ll see how this changes.”
Every Port City brewer consumes coffee out of a nearly identical thermos. It’s tall and white, with a black top, a silver bottom, and a blue Port City logo in between. The only difference comes in the name of the brewer that’s stamped upon each mug in green capital letters.
This is less a hygiene measure than an accountability one. If a brewer leaves their plastic receptacle on the production floor, it’s likely to get knocked over or spilled. And, even if it isn’t, something will eventually need to go where that mug was left resting. So, Port City stamps its brewers’ names on their coffee mugs. The message: Don’t be a slob, and if you are, we’ll know.
“If we’re going to be a medium-sized brewery, everybody needs to step up,” says Van Orden, “and that includes how clean the brewery is.”
In 2015, Port City won Small Brewery of the Year at the Great American Beer Festival. Two years later, it produced 16,000 barrels of beer, thus officially crossing the threshold to a mid-sized (or “regional”) brewery. Talking with Van Orden, there’s a sense the brewery has spent a fair amount of time thinking about what that means.
“We’re maturing, right?” says the marketing manager, a red Fair Isle sweater covering his thin frame. “There’s stuff that we have to think about now because of our size. Our set of concerns are shifting to be a medium-sized brewery. We’re poised to make more beers than we ever have, and we’re able to take into consideration all these different things that we used to have to turn down, but that doesn’t mean they’re all the right things to do.”
Of all the DC-area breweries, Port City’s long-term vision has always been the clearest. In my conversations with the brewery – in 2015, in 2017, and now in 2018 – there is always a sense that things are more or less going according to founder Bill Butcher’s plan. Even as things change, its approach stays the same.
“I made an agreement with Bill in the beginning that we would improve quality as we grew,” says Reeves. “The goal is to reduce the percentage of poor quality beer. If we keep that percentage the same as we grow, it means we’re putting out more bad beer.”
To effectuate those ends, Port City hired a full-time employee dedicated to quality control in 2016. This year, the brewery will hire another. Their work will be assisted by that swanky new bottling line, which reduces each bottle’s dissolved oxygen pick-up from 75 to 100 parts-per-billion to 8 to 20 parts-per-billion. It may seem like a minute difference, but the impact is significant: The less oxygen in a beer, the slower it degrades, the longer it tastes as intended, the better shelf life it has.
“This bottling line now has effectively zero oxygen pick-up,” says Van Orden, showing me the equipment as Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” rattles from production floor speakers. “Suddenly, our shelf life is, like… we don’t even know. It could be close to half a year for some beers. We haven’t had this long enough to test it, but we’re really close to ABI.”
“The humble brag I would make it that we don’t make super exciting beers, but we are very focused on quality and consistency,” adds Reeves. “I think that’s what will ultimately keep us around: People know that they’re going to get a six-pack of our beer, and if it’s in-date, then it’s going to be good.”
A little over two weeks from when we’re talking, Colossal Seven will run through the new bottling system and shortly thereafter see distribution from North Carolina to Connecticut. Only then will Reeves’s likely unfounded concerns about the Scotch Ale’s subtlety and its similarity to Colossal Five be put to rest. In the meantime, Port City will be focused on the future, as ever.
“We’re off to a good start this year,” says Butcher, joining the conversation after an afternoon with his kids. “I feel like we’re ready to roll.”