Freshly Tapped spotlights one recently released beer, whether it be a flagship, one-off, seasonal, or modified recipe.
It should not come as a surprise that Jonathan Reeves, a bookish man who has dedicated almost three decades to producing traditional beer styles – first within his Maryland home, then across a succession of brewpubs from Virginia to St. Louis to Florida, and now at Port City Brewing – used to fantasize about visiting Bavaria.
Few regions if any are as steeped in the history of modern brewing. The present-day German state is where some of the first lagers were brewed as far back as the 14th century. It’s where the Reinheitsgebot purity laws were adopted by the 15th century. It gave us the Dunkel, the Helles the Doppelbock, Weißbier, and countless relatives of each. It’s home to a small gathering called Oktoberfest, where visitors from around the world consume mass quantities of Märzen – another of its offerings.
Reeves had a chance to brew these styles during his tenure at those geographically disparate brewpubs, but prior to 2016, he had never had a chance to drink them from the source, fresh, unfaded from time spent sailing across the Atlantic.
He came close once. Not long after marrying his wife Dawn in the fall of 2003, Reeves started planning a trip to Franconia. The two hoped to bicycle and eat and imbibe their way through the upper left corner of the state. It was a lovely plan. Then they found out Dawn was pregnant.
“She was like, ‘I’m not going over to Europe and watching you sit on a barstool while I can’t drink anything,’” Reeves recollects with a chuckle. “So, we didn’t go.”
Still, the dream stayed alive. Reeves and his Czech brother-in-law would often talk about flying to Munich for Oktoberfest, then working their east into the Czech Republic. Those plans never came to fruition, either.
But the head brewer’s luck changed a little over two years ago, when Port City’s Optimal Wit was awarded a silver medal at the European Beer Star – a prestigious international competition held annually in Nuremberg. Brewery founder Bill Butcher thought Reeves should be the one to receive the award.
It was only appropriate given the witbier’s history: Reeves first developed Optimal Wit as something to convert Dawn from Bud Light to craft beer, back when they were dating in Missouri.
Before Optimal Wit accounted for 45% of the Port City’s production, before the brewery even existed, it would be the bride’s ale at their wedding. Fifteen years later, it would get him to Bavaria.
Reeves traveled to Nuremberg alone, but he quickly found himself in the company of others. European Beer Star is held as part of BrauBeviale, the German equivalent of the Craft Brewers Conference, albeit five times bigger. Still, Reeves was more interested in taking in the ordinary sights and sounds of the city – its chain-smoking grandmothers, its goose-guzzling grandfathers, its beer halls with their wooden casks of local beer (or “holzfass”).
“I was a little freaked out because I didn’t really speak German well, and people in Nuremberg don’t speak that much English,” Reeves admits. “But if you keep your mouth shut and just walk around, you can pass as one of them. You can see how they live.”
Ten months later, Reeves found himself back in Bavaria. The brewer had traveled to Verona, Italy to field test the brewery’s new $2 million bottling line, then opted to jaunt up to Munich, which was hosting drinktec, a quadrennial conference for all things beverage. For this, his wife would meet him.
“We drank enough beer that the U-Bahn map of Munich turned into the flying spaghetti monster and we couldn’t figure out how to get home,” remembers Reeves, sitting at a conference table in the upstairs office of the Alexandria brewery on the last Friday in January.
Reeves again found himself back in Nuremberg last November, again accepting an award at European Beer Star – this time, for Port City’s “East Coast IPA” Monumental. He stayed with a widow who converted her bedroom into a dining room each morning to serve breakfast each morning. She recommended a modest watering hole around the corner called Landbierparadies, where a chalkboard relayed “heute vom holzfass.” Today from wooden barrels.
“It was not a super clean place, but the food was good and they were serving this beer in holzfass, which was amazing,” says Reeves. “We’d go to these places and they just seemed… real. They’d been there. It’s just a normal part of what people do over there, particularly in Franconia – people drink beer, you know? And they drink what’s local.”
Of course, Reeves drank what was local, too – often from the source. Munich presented a playground of institutional operations: Augustiner-Bräu, Löwenbräu. Schneider Weisse, the beer garden Hofbräuhaus. In Bamberg, he drank smoky Rauchbier and visited Brauerei Keesmann, Brauerei Spezial, and Mahr’s Bräu, where was enamored with their Ungespundet – an unfiltered, lightly carbonated, hop-forward Kellerbier of sorts.
Wherever he went across these three trips, Reeves drank what the breweries were known for. He drank the beers that don’t make it stateside. He always drank their Dunkels, the smooth, malty, sessionable dark lagers prevalent through the region. He didn’t seek out breweries making American-influenced styles; he could always get a double IPA back home.
“It was the perfect opportunity to try all of these different beers,” says Reeves, wearing a worn-in green thermal, the end of a black braided belt jutting out from underneath his beltline. “I mean, they’re just good.”
Each beer, he made a mental note. If he liked something and it was available in a bottle, he bought it. And at the end of every visit, he stuffed his suitcase with however much beer he could before incurring that pesky overweight bag fee.
Not coincidentally, in the spring of 2017, Port City launched its Lager Series – a rotating, seasonally appropriate collection of draft-only lagers.
From a logistical perspective, the series was born from the presence of a decommissioned 60-barrel brite tank. Rather than convert this vessel into a hot water tank or get rid of it altogether, the brewery decided to use it to condition lager.
“It was kind of like making lemonade out of lemons,” Reeves told me last year. “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.”
The first beer to see release in this series was one of those Bavarian lagers: Helles. In fact, with the exception of a Baltic Porter and a Mexican Dark Lager, the Lager Series has been a veritable roll call of such lagers: Franconian Kellerbier, Golden Export Lager, German Pilsner, Dunkel, Rauch Märzen, and Doppelbock. These are Reeves tributes to the traditions of the region, inspired in the most literal sense by his travels there.
“I feel like I understand the Bavarian styles well enough to brew them now,” he shares. “I know what they taste like.”
I know what they taste like. It’s an explanation almost profound in its simplicity. Of course, Reeves was hardly a stranger to German lagers prior to visiting Franconia. He made them at various points for a decade and a half at places like Sweetwater Tavern. Port City’s Oktoberfest is its most popular seasonal. (The brewery is set to produce a whopping 600 barrels this summer.) You can find German-made versions of these styles at specialty bottle shops.
But what Reeves is saying is that if you want to truly understand them, you must drink them fresh, and most of the time that means traveling to Germany.
“There is a significant difference between beer that is 30 days old and 60 days old and 90 days old,” he explains. “Someone who is not in the business of making beer might not notice it. But it’s particularly true with these unfiltered beers.”
If the brewer’s 2016 trip gave him to confidence to brew these styles on a production scale without piloting them, subsequent trips have allowed him to refine those recipes.
“When I bring a beer back, I’ll compare it with my recipe, and then based on that, I’ll triangulate,” Reeves says. “It’s mostly about selecting right malts and using the right techniques and trying different hop schedules. That last bit is still driving me a little crazy.”
The Dunkel has been especially elusive. Reeves changed the recipe drastically in 2018, and he plans to do the same this year, in part because of a particularly devastating bottle of Schlossbrauerei Stelzer’s Ritter Trunk that he brought back to Virginia recently.
“Hands down, there was a whole layer of aromas and flavors that just simply weren’t in my Dunkel,” he marvels. “Is that from decoction? What is that? It’s like, ‘How do I get more of this beer over here so I can compare it?’”
While Reeves is consumed by an endless pursuit of perfection, discerning DC-area drinkers and fellow brewers have relished the quality of the German entries in the Lager Series.
“The beer scene has never been better in the DMV – there are more breweries making more quality versions of more styles than ever before,” says Jace Gonnerman, beer director for Columbia Heights beer bar Meridian Pint, which hosts the DC release events for Lager Series entries. “But when it comes to traditional styles, Port City is the undisputed king. They crush everything from Witbier to Porter to Czech Pilsner to Märzen. The Lager Series is no different: It’s true to style, impeccably brewed, and consistently excellent.”
Even with the success to date, 2019 marks a pivotal year for the series. This spring, Port City will bottle and distribute the Helles, which like other entries had previously only been available on draft.
And this Friday, the Alexandria brewery will release its eighth-anniversary beer: Colossal 8, a Doppelbock that graduated from the series after first appearing last January.
Stylistically, Doppelbock is the boozy big brother of Dunkel. Like all German bocks, it’s strong but refined, a showcase for malt luxuriousness with an ABV that can creep up to 10%. (Port City’s version settles at a more reasonable and all too appropriate 8%.) As Reeves recounts, Doppelbock is said to have first been brewed near Munich by Paulaner monks, who relied on the sweet, bready beverage to alleviate their hunger whilst fasting. Like most other Munich lagers, its color falls between a rich copper or a very deep brown.
“Up until the invention of the Vienna Lager and the Pilsner, all these lager beers were really dark,” the brewer says. “It was probably best beer they could make with the water they had.”
“It’s not just their strength – everything about Doppelbocks impresses,” Jeff Alworth writes in The Beer Bible. “They are dark, sometimes with sparkling ruby highlights, as clarion as a mountain lake, and as rich and smooth as mousse. It’s like driving a very powerful sports car; you sense the power coiled inside, but all you can hear is a low, purring rumble.”
As such, a Doppelbock makes for a logical choice for a 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,” Butcher shared in 2017. “That’s the whole idea behind the Colossal series.”
Reeves had campaigned for Colossal 7 to be a Doppelbock, but the beer ultimately lost out to a Scotch Ale ,and the brewer tucked his rendition of the German lager into the Lager Series. This year’s version is largely unchanged from that predecessor.
“We essentially piloted this beer last year with the Lager Series, and we liked that, so I pretty much did that recipe again,” shares Reeves, tasting a tank sample of the brew. “I’m pretty happy with how it’s come out. In a lot of ways, it’s just a big Dunkel. A Doppelbock should have the characteristics that a Dunkel should have: a caramel character, a little bit of a roast character, almost a little bit of a cherry character. It shouldn’t be aggressively hoppy – I mean, the hops are just slightly there. It shouldn’t be sweet. And this attenuated down to where I wanted.”
Colossal 8 started with a hearty base of Light Munich malts, which was joined by successively less amounts of Pilsner malt, several different CaraMunich malts, and a touch of Carafa III for color. He also added some Melanoidin malt – a grain that helps brewers mimic the character of decoction without actually decocting.
A traditional German method, decoction calls for removing a thick portion of the mash, boiling it a high temperature to caramelize the wort, then adding it back to the larger kettle. Any German brewer will assert that it creates a depth of flavor that’s otherwise unachievable.
Without a German brewing system, Reeves is unable to decoct his beers. However, with both the Dunkel and Doppelbock, he’s developed another cheat of sorts: He pauses the lauter to boil the first runnings, and resumes lautering – proceeding to the sparge – once the concentrated sugar has been caramelized.
After brewing the beer in early December, Port City lagered the doppelbock for seven weeks. By the time it reaches consumers on Friday, Colossal 8 will be eight-weeks old. However, despite its ABV, and in contrast with Colossals 5 and 6 – an English Old Ale and a Russian Imperial Stout, respectively – Colossal 8 is not a beer meant to be aged. Like the German lagers Reeves covets, a Doppelbock is best fresh. (It is worth noting, though, that Lead Brewer Adam Reza II will be barrel aging a portion of the batch.)
“It’s a pretty straightforward beer,” Reeves deadpans. “It’s big. It’s a big, chewy, malty beer.”
Colossal 8 falls neatly into the traditions of Germany, where brewers historically produced beer based largely on the hops and grains available to them. Traveling through Franconia, Reeves noticed how many breweries had their own oast houses to kiln freshly picked hops.
“That was one thing that was neat about Germany: You knew the barley was grown nearby, and Hersbruck is maybe 45 minutes from Bamberg, so you knew the hops were, too,” he tells me. “There’s this terroir thing going on, like when you’re in Italy drinking wine that was grown on the hill behind the restaurant in some places.”
Port City has long sought to channel the terroir of Virginia with Optimal Wit – a beer constructed with locally grown wheat. The brewery recently launched a “Beer Grown Here” campaign to tout that connection, and it will further drive the point home this summer with the release of a new hoppy wheat ale called Rivershed Ale.
In addition to the Virginia wheat, Reeves hopes to source barley grown on Virginia’s side of the Delmarva Peninsula and malted in Delaware. He’s even contemplating sourcing their Pilsnen malt for Optimal Wit, though changing that recipe is a much grander proposition than using it in a new recipe. Reeves says he wants to make beer representative of where it’s brewed.
“It’s also the right thing to do,” he explains. “You’re getting something local, so you’re lowering the cost for shipping and you’re supporting the local economy. The other aspect is that climate change is no joke, and this was not a great year for malting barley in the West or really anywhere but Canada. I think everyone should be hedging their bets about where they’re going to get their raw material.”
There’s also an intangible appeal to locally sourced inputs.
“It’s just cool if I can drive a couple hours and go see how my malting barley is doing, which I can do now with my wheat,” says Reeves. “It’s nice to have that kind of personal relationship.”
As we’re talking, samples of the second pilot batch of Rivershed Ale have been passed around. Reeves has a few changes he wants make, namely lowering the ABV from 6% to around 5%. He’s happy with the hops – Loral and Sabro, two relatively new Pacific Northwest varietals – though he’ll need to make sure he can source them. (Reeves has no intention of sourcing “oniony” local hops any time soon.)
Wherever Rivershed Ale ends up, it will not be the last iteration. No recipe is final in the mind of Port City’s Head Brewer. There are always small changes to be made to a beer. Each batch offers “new data points,” culled from the brewery’s rigorous sensory analysis. A beer can always be better, he says, even flagships like Optimal Wit and Downright Pilsner.
“It always worries me when I deal with people in the industry who seem like they’re doing the same thing as the last time I talked with them,” Reeves tells me. “There’s no attempt to shed more light on what they’re doing, to try to make what they’re doing better; they’re reached this point where what they’re doing is good enough. It seems strange to me. It’s not about radically changing things – it’s ultimately about trying to improve what you’re doing.”
It’s a dedication to precision that surely the Germans would be proud of.
Follow writer Philip Runco on Twitter.
View more of Clarissa Villondo’s beer photography at Karlin Villondo Photography.
Revisit other recent Freshly Tapped profiles on Ocelt’s Lean on Me, Atlas Brew Works’ Solidarity Pilsner, Allagash’s Little Brett, Perennial’s Prodigal, Old Bust Head’s Table Talk, Right Proper’s Ravaged by Wolves, Bluejacket and Ocelot’s Mixed Up / Torn Down, Old Ox’s FestivALE, Port City’s Colossal 7, and 3 Stars Brewing’s ’90s hip-hop car culture series.