Bill Butcher is distracted.
When the Port City Brewing Company founder is listening to you, you feel the entirety of his focus. His eyes widen and lock unwaveringly on your face. His head nods as if to confirm receipt of each sentence. He emits softly burning intensity like a high school football coach or well-polished politician.
But right now, sitting in the tasting room of his brewery, he’s clearly somewhere else. His eyes dart around the surface of our high table. He’s being asked about Port City’s quadruple and it’s clear he has no intent of responding. Something is amiss.
“I’m sorry,” Butcher interrupts. “Do you guys, um…”
He motions to the depleted snifters sitting in from of us.
“Empty glasses tend to make me nervous.”
Not much makes Butcher nervous. The 48 year-old has been selling alcohol for over two decades and it’s easy to see why he’s been successful. He’s attentive, but never forgets to greet everyone who passes his periphery. He projects an easygoing confidence. He doesn’t have a bad word to say about anyone. And when you’re in his company, your glass is rarely empty.
It has been a Wednesday both chaotic and completely ordinary at the Alexandria brewery. Head brewer Jonathan Reeves is running late to join us because he’s been training a new employee on the bottling line and there have been hiccups. “The labeler is going through an awkward phase,” he’ll malign. “It’s just not doing what it’s supposed to do.”
A couple of days earlier, Port City bottled eighteen cases of Essential Pale Ale, only to realize subsequently that someone had accidentally applied labels with French language health warnings – leftovers from an export shipment to Quebec last year. Those bottles were now for all intents and purposes worthless.
“This is what happens when you’re growing at 60% a year,” Butcher says. “We’re over four years into this thing, and we still feel like we’re working at this frantic, start-up pace. Every day, we’re doing things that we’ve never done before.”
Of course, if a sustained 60% growth rate is both a blessing and a curse, it is decidedly more of the former. The signposts have been undeniable for Port City. When the brewery opened during Super Bowl weekend in 2011, it offered two beers in its tasting room; now it annually brews seventeen styles with varying frequency. The chalkboard that lists every single restaurant, bar, and store that carries Reeves’ beers will soon enough require a magnifying glass. Not coincidentally, it is the most decorated brewery in the greater DC area, bringing home awards from national competitions and, more recently, winning the city’s biggest popularity contest.
However, if you think Butcher regrets not opening this Virginia brewery earlier, you’d be wrong.
“People ask me, ‘Don’t you wish you’d done this ten years ago?’ And I say, ‘No!'” he admits. “I wasn’t ready ten years ago. I was having fun doing other things. I was in a different business. When we did this, I was ready. Jonathan was ready. We started Port City at 45, and for us, this was always the last stop. I’ve got one brewery in me. Let’s make this thing work.”
If you want to understand how Butcher and Reeves’ make their brewery work, you must start with the roads that led them to this point – to beer, to each other, to Port City.
Spend a few hours with Bill Butcher and one thing becomes readily apparent: You can take the man out of the wine industry, but you can’t take the wine industry out of the man.
Prior to founding Port City, Butcher spent almost twenty years selling wine. Those decades filter his thoughts about beer and inform the approach to his brewery.
When Port City set about developing its year-round offerings, Butcher used California wineries as the model. “They’ve got light and crisp on one end of the spectrum, dark and full bodied on the other, and there a couple of stops in between,” the CEO shares. “That’s how we formed the parameters of our flagship portfolio.”
When Butcher wants to sell the brewery’s Optimal Wit to a skeptical customer, he compares its crispness to sauvignon blanc or a glass of Grüner Veltliner.
When he looks at the craft beer industry, he sees it becoming more and more like the fine wine business. “The craft beer enthusiast today has the same respect for beer that people have always had for fine wine,” he tells me. “They’re looking for sophisticated flavors.”
You get the idea.
His experience in the wine industry reaches back to 1990, but his big break came a few years later, when he joined Napa’s Robert Mondavi Corp. He would hold that post for a dozen years, having a hand in the company’s growth both in its Mid-Atlantic sales and distribution and in the operation of its sizable flagship winery. When Robert Mondavi was sold in 2004, he joined Michael Mondavi in starting Folio Wine Partners, a company specializing primarily in importing. Four years later, Butcher would leave Folio and the wine business altogether to be the stay-at-home parent for his young sons.
“I always knew I’d come back and do something,” he remembers. “I just didn’t know what it was.”
Like more than a few craft beer drinkers, a light bulb had gone off in Butcher’s head with the national arrival of California breweries like Sierra Nevada and Anchor during the late 80s: “That’s when I discovered that beer could be more than the stuff that we had grown up on.”
A few decades later, it dawned on him that while he was buying more and more things locally – produce, meat, even wine – he was still sourcing his beer from the West Coast. It wasn’t long after that he became convinced that not only could the mid-Atlantic use more craft beer options, but the DC’s lack of a production brewery also created a unique opportunity.
“Every other top 25 metro in the country had at least one packaging brewery,” the third-generation Alexandria native remembers. “My wife and I already knew that nobody was doing it here, but the fact that it was such an anomaly was one of the most compelling business reasons to start Port City,” Butcher says. “We thought that it if we did something of high quality that people would give it a chance.”
Once Port City was open for business, the connections and savvy he cultivated working in the wine industry started paying dividends. Butcher was now peddling beer, but he was selling it to familiar faces at restaurants, hotels, bottle shops, and grocery stores. He was also navigating the same three-tiered system and dealing with the same distributors. “It’s a different liquid, but the sales process and brand-building techniques are the same,” the founder says.
In designing the tasting room and on-premise tours, he thought first and foremost of his time in Napa. “When we opened Port City, I told people to think of it as a winery that makes beer,” Butcher says. “It was the same type of experience I wanted to give people.”
He wanted to welcome visitors to the brewery, let them taste the beer, and educate them on the processes, ingredients, and equipment. “People don’t get to see things made anymore, especially in this area,” he says. “People like to see how do things. They like to look at the big metal tanks. They like to hear from brewers how we make the beer.”
Four years in, Butcher has noticed plenty of differences between the two industries, though.
For starters, he’s gotten to shed the coat and tie he wore every day at Mondavi. “The beer business is much more relaxed,” Butcher says, sporting a maroon fleece with multicolor cuffs. “Now I get to wear jeans to work everyday.”
On the business side, there was a sharp learning curve, particularly with respect to seasonal demand. When the weather warms, he’s realized that Port City needs ease off its robust porter and increase that crisp witbier. That wasn’t always the case.
“People talk about the wine business being seasonal, and OK, you sell some rose in the summer, but people drink cabernet in the summer too,” Butcher says. “Watching the fluctuations Port City’s first year was great education for us.”
Thankfully, the beer industry allows for a flexibility and responsiveness that wine does not. “In the wine business, you put merlot plants in the ground and hope that people are still drinking merlot five years from now. You hope that they haven’t moved on to Pinot Noir,” Butcher explains. “With beer, if we start selling more witbier, we can react much more quickly. We can brew a batch of witbier in less than three weeks. We can be much more proactive in our product mix.”
The tastings are different, too. “When Jonathan and I first started tasting beer together, I was coming from a place where if you tasted a wine, you spit it out,” Butcher recalls. “Jonathan would get highly offended when I spit his beer out. He was like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ That had to come to an end quite quickly. I’ve adapted.”
Port City was an easier transition for Reeves. For twenty years, all he’s known is beer.
“I was talking to a reporter about something else earlier today. I’ll try to be interested in the sound of my own voice again.”
This is how Jonathan Reeves prefaces a conversation, and it sets the tone for what’s to follow. Port City’s chief brewer speaks candidly and posses no inclination for chest-puffing. He’s cautious in talking about past employers but will readily admit when, say, he wishes he had piloted a certain beer one more time. Again and again, the highest praise he’ll give one of his award-winning beers is: “Well, I liked it.” He’s not implying that others didn’t; it’s more that after a few decades making beer, the ultimate arbiter of a beer’s success or shortcomings is his gut.
While several DC breweries are the result of two old friends going into business together, Port City’s owner-brewer tandem came together the old fashioned way: The classifieds. When Butcher set about looking for someone to run Port City’s production floor in late 2008, he placed two ads. Within a few days, he had received 150 replies. It was a popular opportunity, especially during the throws of the time of shedding and cold rocks.
Butcher had three criteria on his in mind when evaluating candidates. “I was looking for someone who had a lot of experience, someone who had done a start-up, and someone who had won a lot of awards,” he remembers, chuckling at that third prong. “Jonathan was the one who had all three of those things.”
Butcher didn’t have to look much further than his backyard: Reeves is a third-generation Washingtonian who grew up in Rockville and Kensington. He lives less than a mile from the Takoma Park hospital where he was born. “This is full circle,” Reeves tells me. “But I had to have a little journey before I finally came back home and was able to do this.”
Reeves had studied filmmaking and was work as a darkroom technician when he started homebrewing in the early 90s. He calls his motivations “purely practical.” “I was living with a guy from Wisconsin, and between the two of us, we could fill up two recycling bins of empty beer bottles,” he remembers. “Between worrying what the neighbors might think and spending all of my money, I was thinking that we could probably brew the beer at home, and it would probably taste just as good or better, and it would definitely be cheaper. It didn’t really work out that way, but it turned out to be something that was fun.”
Fun turned to serious interest, and soon Reeves and his friends were discussing opening a brewery. But on an informational visit to Bardo Rodeo – an Arlington brewery that has since popped up in Northeast DC after several years of being defunct – he was offered a job and accepted. Thus began Reeves’ fifteen-year odyssey in commercial brewing.
At Bardo, he gained his first exposure to making West Coast IPAs, sours, and other then-unconventional styles. From there, he traveled to Florida, where he was forced to start brewing more traditional beers – with new ingredients, to boot – due to a non-compete agreement with his former employer. After additional brewpub stints at in St. Louis and Virginia, he transitioned to production brewing at Pennsylvania’s Appalachian Brewing Company. Finally, he moved back to Maryland, where he helped open a brewpub on Solomons Island.
This is where Butcher would find him. But more important than the geographic location was Reeves’ headspace. After several decades of brewing, he had no more wild oats to sow.
“I’ve experimented with everything – hoppy beers, barrel-aged beers, high-gravity beers, sours. When I was pub brewer, I could brew all different types of beers,” Reeves says. “I tend to like more balance now.”
Balance is the guiding principle of his brewing. Under his watch, Port City produces a line of clean, flavorful, and superficially unflashy flagships: Optimal Wit, Downright Pilsner, Essential Pale Ale, Monumental IPA, and Port City Porter. For Reeves, these beers aren’t about exotic ingredients or pushing the boundaries of the IBU scale; they’re about the brewer’s art.
“People try to do stuff that’s different, but a lot of times what’s important is technique,” he explains. “I could buy a bunch of hops from the Pacific Northwest and bunch of malt from Germany, but with something like Optimal Wit, I’m taking raw wheat and some pilsner malt and doing something in the mashton. It’s got our signature to it.”
Or take the porter, a roasty offering with a strong chocolate and coffee character. “We get those flavors without using, like, cocoa nibs or actual coffee,” Reeves says. “I’ve always found that when people add those things to beer, it doesn’t actually taste as good as using roasted malt to imitate those flavors. It doesn’t end up as good or complex.”
The brewer smiles. “I like doing more with less.”
In Butcher he’s found a like-minded partner.
“Having been in the alcohol business for so many years, I’ve seen a pendulum that swings back and forth. People want to experiment with excessive flavors, but they always gravitate towards balance,” Butcher explains. “It’s like most things in life: Happiness is achieved through harmony.”
Reeves joined Port City at the point when Butcher realized he was out of his depth.
“I had the market figured out, but I no longer knew what I was talking about,” Butcher remembers. “I needed the perspective of an experienced brewer on costing of supplies and production.”
The brewer ended up contributing much more: He designed the brewhouse, working with manufacturer JV Northwest to lay out work flow. But both Reeves and Butcher wavered on one big decision – the choice of a 30-barell or 40-barell system. The brewer was concerned that with a larger system – and therefore more beer per batch – Port City wouldn’t brew as often, and risked having stale beer in the market.
In hindsight, it’s a decision that Reeves regrets: “We should have gotten the 40-barell system.”
“We just didn’t have the cojones to pull the trigger,” Butcher adds, shaking his head.
A 30-barell system nevertheless represented a significant leap of faith. That would be the case for any start-up brewery (which usually launch on 15- or 20-barell systems), but Port City was also set to be the area’s pioneer production brewery. “People would warn us that DC was a transient city. They’d say there was too much turnover to support breweries,” the CEO recalls. “But no matter where you are, people want to try the local stuff.”
Butcher’s intuition was right, and when Port City opened, it was in a position to hit the ground running. “We were fully prepared to supply the market,” he says. “I know what a metro area of four million people can consume, and we didn’t want to be out of stock. We didn’t want restaurants to be frustrated with us because we can’t supply them.”
Port City also benefited from another early decision: Bottling within a month of opening. Typically, a brewery introduces its beer to the market on draft, builds a brand, creates demand, and then roll out packaged offerings. It also allows them to put off the time-consuming and often chaotic operation of the bottling or canning line.
But when the Alexandria brewery received its used bottling machinery from New York’s Southern Tier brewing, it didn’t want wait to play with its new toy. “I was like, ‘Well, let’s plug this thing and start bottling beer,’” Butcher remembers. “I only learned after the fact that it’s absolutely insane to start bottling right away. Nobody told me that.”
Whether the product of hubris or naiveté, bottling would ultimately be a boon. Even after other breweries opened in the area, Port City had the only beer available in stores for many months. This was even more important when the tap rotation at local bars and restaurants ended up being more tumultuous than anticipated. “We would get a tap, and then we would lose it.” Reeves recalls. “Bottling saved our bacon.”
“The reality always turns out to be different with any plan,” Butcher artfully spins. “What was consistent was that people were ready for local beer.”
Port City has increased its ability to produce that beer several times now. In April, it took receipt of tanks that push its capacity to 20,000 barrels annually. The Alexandria brewery will max out at a capacity of 25 to 28 thousands barrels, which Butcher expects to do in three years.
If the founder has ambitions beyond this space, he’s not tipping his hand. He says that the former lighting supply warehouse is adequate to realize his goals. “From day one, the vision was to be a mid-Atlantic brewery based in the DC area,” Butcher shares. “We do not plan on going beyond that. That’s how we set the brewery up to operate.”
Of course, unexpected opportunities do come along. Case in point: While Port City has largely focused on the area that Butcher knows best – Maryland to North Carolina – the brewery launched distribution in the New York City area early last year.
The expansion was not part of Port City’s business plan. Instead, Butcher says he found himself approached by Matt and Eric Schulman, two brothers recruiting craft breweries for a new distribution company, Sarene. “We weren’t looking to get into New York, but these guys are go-getters,” Butcher explains. “They had a great plan. They know the Manhattan market. And they’re killing it for us in New York.”
When we’re speaking in mid-March, Butcher had recently returned from New York Beer Week, where he bopped between East Village bars and the Columbus Circle Whole Foods. “It was a big week,” he shares. “I came home pretty amazed with how our beer has caught on up there.”
How exactly Port City defines home is a matter of interpretation.
Between 1791 and 1792, Major Andrew Ellicott surveyed the boundaries that would be designated the District of Columbia a decade later. Marked by forty boundary stones, the 100 square miles formed the shape of a diamond. Within these city limits was the Old Town portion of Alexandria, where Port City resides, and officially a part of DC until it was retroceded to Virginia in 1846.
A diamond has always been a central component of Port City’s logo, in part because Butcher says he didn’t notice any other brewery’s using one. But its inclusion also gave Port City the opportunity to tip its hat to the city’s forbearers, the Robert Portner Brewing Company, who operated in Old Town from the 1860s to the early 1900s. “That particular diamond was meant to be a tribute to the history of brewing beer in the area,” Butch explains.
A few months ago, Port City unveiled a “refresh” of its logo. The Jones Point lighthouse featured on the brewery’s initial design carried over, but Portner’s diamond was swapped out for Ellicott’s DC boundary, portrayed on the label with dashed lines. “The new diamond represents more of who we are now: a regional DC brewery that’s based in Alexandria,” Butcher says.
The logo reinforces the dual citizenship that Port City has consistently claimed. According to Butcher, identifying with both Virginia and DC is part of his hometown’s identity. “As a native Alexandrian, I’ve always felt like I get the benefit of living in a small town in Northern Virginia, but at the same, I get the access to all that metro DC has to offer,” the founder shares. “In locating the brewery here, it reflected both my family history, as well as the business need to speak directly to the DC beer community. Being inside the beltway is the only way to do it.”
In Butcher’s mind, that circle of highway is the area’s defining geographical boundary. “Around the beltway is what I look at as our own,” he says. “That’s what most people in the beverage industry consider DC. It’s the greater DC metropolitan area that represents several million people.”
And while much has been made of the restrictions that production breweries across the Potomac faced when opening, Butcher says the story in Alexandria was the same. He shrugs off those obstacles. “Every jurisdiction has outdated alcohol laws,” he remarks. “We came into this eyes wide open, knowing exactly what we were up against and the challenges that a start-up faces in a highly-regulated, highly-taxed industry. We were faced with a lot of silly requirements, but we also have worked behind the scenes to get the laws adapted.”
Butcher couldn’t win every battle. Behind one of the bars in Port City’s tasting room is a small black box – a grease separator. The brewery has never had a drop of grease run through its pipes. It doesn’t even have a kitchen. But as local regulatory agencies have adjusted to the idea of production breweries with tasting rooms, they’ve often zoned and permitted them as restaurants.
There were other restrictions Port City didn’t bother to challenge at first. Like DC and Maryland breweries, it was prohibited from selling pints on premise initially. This was a blessing disguise. “We didn’t lobby hard to sell pints, because our hands were full,” Butcher says. “We wanted people to taste the beer, buy something, and go home. We weren’t prepared for this to be a destination.”
By the time the law changed, Port City was in a position to take advantage. It put in a second bar. It installed flat screen TVs. It even invested in the luxury of chairs.
The brewery has indeed evolved into a destination. 1200 people pass over Port City’s checkered floors every week. It hosts beer yoga, fun runs, and a monthly bicycle club. Of the area’s production breweries, it’s the only one open seven days a week – an expansion from its earlier three-day window. “That decision just came from listening to our customers. They wanted to come hang over here,” Butcher explains. “Who am I to say, ‘No’? We’ll sell you some beer.”
The tasting room is both sizable and kept remarkably clean. It’s the brewery where you can safely bring even the most uppity of parents. Butcher has plans to keep building out the on-premise experience: A second floor, pinball machines, a pool table.
He does not, however, have any intentions to open a brewpub here or elsewhere. “I’ve been in the restaurant business before –in college and high school – and I got out of it twenty five years ago,” he explains. “That requires a different expertise than brewing and selling beer. We support the restaurants that carry our beers. I don’t ever want to give the perception that we’re competing with them.”
Butcher’s sense of clear lines and a certain level of respect carries to his discussion of other breweries, too. He isn’t interested in discussing who can lay claim to being the area’s first production brewery. He simply acknowledges that they all need each other.
“If you’re in the antiques business and you have a store, and you’re one guy selling antiques, then you’re a crazy guy on a corner selling junk,” he says. “But if you’ve got ten antique stores, then you’ve got a district. You’ve got a place that people will come to. You’ve got a community.”
Sitting with Butcher and Reeves, there’s hardly a whiff of tension between the two – in vision, in messaging, in pretty much anything. They are simpatico.
“That’s the word that I use too,” Reeves agrees.
Butcher nods. “That’s the way it ought to be.”
The two attribute the strength of the relationship, in part, to understanding their respective roles.
“Jonathan knows what he’s doing in the brewery and I try not to interfere,” Butcher says. “I could hose down the floor, but beyond that, I don’t need to be touching the valves or anything.”
“I make the beer. He sells the beer,” Reeves shares. “Bill decided the names and how to package it. I decided how to make it. There’s a lot of give and take, but there’s no tension. Neither of us have huge egos.”
Reeves discusses his team of four brewers like family, always referring to them as “my guys.” He wishes he could find more time for his guys to experiment with new beer styles. He doesn’t want his guys to have to work over 45 hours per week – a difficult task when they’re also sought after to work events in the market. He knows that a lot of his guys are settled down.
After working in a few undesirable situations during his career, Reeves wants to provide a better environment for his guys.
“How can I put this nicely? I dealt with a lot of different people in the industry, and some of the situations were downright dangerous,” the brewer says. “I had the opportunity to see how other people did things, and I’m trying to do it the right way this time.”
While younger brewers may cycle through Port City, Butcher and Reeves have every intention of growing old together.
“We made this place wheelchair accessible,” Reeves jokes.
In the short term, though, Butcher is content with Port City’s trajectory.
“So far, so good,” he tells me. “I can sleep at night because I know that we know what we’re doing.”
Every beer has a story. Port City shares the stories of its brews below.
As fate would have it, Port City’s head brewer fell in love with someone without a taste for craft beer.
“When I met my wife, she had nothing but Bud Light in her fridge,” Reeves remembers. “She didn’t really like beers that were hoppy. She didn’t like dark beer. She wouldn’t drink anything heavy.”
Sensing a challenge, Reeves set about formulating a beer that might “cross her over.” Wheat beer seemed like the right direction: moderate in alcohol content, not particularly bitter, and often fruity.
He made a hefeweizen at his brewpub, and she liked it. He made her a witbeir – a lighter hued style with more spice and citrus flavors – and she really liked it. “So, I wanted to perfect that recipe,” he says with a chuckle.
The ultimate end of that refinement is Optimal Wit, a beer that’s received acclaim well beyond its initial audience of one. In fact, its Port City’s best selling offering.
“I’ve done everything that I’ve wanted to do with it,” Reeves says of his unfiltered beer. “It’s brewed traditionally – I’m not faking it at all. It’s a real witbier.”
Brewing an authentic witbier requires some elbow grease. The mashing process – when the raw wheat and malted barley are combined with water and heated – is complicated, and on the days that Optimal Wit is brewed, Port City has to mill the spices that go into the whirlpool. “The brewers kind of grumble about it because it requires a lot finessing in,” Reeves says. “That’s cool though, because there’s a brewer’s art in it.”
There is some notoriety to the ingredient list: Butcher is conscious of sourcing locally where possible, and eventually found a farm on the northern neck of Virginia that could supply the wheat.
A wheat beer is an unconventional best seller in a market that’s dominated by aggressively hopped IPAs, but Butcher says that he isn’t surprised. That’s partly because the CEO claims that he didn’t try to predict what would be popular in the first place.
“People have asked us through the years, ‘What do you want your flagship to be? What do you want to be known best for?’” he recalls. “But that’s not really up to us. It’s up to the market. Our job is to make the styles of beer that we want to make and do it in the best quality we can.”
A gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival will help nudge the market, too. After Port City brought home that distinction in 2013, the already popular beer got even more popular. At this point, Optimal Wit accounts for 35% of Port City’s production.
“It hits a sweet spot in the market,” Butcher says of its broad appeal. “People who are just getting into craft beer like it, because it’s easy to drink and not hoppy. But for craft beer aficionados, it has enough complexity and layers of flavor to hold their interest.”
Finding balance is what Port City strives for across its portfolio, but that can be tricky business with a witbier. “When you’re making a spiced beer, it’s easy to go overboard,” Butcher observes. “I believe that our recipe has everything that it needs and it stops there. That’s the definition of optimal”
Of course, Reeves’ own story had its own optimal conclusion: “We served witbier at my wedding as the bride’s ale.”
Reeves has always had a soft spot for dark beers.
“When I was a kid, my father used to give me sips of beer, and I liked it,” he recollects. “But I didn’t really love beer until I had a Guinness.”
Port City’s darkest flagship is a robust porter that harkens back to English porters of the 19th century. “English beers used to be stronger,” the brewer says, slipping into historian mode. “The tax structure changed, and there were various depravations due to war, and all of that changed English beers to the point of their becoming fairly low gravity. But before that, porters were big beers. It’s how porter was intended to be.”
Reeves sees his porter on a course of its own destiny, too. Of everything he makes, Port City Porter is the closest to what he homebrewed 22 years ago. And after two decades with the recipe, it has a mind of its own mind: “7.2% [ABV] is what it wanted to be. It wanted to be that dark and have that hop character – not too much, not too little.”
The brewer is fond of using Whitbread Ale Yeast in his English ale styles, which lends the porter a bright and clean character typically unassociated with its complexion.
If India Pale Ale is the undisputed champ of the craft beer market, where does that leave its more moderate sibling, the American Pale Ale? A little neglected, according to Butcher.
“When you talk to people at bars, they want IPA, and the American Pale Ale gets left behind,” the CEO says, noting that Port City’s Essential Pale Ale sells less on draft than any of its other flagships. (It’s not a unique problem. Earlier this year, 3 Stars’ Dave Coleman discussed pale ale apathy with regard to the brewery’s Sea Change and the Movement: “One of our previous beers, Sea Change? I loved that beer. I thought it was great. But the market was just like, ‘Eh. It’s a pale. Whatever.'”)
But Butcher is just as quick to point out that it’s a different story in the brewery’s tasting room: “It’s one of our best selling beers in here, because people come in and taste it, and they go home with a growler of pale ale.”
What people are tasting is a golden, dry-hopped pale ale that Reeves says was inspired in part by the sensory experience of grocery stores and market: “You know when you walk in the fruit section and smell all of the different fruits at once? My goal was to capture that.”
Essential Pale Ale isn’t shy about hops, though. At 40 IBUs, its well outside the 25 to 35 IBUs typically associated with the style. “It’s pretty hoppy, but people are so hop-centric now,” Reeves says, mildly exasperated. “Hops have gotten a little super-sized.”
Butcher saw an analogous super-sizing during his time in Napa. “With all of the sunshine in California, you can get incredibly ripe grapes that give you a very high sugar content, which yields very highly alcoholic and very fruit-forward flavors. You see that in red Zinfandel and Syrah, where they’re pushing 15 or 16 percent alcohol with very, very intense flavors,” he recounts. “They really get your attention, after half a glass, you were ready to drink something else. I put a lot of these super hoppy IPAs in the same category: They blast you over the head with flavor, but they tire out your pallet.”
While Butcher says that Port City isn’t so attached to any beer that the brewery wouldn’t move away from the style if it wasn’t pulling its weight, the slightly underperforming staff favorite won’t be falling out of favor anytime soon.
“A great quality American Pale Ale is an essential,” he tells me. “It’s a daily staple.”
Downright Pilsner had to earn its flagship status.
The beer originated as the brewery’s summer seasonal, but people kept asking for it outside out the year’s warmest months, so Port City elevated it an “occasional.” When semi-regular availability wasn’t good enough for fans of the unfiltered lager, Port City went ahead and made it the fifth year-round offering.
“There aren’t a lot of people making a great craft pilsner,” Butcher says of the demand. “The craft beer industry is over 80% ale, but there’s an audience for more sophisticated styles. Pilsners are more about finesse and delicate flavors.”
Those flavor take more time to conjure, though – six weeks, on average, compared to two for an ale – which is a big reason why they’re less common in an industry where craft brewers often struggle to make beer fast enough. (DC Brau waited – and expanded capacity – for almost four years before it felt that it had the tank space to regularly make a pilsner.)
Unfiltered and naturally carbonated, Downright Pislner is brewed in the Bohemian style – the original Czech style that has more malt character and is less dry than the German derivation. “I like German pilsners too,” Reeves says diplomatically. “But we thought that a Bohemian would be more fun.”
Interestingly, while the Optimal Wit – and, to a lesser degree, the Monumental IPA – may reign supreme around the Beltway, Downright Pilsner has been Port City’s workhorse in New York.
“It’s a regional difference, I guess,” Butcher says.
Monumental IPA is Reeves’ ode to the California IPAs of yesteryear.
“I was going after the West Coast IPAs that I had in the 90s,” the brewer explains. “They had more color to them. They had a malt character.”
In the time that has passed, West Coast IPAs have shed their malt character, becoming a paler ale with an exaggerated hop presence. “Your average IPA now would have been a double IPA in the ‘90s,” Reeves says.
Some have called IPAs balanced a stronger malt backbone Pacific Northwest IPAs – as BC Brau’s Jeff Hancock views his Corruption – but Butcher prefers a different geographic spin.
“We’re starting to talk about Monumental like an East Coast IPA,” he says. “The British IPA is more malt-forward. The West Coast IPA is obviously more hop-forward. Geographically right in the middle is the East Coast of the United States, and stylistically, that’s where our IPA falls, too.”
The style hasn’t been wholly adopted yet, though. In fact, when Monumental won a bronze medal at 2012 Great American Beer Festival, it was in the English IPA category, despite the lack of an English malt, hop, or yeast strain.
Perhaps someday our regional IPA will get its due.
Tartan Ale was conceived as a transitional beer.
Port City’s Scotch ale – and spring seasonal offering – hits shelves at a time when people are weaning themselves from stouts and porters and winter warmers.
“Coming off the cold weather and the darker beers, people want something that’s less dark,” Butcher observes. “Tartan is a nice, malty beer for Spring and St. Patrick’s Day.”
Plus, spring is the time of year with the least traditionally established seasonals, so pretty much anything goes. Reeves playfully calls it the “orphan of the seasonals.”
“The spring seasonal release is always a little softer than the fall harvest and winter holiday beers,” Butcher says of the market trends. “That’s OK. It gives us an opportunity to have something different in the market.”
Styles of Scotch ales were historically associated with their alcohol content and corresponding price in shillings. At 5% ABV, Tartan is an 80 shilling, right between a 70 shilling heavy (about 4% ABV) and a 90 shilling wee heavy (over 6% ABV). Reeves likens his malt-forward beer it to an ESB: “It’s kind of high gravity for a British beer, but it’s not ridiculously big, especially as far as American beers can go.”
“It shows that beer isn’t all about hops,” Butcher adds.
The CEO also sees Tartan as part of his hometown’s lineage.
“Alexandria has very strong Scottish ties,” he explains. “The city was founded by land owned by the Alexander family, who were Scottish merchants importing and exporting out of what became Alexandria’s port. There’s a lot of Scottish history here.”
Reeves has his own connection, though he doesn’t sound like he’ll be donning a kilt for the Scottish Christmas Walk anytime soon.
“I’m part Scottish,” the brewer shares. “I have some Scottish pride, I guess.”
Before Port City commenced operations in the winter of 2012, a minister ascended a set of steps on the production floor, and in front of an audience of 100, he blessed the brewery. But even such a consecration could not spare Port City from the wrath of that summer’s derecho.
On June 29, five month after Port City opened, a severe storm ripped quickly across the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic, leaving an estimated $3 billion of damage in its wake. The hurricane-level winds knocked out power for over a million residents in the greater DC area. Unfortunately for Port City, it was one of those million customers, and for five days, the brewery was denied electricity.
“It was a tough week,” Butcher remembers. “We were in the middle of a heat wave. Everybody’s lights are out. We had to hang out in the bars of Old Town.”
Meanwhile, hanging out in Port City’s tanks was a batch of pilsner. The beer, which ferments at a cold temperature, was also feeling the heat. But rather than discard the batch, Reeves and his team improvised.
“The pilsner got warm, so we dry-hopped it with a different hop, and then we sold it as a steam beer, which it essentially was,” the brewer remembers.
Satisfied with the end result, the brewery now offers the steam beer as a summer seasonal, albeit with some modifications.
“We’ve been able to improve this beer just by planning for it,” Butcher explains. “The first year it was an accident. Jonathan and the brewers were able to save some beer and make it something that tasted good, but when you can actually plan for it – and not just make the best of a bad situation – you can make a beer to be really proud of.”
“We’ve changed the Derecho every year,” Reeves says of his beer, which uses exclusively Centennial hops. “But I think I like it now.”
“It’s become our little summer tradition around here,” Butcher adds. “We still like to say that’s best enjoyed in the dark with no air-conditioning.”
The first year that Port City made its Oktoberfest, it brewed one tank. The next year, it brewed two. This year, it’ll brew three.
“You can never brew enough Oktoberfest, apparently,” Reeves says wryly.
The traditional Märzen lager is Port City’s most popular seasonal, a fact that Butcher attributes to the quality of the beer – a silver medal winner at the Great American Beer Festival – and, more generally, the time of year. “There’s more demand for fall seasonals,” the CEO explains. “That’s when people are in the mode of thinking about seasonal beers.”
While the demand may be there, not everyone can agree on when to start meeting it. In the race to be the first on the shelf, some breweries start shipping their fall seasonals at the height of beach blanket weather. It’s a craft beer trend that some call “seasonal creep.”
“People are seeing Oktoberfest and pumpkin beer in July,” he says. “That truly should not be happening.”
It’s a game that Port City has refused to play.
“The first year that we sent Okotberfest to another state, I told our wholesaler that we were shipping over Labor Day because we want the beer in the market during Oktoberfest, which is the second and third week of September,” Butcher recalls. “He said, ‘Well, that’s too late. We’re done with Oktoberfest by then. We’re selling it in August. If you’re coming to me in September for Oktoberfest, we’re going to pass.’”
Port City opted not to sell the lager in that state.
“We’re not going to change our release date,” the CEO continues. “We want our seasonal beer to be in the market for its intended season.”
Of course, it’s easier to be stubborn when your Oktoberfest is flying off the shelf.
“It is truly limited by our tank space,” Butcher says. “If we made twice as much last year, we would have sold twice as much.”
Diwali is the ancient Hindu festival of lights – a five-day celebration after the summer harvest that marks the beginning of a new year. Like a lot of the best gatherings, it involves the consumption of sweet and savory foods. And it just so happened that when Reeves was working for Virginia Sweetwater Tavern, he would often find himself at spice markets during the lead-up to Diwali, in search of ingredients for the brewpub’s Christmas ale.
“That’s when I started experimenting with an Indian-themed beer,” the head brewer recalls.
He gravitated towards garam masala, a mixture of spices common in North India that blends a wide swath of ingredients: black and white peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and mace, cardamom, Bay leaf, and Caraway. These were the flavors on his mind years later as he set about making Port City’s own holiday offering, Tidings.
He envisioned a spiced Grand Cru of the Optimal Wit – a something unconventional starting point. “Christmas beers are always these dark spice beers,” Reeves shares. “I wanted this to be a light in color and light body.”
Using the same mash of Virginia wheat, he adds cardamom, ginger, coriander, grains of paradise and Maryland honey. The blonde ale’s flavor is meant to mimic gulab jamun – a fried cheese and syrup confection popular in South Asia.
The honey not only drives the alcohol to 7.8% ABV, it gives drinkers a reminder of the more forgiving months. “It’s like tasting summer flowers in a beer, but during the wintertime,” Reeves says.
The easy-sipping twist on a holiday beer hits shelves in early November, just in time for another food-heavy celebration. “We get it to the market for Thanksgiving,” Butcher shares. “The flavors work so well on the Thanksgiving table.”
Tidings doesn’t hang around much longer past Christmas, though – at least in the Port City tasting room, according to the CEO. “Every year that we’ve sold this beer, we’ve kicked our last keg on New Year’s eve.”
Some breweries define themselves by big, boozy offerings. Port City has some of those – its Maniacal Double IPA, Tidings, and Colossal series all push close to 8% ABV or higher – but the brewery is just as dedicated to less potent offerings.
“I prefer lower alcohol beers,” Reeves shares. “Maybe that’s a product of getting older.”
Port City’s Downright Pilsner, Optimal Wit, Derecho Common, and Tartan Ale all sit at 5% or lower. Leanest of all is Ways & Means, a slightly spicy rye ale that clocks in at 4.5%. Originally introduced as an American Style Bitter in late winter of 2014, Ways & Means has subsequently been sold as a session rye IPA.
The session IPA an easy-drinking style that has risen in popularity over the past few years in response to heftier IPAs. “There’s so much IPA at 7%. If you drink four pints of that over the course of an evening, you’ve had the same amount of alcohol as a full bottle of wine,” Butchers explains. “That’s a lot of alcohol to consume in one night.”
“The popularity of the session IPA comes from people who love to drink beer but don’t want to be drunk,” the CEO continues. “There’s a need in the market for that. That’s what drove us to make Ways & Means.”
The challenge came in developing a beer that was light in alcohol but still had flavor and body.
Like most of the beers that have been introduced by Port City in the last few years, Ways & Means was formulated by Reeves in consultation with his team of brewers. The style was piloted, offered for feedback in the tasting room on the “Suspicious Package” tap, and then tweaked – a process repeated several times over.
“In the beginning, we were a little more seat-of-the-pants,” Reeves says of the brewery’s early days. “We came in knowing the beers that we wanted to make, and I had preexisting recipes.”
Now, Butcher explains, he and Reeves are conscious to solicit ideas from their team: “We sit down with the brewers and we’re like, ‘What should we be doing on the pilot system?’”
The founder stresses that it’s a largely unscientific system – just one part of a never-ending dialogue about beer and what everyone drank the night before. But Port City does keep a running list of ten or so different styles to pilot when the time allows.
“Some may get brewed on the full system, but most won’t,” Butcher says. “Our production schedule is so tight, because we’re so busy brewing the beers that we make every day. It doesn’t leave as much time as we’d like to experiment on new recipes.”
Still, the CEO envisions a day when Port City will be able to pilot a new “Suspicious Package” every week.
Until then, Reeves says that it’s essential to involve his guys in formulating new beers like Ways & Means. “You end up with more diversity,” he explains. “When other people aren’t playing a role, all of the recipes are going to taste the same.”
Once Port City had settled on a final Ways & Means recipe that combined Citra and Centennial hops, it debuted the “occasional” – neither a flagship nor a seasonal – in grand fashion: The first keg was served to members of Congress in the original Ways & Means Committee meeting room in the United States Capitol.
“You tell people how to make an oyster stout, and they either think it’s the coolest thing they’ve ever heard or they’re completely disgusted,” Butcher shares with laugh.
The divisive process is seemingly straightforward: Shucked oysters and shells are place in teabag-like pouches and then submerged in the kettle towards the end of a stout’s boil. “You try to get all those flavor out of them,” Reeves explains. “I imagine that those little fellas are alive, too.”
It’s easier said than done, though, because brewing with a seasonal and often unavailable ingredient poses significant challenges.
“We have to time it just right with oyster season, because we put 1500 fresh-shucked oysters into the wort,” Butcher shares.
Thus far, brewing Oyster Revival Stout is something that Port City has only been able to pull off three times.
It hasn’t been from a lack of trying. Butcher recalls one instance where he reached out to his oyster supplier, Brad Blymier of Virginia’s War Shore Oyster. “I called our buddy Brad, and he was like, ‘The fucking bay is frozen!’ They couldn’t get boats out to get to the oysters. The creeks were all frozen!” the CEO shares. “There were no oysters for a month. Eventually, we had to move on, because we’ve got to keep up with all of our other beer.”
The result of such difficulties? “The oyster stout has become something that’s fallen out of the mix right now,” Butcher says.
Still, while the tradition of consuming stout and oysters together may be a tradition that originated from British and Irish cultures, Port City sees the “occasional” as an important opportunity to highlight one of the region’s strengths.
“If you want to brew with local ingredients in Virginia, you have to get creative,” Butcher explains. “We don’t grow great quality malting barley. We don’t cultivate the hops that we want to brew beer with. But the Chesapeake Bay happens to make some of the best quality oysters in the world. If you can find a way to incorporate them, why wouldn’t you?”
Reeves has fond memories of oyster season. “Growing up around here, and I used to spend time on the Chesapeake Bay and the Patuxent and the Rappahannock,” the native Marylander recalls. “In the fall, it smells like oysters.”
Will his oyster stout be making a return anytime soon?
“Never say never,” Butcher shares optimistically.
Port City’s Maniacal Double IPA is extravagant creation born from pragmatic calculation.
“Monumental is our flagship IPA, but when you give it to some people, they’re like, ‘No, it’s not hoppy enough for me.’” Butcher explains. “Well, who are we to say what the right amount of hops is? If people want a double IPA, then we’ll make a double IPA for them.”
Debuted a little over two years ago, Maniacal packs a punch with 8.5% ABV and 85 IBU, but even if its Port City’s offering to hopheads, it’s calibrated for a broader appeal.
“It doesn’t clobber you over the head with bitterness. It doesn’t taste like garlic and onions,” Butcher says of the beer. “It has a beautiful floral aroma, and a character that showcases the hops. That’s the fine line that all of our beers walk: Sure, it’s hoppy and super alcoholic, but it’s easy to drink, too.”
Reeves “pre-hops” the beer early by adding CTZ, Chinook, and Simcoe hops to the brew kettle before the liquid boils – a technique that enhances bitterness and flavor. He then dry-hops the beer twice with the aid of pressure vessel of his own creation, a contraption affectionately dubbed Hopzooka. Hopzooka allows Port City to introduce hops into its tanks without extra oxygen entering at the same time.
While Reeves is playing the hopheads’ game, he finds amusement in how far brewers have to go nowadays to please them.
“When I first started brewing, as a homebrewer and then as an actual craft brewer, we said, ‘We’re going to make beers that are all malt and hops – no hop extract,’” he recalls. “But what we’re learning with these double IPAs is that the only way to make them is to add hop extract – both for bitterness and aroma. Twenty years ago, that would have been totally anathema. Now it’s standard.”
You can only add so many hops to a kettle before you start running out of room to add more. And if you want to have enough room to insure that you end up with some actual beer when all is said and done, you might need to add some hop extract.
Regardless, it’s a difficult process, according to Butcher: “The first batch of Maniacal, we lost 20% of the yield, because there were so many hops that we couldn’t get the liquid out of it.”
“The craft brewing industry is kind of becoming Miller in some ways, but Miller with too much hops,” Reeves laments. “It’s nearly impossible to make beers hoppy enough for hopheads unless you use hop extract and you use sugar to drop the malt backbone. It’s weird. It’s come full circle.”
Butcher hints that it may be the next “occasional” to receive bottling honors.
“I like the Maniacal. It’s a beer that I want to make,” Reeves adds. “But it’s like trying to break the sound barrier.”
Last April, Butcher and Reeves headed to Denver for the annual Craft Brewers Conference, leaving Port City in the hands of two younger brewers, Adam Reza and Josh Center.
The duo decided to do some experimenting in their bosses’ absence. They fired up the pilot system, wrote a recipe for a black IPA, and brewed a small batch. They called it Left Behind.
Impressed with the results, Butcher and Reeves put the jet-black ale on the “Suspicious Package” tap in the tasting room. The positive feedback poured in. Left Behind was a hit.
Reeves began working with the other brewers to tweak the recipe so that it could be up scaled up to a production. “I herded them a little bit, but I let them do it their own way,” he recalls.
The head brewer says that successfully pitching the beer to Butcher hinged a new, darker name: Long Black Veil.
The name stems from the story of Alexandria’s “female stranger” – a woman who died under mysterious circumstances in 1816 and is buried in the town’s St. Paul’s Cemetery with an elaborate tombstone that doesn’t reveal her identity. Center, one of the two brewers, had been reading about her at the time and suggested naming the beer in her honor.
“Josh is a real weirdo,” Reeves jokes. “He’s a good guy, but he’s really into the macabre.”
Thankfully, he says Butcher was into the idea too: “We sold Long Black Veil to Bill on that story.”
It didn’t hurt that the CEO enjoyed the beer, too. “It hits a nice niche of hoppy and roasty and very complex,” Butcher says. “The style isn’t a huge part of our business, but it’s innovative and draws a lot of interest.”
Part of that interest comes from Port City’s clever marketing of Long Black Veil – or “LBV,” as it’s known in the brewery.
Last October, the “occasional” rolled out around Halloween and received a release party at Gatsby’s Tavern, where the female stranger died two centuries ago. The historic inn’s museum even let Port City office manager Emma Quinn borrow a long black veil for a photo shoot along the city’s old docks. “You know, creepy, weird stuff for Halloween,” Butcher remembers with a big grin.
Long Black Veil’s origin story is a point of pride for Reeves – an ideal for how he wants his production floor to run. “It came together relatively quickly, and everybody played a role,” the brewer says. “It was kind of this magical, positive example of how the brewery could work.”
“It’s always something big and dark and boozy,” Butcher says. “It’s a fun and creative project for the brewers.”
Approaching Port City’s first anniversary in early 2012, Reeves knew that he didn’t want to make a barleywine.
“I’m not a big barleywine guy,” he admits. “If you want me to brew a barleywine, I’ll brew a barleywine, but I don’t really like them.”
Imperial stouts were another matter, though. The rich, malty style is his favorite dark beer.
“We had this Belgian yeast, so I was like, ‘Why don’t we just brew it as an imperial stout?’” Reeves remembers. “I threw a bunch of hops in there. I don’t even know how many.”
“It was everything!” Butcher interjects. “It was pretty much every hop that we had.”
Belgian imperial stouts are somewhat of a rare breed outside of a few notable exceptions, like the gold standard Ellezelloise’s Hercule Stout, or closer to home, DC Brau and Stillwater’s NATAS. Reeves’ take showcased the West Malle Trappist yeast with a kick of sugar to boost alcohol and dry out the final taste. It was not a recipe that Reeves agonized over; in fact, he didn’t even pilot it.
“If you’re going to brew on a 30-barrel system and not pilot something, that’s where twenty years of experience comes in,” Butcher observes.
Port City brewed a single batch of Colossal One, but as has become a standard practice with the Colossal series, it held some kegs back to age and release for special occasions down the line.
“It’s like with a wine, we just want to see what happens,” Butcher shares. “It may get better or it may not, but the only way to tell is to wait.”
By the fall of 2013, Port City was down to one final keg. On a whim, it decided to send some of the Belgian imperial stout to the Great American Beer Festival. It was there, in competition with beers aged in pricey bourbon and wine barrels, that Colossal One – an unpiloted batch of beer aged in a stainless steel keg – would receive the bronze medal for aged beer.
“That was a shock,” Reeves deadpans.
It also put Port City in an interesting predicament, according to Butcher: “We were like, ‘Shit, we just won a bronze metal and nobody has tasted this beer.’”
The brewery couldn’t resist the temptation to make the beer again, and did so for a third time this February.
Port City’s website suggests drinking Colossal Two fireside, but with the imperial porter, Reeves sought to bring smoke to drinkers wherever they were.
For the second anniversary ale, the brewer took his recipe for Port City Porter, ramped the alcohol up to 9.0%, and milled it with 5000 pounds of German beech wood smoked malt and 600 pounds of roasted malt.
“It had this really campfire smell to it,” Reeves remembers. “A lot of people around here were jokingly calling it liquid bacon.”
Meridian Pint took those flavors to their logical conclusion, adding actual bacon to a cask of Colossal Two. (“Everybody went crazy over it,” the brewer says.)
The beer was influenced by brewer Will Cook, a Port City alumnus who has since moved on to Fair Winds in Lorton, Virginia.
“We were going through a phase of experimenting with savory flavors and beer,” Reeves recalls, noting a similar profile in the Oyster Revival Stout, which was also created around thus time. “Umami is the fifth taste. It goes well in beer. Things that are umami certainly taste good in beer.”
Reeves took a hard turn from the first two Colossals for Port City’s third anniversary.
After back-to-back years of chocolatey, malty beers, the brewery celebrated three years with Heller Bock, a strong lager with origins in Bavaria, Germany. Also known as a Maibock, the 8.5% ABV beer took eight weeks to ferment and age. Reeves recipe combined Munich and Pilsner malts with Saaz and Hallertau hops. It’s not a style you see often: a clean and fruity winter warmer intended for spring.
Seizing a window to make some more of it, Port City released another batch in late April.
“We had the tank space, so we thought that we’d do it again.” Butcher says.
For this year’s fourth anniversary, Port City brewed a quadruple ale, naturally.
“It was kind of preordained,” Butcher shares with a laugh.
His lead brewer had some reservations about making a quad, though. “I feel in a sense that I’m not worthy of brewing a quad,” Reeves says of the style, which draws inspiration from Belgium’s Trappist monks.
He did know that he wanted to capture the flavors of dried and cooked fruit. (“Grandma’s fruit cake!” Butcher chimes in.) And he was excited about working with his Belgian yeast again.
“The Belgian yeast gets orphaned a lot. It makes the wit, and it goes into Tidings and LBV, but I need to let it free to do other things,” Reeves explains. “It’s such a great yeast, because it does whatever I tell it to. It’s bulletproof. I put it in the wit and after a couple of days, the tank is sealed up, and it’s pretty much done.”
Reeves is content with Colossal Four, but he’s reserving his final judgment for later. “Quads are one of those beers that tastes better with age,” the brewer says. “I think that it’s going to age really well. I’m more looking forward to trying it six months from now.”
Has he started thinking about Port City’s [five year] anniversary Colossal?
“I have no idea what we’re going to do next year,” Reeves says.
“A quintuple IPA, maybe,” Butcher jokes. ”The strongest IPA known to man!”
Additional contributions by Mitchell West.