Note: This profile originally appeared in issue 70 of BeerAdvocate Magazine
Bill Butcher and John Reeves did not build a small brewery. They did not set small goals, and they did not make small plans. No, they had ambitions as grand as anybody in the Capitol Building when they took over an old wedding supply warehouse and built Port City Brewing Company in Alexandria, Virginia – just outside the nation’s capital.
“It was always tied into the plan from the beginning to build a state-of-the-art brewery so we could brew great quality beer from the outset that could compete with well-established breweries from all over the U.S. and all over the world,” says Butcher, who owns Port City along with his wife Karen.
Reeves, who serves as the brewmaster for Port City, has been with the brewery since the consultation phase in 2010 when he helped the Butchers plan and design their space. He was with them in 2011 when they broke ground to retrofit the building’s utilities to accommodate a package brewery, and he was there with a purpose – he wanted to make a good living in the beer industry.
“Unless you’re working for a big chain like Gordon Biersch where they have brewpubs all over the country, you really couldn’t move up,” says Reeves, who bounced from brewpub to brewpub since 1995. “You could only move so far up, so just beyond ambition I feel like I had reached a point at brewpubs where there was only so much more I could do. I wanted to get into kegging and bottling and I wanted something that was a challenge.”
In a city where a lack of ambition is seen as a personal defect, Reeves and the Butchers understood that success could only come at a price. That’s why they built their brewery in a 10,000-square foot warehouse, and it’s why they had a custom-built JV Northwest brewhouse installed in the facility.
Although Port City currently uses only about a third of its available space, that extra room will come in handy as inevitable expansions approach.
“I planned out the facility,” Reeves says. “I wanted to basically make it modular so that I could add things on. Every aspect of the brewing process I can add things to it. I planned out the milling facility so I could use super sacks later on and I could add a silo. I planned out the brewhouse so that I could add other vessels. Right now we’re able to do four or five turns in a day, but if need be I have the ability to add other vessels to go to maybe seven or eight turns in a day. The goal was to design a brewery that we could start off and do what we wanted to do in the first year, which was 3,000 barrels, but we designed it so that we could max out at at least 25,000 barrels.”
Butcher was ambitious as well. He avoided the cheaper route of hiring an advanced homebrewer or a young apprentice, and tabbed a then 15-year veteran of the brewing industry to run the show. Butcher understood what he wanted from his brewery, and he knew what it would take to achieve it.
“Our beer has to be good – not just from a local perspective, but it has to be good enough to stand up quality-wise with beers all over the world,” Butcher says. “People will try our beer once because we’re new and local and craft beer drinkers are always looking for the latest thing to try, so we knew we’d get a trial in the market. But we also knew that if we wanted great quality right from the outset, people would try us once and go back to drinking whatever they were drinking before.”
Even with the great ambitions of key figures at the brewery, this is not a story about a lust for power and money. For Butcher, whose family has lived in Alexandria for over 100 years, Port City Brewing was an opportunity to bring something that had been lacking to the local community. The Metro D.C. area is by no means a beer desert barren of options, but few of those options actually came from within the beltway.
“We noticed that all the beer we had been buying was coming from the west coast or far away,” Butcher said. “We saw that as kind of an anomaly and started looking for more local options on the east coast. We saw that there seemed to be room for more choices for craft beer. The more we looked at it, we saw that the Metro D.C. area was the only major metro area in the country that didn’t have a packaging brewery. So it just seemed like there was a need there.”
And so Butcher, a former Mid-Atlantic wine representative for the Mondavi family, brought his knowledge of the alcohol industry and turned it toward beer. He set about with the goal of becoming a producer of great beer that above all else supplied its own market with beer before expanding elsewhere.
The result has been an outpouring of support from the local community. Beer drinkers in the D.C. area, who range from 21-year-old college students to seasoned Capitol Hill workers and longtime locals, know their stuff. And they know when they find something worth drinking.
“The D.C. Metro, it’s very educated,” says Jenn Chace, who manages the tasting room at Port City where they sell pints and growlers. “With that comes sophistication as far as food and drink. As we all know, the craft beer industry has blown up over the past three years and it’s grown in D.C. They’re very excited to have us there and we joke in the area that people cross the bridge from D.C. to come see us in Alexandria. It’s been great.”
None of the key players’ ambitions or local connections would matter much if Reeves did not know what he was doing in the brewhouse. For this reason, Port City’s primary focus does not lie in branding or marketing, but in brewing quality beer that can be enjoyed by all drinkers.
“I’m not trying to do Reinheitsgebot or please CAMRA or do things exactly as they’d be done in Belgium,” Reeves said. “Beer is not wine. Beer is beer. Wine is a delicacy, and cheap wine is kind of a condiment that you can have at a meal like ketchup or mustard; where beer is more like a staple, like having bread with your food, or it’s refreshing.
“I don’t have like a special La Chouffe goblet that I keep wrapped in a velvet box that I pull out to drink my beers. I want people to enjoy themselves when they drink my beer. I don’t need them to feel like they’re getting ready to bungee jump naked.”
As Reeves says, Port City’s beers are traditional, but “with a twist.” With the exception of Port City’s Porter, which Reeves has been perfecting since he was a home brewer, his beers seek balance between innovation and tradition.
The Monumental IPA, which calls attention to Washington’s myriad monuments, recently won a gold medal at the Virginia Craft Brewer’s fest, and features American Hops in a balanced IPA that more closely resembles British IPAs than the West Coast hop bombs in favor with American drinkers.
Similarly the Optimal Wit, which Reeves describes as a “labor of love” and which he originally brewed to get his wife away from Adjunct Lagers, blurs lines between the traditional Belgian style and aggressive American versions.
And like any ambitious man should, Reeves continues to strive toward perfection with each successive brew.
“One of the good things about brewing for a package brewery as opposed to a pub brewery is that I’m brewing the beers over and over again,” he says. “I’m very concerned about brewing them as well as I can.”