Looking Back (and Forward) for Port City’s 5th Anniversary

This past week, Port City celebrated its 5th anniversary with the release of its Colossal V, complete with a two-day party which spilled out of its tasting room, biergarten, and (newly completed) lounge into an Oktoberfest-style tent hall affixed to the loading dock.  The milestone and the new beer are significant for Port City not just as an occasion to test our livers with a big Old Ale, but also because the brewery seemingly finds itself at a crossroads; after all, if you were Port City, how do you follow up your game-changing win as the 2015 GABF Small Brewing Company/Brewer of the Year?  In the midst of an ambitious rollout for the Colossal V, Port City owner Bill Butcher and new Marketing & Outreach Manager Chris Van Orden graciously sat down with VBR to discuss the brewery’s meteoric rise over its first five years as well as muse over where the future leads for one of the region’s original mainstays.

c5 tasting room
To accompany an early arriving crowd for their 5th anniversary party, Port City removed most of its tables and went practically standing room only from the moment the doors opened.

Old World Lessons Meet Emerging Craft Beer Trends

Throughout our hour-long chat, Bill speaks in almost reverential tones about the 12 years he spent in the wine industry working for Robert Mondavi – yes, that Robert Mondavi who helped put California wines on the global map.  Many of the lessons he learned he brought with him from Napa to Alexandria, specifically a focus on quality above all other factors when it comes to brewing.  Not only would quality assurance be baked into the brewing process, but Bill sought to surround himself with others at Port City who were never truly “100% satisfied” with their products.  That unrelenting drive for perfection found its partner in Jonathan Reeves, Port City’s head brewer.  At the same time, neither saw perfection as an overnight outcome; the staff’s focus would be on small improvements over time, not huge leaps.

If one pauses from the explosion in the Virginia craft beer scene to look at its sister industry, winemaking, evidence of this strategy lies in plain sight.  Whereas for every Barboursville or Sunset Hills with a broad regional reach, one will find a dozen smaller operations whose distribution extends but a few miles.  That network can typically say little of the quality of the wine however, as some of these wineries sell out their wares without any ambition of ever finding their bottles in the local Kroger or Food Lion.  Instead, the barrels and grape stomping are a labor of love, the rich tannins and chicory notes of a superb Cabernet Franc the sole reward.  In that line of thinking, Port City is already where Bill envisioned it at launch five years ago.

An “Insane” Launch Strategy Pays Early Dividends

My own first foray with Port City is much different than how I’ve experienced most Virginia beers, which typically involve a visit to an out-of-the-way brewery for a sample flight.  That would be in line with most Virginia wineries, too, but in this scenario I first got my hands on Port City via bottles.  This memory has always stuck with me, so when I asked Bill if that were unusual, a grim smile and slow nod were my reply.  Apparently, another winery sentiment made its way East, in this case a focus on distribution over the tasting room experience.  A bottling assembly made its way onto the brewery floor from the get-go as a result, with a 3:1 ratio of kegs to bottles from the very start of production.  This ratio isn’t so far out of line with a lot of other production breweries today – and in fact, according to Bill that ratio tends to shift towards bottles as breweries expand – but five years ago it made Port City (and a few others of similar mind such as DC Brau) the exception.

“Since then, a lot of people have told me I was insane,” Bill recalled, reflecting back on those opening months with the corners of his mouth weakly upturned in amusement.  Whereas most nascent operations focus on working out the kinks with the wort and yeast, Port City’s staff also had to master an assembly line that eventually required its own maintenance technician to keep it running.  Through those growing pains came a surprising outcome, as wholesale bottle orders drew a disproportionate number of purchases.  The wan smile waxed at this point, as Bill mentioned how upscale supermarkets were seeing increasing consumer demand for local craft beer.  For all the Starr Hills and Dominions of the world with a decade or more head start, Port City presented a new #drinklocal alternative which within a year made its way from bottle shops to Whole Foods, Giant, and Safeway.

Today, 90% of Port City’s orders are from wholesalers.  That has guided their strategy to the point that expansions to the tasting room have only arrived in the past year, with a biergarten with picnic tables and a small number of taps on the production floor, and a second floor lounge where many guests had once clamored for a brewpub.  Bill pointed back to his winemaking days at that line on inquiry, noting that Port City’s events are meant to fill in gaps in the craft beer experience that his commercial customers can’t fulfill on their own, not try to take their market share.  From that standpoint, Port City’s Beer Yoga or food truck support are as much for those other small businesses as for its own, and the 9pm closing times a nudge to revelers to support other establishments with Port City on draught or by the bottle.  This also allows their big customers to view Port City as a resource (and even a partner) rather than a competitor.  None of these strategies would matter, however, if the beer weren’t worth the sip.

new lounge
Whereas the original tasting room and biergarten are pure warehouse style, the new lounge (and its entrance) trend towards industrial chic. All that’s missing is the exposed duct work!

Capturing Craft Beer’s Zeitgeist

For the first year or so after Port City hit the local bar scene, most taps I saw carried the Porter with an occasional Monumental IPA or Optimal Wit sighting.  As I recounted this, Chris laughed and revealed it as the overwhelming staff favorite.  Bill wasn’t surprised, either, noting that most “savvy” bars went for the Porter early on.  Over time, however, Optimal Wit emerged as the crowd pleaser with plenty of Belgian notes (and an authentic two-step mash process Jonathan learned in Europe) for beer aficionados and the spiced citrus notes that brought macro competitors such as Blue Moon and Shock Top into the public eye.  Local beer drinkers weren’t the only ones to notice.

A year after launching, the inaugural Virginia Craft Brewers Festival (VCBF) debuted at Devils Backbone Base Camp, with the hosts taking home best in show.  Port City, however, won the medal count with Monumental garnering Gold and the Optimal and Porter both taking home Bronze.  The Monumental took its momentum from that August victory to the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in Colorado a few months later, winning Bronze for English-Style IPA.  As if that weren’t enough, in 2013 Port City captured two more VCBF medals (Gold for Optimal and Silver for Porter) en route to an astonishing four medals at GABF.  Led by a Gold for the Optimal Wit and a Silver for the Oktoberfest seasonal, both of Port City’s first two anniversary beers, Colossal I and II, took home Bronzes as well.  Port City had arrived in a big way, but owing to the aforementioned pursuit of perfection, in no way were Bill or Jonathan about to rest on their laurels.

optimal swag
New coasters unveiled recently celebrate some of the many wins Port City has garnered over its first 5 years.

As Bill describes it, everyone on the Port City staff is meant to feel part of the larger brewing family, no matter their role.  The staff (both brewers and beer guides alike) observe both what other producers and restaurants are putting on the menu, as well as what friends and customers are requesting.  The purpose, according to Chris, was to understand why, for instance, Optimal Wit sells so well in NoVA and DC but the Downright Pilsner “sells like gangbusters” in New York City.  As if a visit to spacebar or Churchkey weren’t such a taxing ordeal already, the “market research” doesn’t end there, either.  When competitors in similar styles hit the local market, a staff member will lead the company in a blind taste test to compare Port City’s offering with those competitors.  For potentially new releases, staff continually pitch ideas but while most never make it beyond bursts of cranial creativity, every so often a beer such as the Revival Oyster Stout or Maniacal Double IPA finds a gap in the production schedule for a test batch.  Chris describes the whole process as “capturing the craft beer Zeitgeist,” and Bill stressed throughout an extended tangent that the introduction of new recipes is a true collaboration among the staff.  The focus, though, from the beginning has always been the flagship offerings.

While the Occasional or Colossal series (among other special releases) allows the brewers to flex their wings to an extent, that quest for the unicorn that is the craft beer Zeitgeist stems back to the focus on 100% quality.  While a seasonal such as the Derecho Common proved a hit owing to its origins in the namesake 2012 Derecho storm, Jonathan was never pleased with the outcome and over the following year altered the recipe so it more closely matched the typical California Common steam beer style.  The tinkering also saw the swap out of the original’s Saaz Hops (from the batch of Downright Pilsner which led to its steamed cousin) for Centennial Hops, adding more hops and citrus elements to what became Port City’s eventual summer offering.  In similar fashion, no beer recipe at Port City is ever safe from a revisit, and Bill admitted that even the award-winning Monumental underwent changes to make it more hop-forward.  As Port City sweated those small details, the wins and recognition kept coming.

Success Among Rarified Company

The 2015 GABF found Port City pulling triple duty.  As a reward to the staff for the conclusion of five years of dedication, Bill shut down both the brewing and tasting operations and brought everyone out to Denver.  Rather than a giant party, though, Port City was hosting tables at GABF’s Brewers Studio and Paired pavilions in addition to their main booth, the latter a fortuitous collaboration with Baltimore’s Parts and Labor.  Here, Bill paused, reflecting on the itch that even brewers get at GABF to explore, taste other beers, and chat with peers and friends in the brewing industry.  Pun aside, the three events kept the staff hopping, though, as GABF does not provide additional volunteers for the showcase pavilions apart from help changing out kegs.  As fun as festivals can be for us sudhounds, GABF can make even the sunniest brewer dispositions cloud over with weariness.  And that was before the odds of medaling – with more than 1,500 competing breweries bringing 6,650 beers for entry, no one came with major expectations.

As has been covered across the country ever since, three more GABF medals went to Port City.  To put that into perspective, the 275 medals awarded went to 242 breweries, so the overwhelming majority of winners only took home one medal.  Port City has now taken home multiple medals twice in three years.  The Silvers for Monumental IPA and Porter and Bronze for Optimal Wit weren’t the end of the day, however, as Port City was then announced as the 2015 Small Brewing Company/Brewer of the Year.  That the culmination of Port City’s first five years came with the entire staff present for the victory was on the icing on the cake for Bill and co.

Those wins – alongside others from the World Beer Championship, Los Angeles International Beer Competition, and Good Food Awards – help to define Port City, but Bill is more taken aback by another comment he heard recently.  With the success of the increasingly popular Optimal Wit, it is increasingly introduced as the “quintessential American Witbier” among craft beer insiders alongside the likes of Allagash White and Avery White Rascal.  That sort of recognition matters far more for a man with little intention of ever reaching the heights of some of those titans of American craft beer.

Vision Meets Reality

With a current production capacity nearing 17,000 barrels per year, but peak output hitting closer to 14,000 barrels in 2015, Bill isn’t eyeing a future Mid-Size Brewer of the Year award just yet.  While a place like Devils Backbone pulled off that transition (and were so feted by GABF) in consecutive years, Bill’s focus for Port City is still on that most essential fundamental:  quality.  When Port City sets it motto as “Elevating Craft Beer,” he means just that.  With Mid-Atlantic distribution stretching from the Carolinas almost to Cape Cod, Port City is precisely where its founder envisioned it five short years ago as one of the preeminent craft brewers in the region.  Adding additional production facilities doesn’t necessarily threaten the focus on quality so much as bring additional variables into the mix.

They’re gonna need a bigger banner…

Instead of expansion, then, Port City is looking at its own processes for further innovation.  Many tweaks are of the incremental variety such as increasing shelf life to allow investment in off-site storage, a move Bill hopes will allow for Port City to again focus on bottle conditioning some of its beers.  The Optimal Wit, for instance, was originally produced that way but has sold too quickly to allow for the practice to reach maturity.  Other investments will focus on maintaining freshness by assessing the cleanliness of the production equipment, or better tracking emerging market trends.

Those trends do not mean that Port City finds itself threatened on its newly found perch.  To the contrary, along with so many other breweries Bill does not believe the local or regional market is anywhere near its saturation point for craft beer.  Comparing his steering of Port City once again to the wine industry, he posited an excellent counterpoint that while the media sees a beer bubble forming as the nationwide brewery tally climbs towards 4,000, the same analysts do not so much as bat an eye as the number of wineries is more than double that despite only representing 1/3 of national beer sales (for some great banter on this see Julia Herz of the Brewers Association take on one prominent doubter).  So are quality and early market penetration enough for Port City to keep its regional influence without any added benefits from expansion?

A Familiar Second Act

With so much dedication to their existing flagships, occasionals, and seasonals, Port City has its hands full.  Over the next year, Bill sees Port City’s first priority as, “no out of stocks.”  That means keeping the shelves filled and the draught lines flowing.  The new storage site will reduce the burden on the production team so that schedules are more staggered while also meeting regional demand.  Small quality gains will be sought.  In addition, the self-described “organic process” which results in some of Port City’s new releases will also continue.

Of course, teasing out future releases at a point when the entire industry is attempting to ascertain the next Saison or Sour trend is all but futile.  That’s not to say Port City won’t pursue collaborations with other brewers or regional partners such as the Chef Geoff’s Northwest Ale.  They’re among about a half-dozen breweries collaborating with DC Brau for a special release for their own 5th anniversary, recently took part in #kerriscure, and Port City’s sponsorship of SAVOR, one of the preeminent national beer festivals hosted in DC every June, may lead to another collaboration opportunity.  With so many friends among the brewers in the industry, a fortuitous ally for Port City has long been Dan Kopman, co-founder of Schlafly Beer in St. Louis, and Chris hinted that Port City and Schlafly may look to debut a special collaboration beer at the 2016 SAVOR.  Bill also sees one particular area the craft beer industry has long neglected.

While Port City counts two Lagers on its menu (the Downright Pilsner and Derecho Common), Bill’s analysis of the market sees tremendous growth potential for craft Lagers.  The American craft market is heavily dominated by Ales, with nearly 80% of all beers produced being Ales as compared to 20% Lagers, and while much of this is based on consumer demand, another not insignificant portion is owed to the brewing process itself.  In Port City’s and other breweries’ experience, a typical IPA such as the Monumental may go from mash to packaging in about 3 weeks.  A typical Lager such as the Downright Pilsner, on the other hand, may require as many as 6 or more weeks to undergo the same brewing process.  For a start-up brewery, that schedule difference may be the only slim margin separating it from red and black margins, so the interest of most brewers is in popping out new kegs for sale as quickly as possible.

The efficiencies Port City is gaining from five years of production are no small thing, then, with links between investments in shelf life and offsite storage yielding additional benefits with the ability to pursue beer varieties without having to go so far as offsetting (or segregating) fermentation tanks to allow for exotic and wild yeasts, for example.  Keeping regional demands met will also introduce some slack into the production schedule, so while there are no set plans for concepts such as “Firkin’ Friday” the slack will be there to pursue some experimental offerings either as opportunities arise or as “treats” for the brewers’ creative outlets.  The Revival Oyster Stout is one such example, originating as a conversation about how well beer and oysters go together at dinner one night, and the idea gaining steam as research and approval met with a timely break in the production of the flagship beers.

c5 bottle release
The Colossal series is one way Jonathan and his fellow brewers are able to push the envelope – in this case for their anniversary releases.

From those perspectives, Port City is amazingly well-positioned over its next 5 years and beyond.  When your biggest priority is meeting existing demand your brewery has an enviable vantage point within the industry.  Having your flagships continuously bring home hardware is a boon to marketing, and the need to triple seating capacity for the tasting room similarly points to the efficacy of relying on a solid lineup as opposed to continuous experimentation or a food menu.  Of course, having a seasoned beverage industry veteran such as Bill at the helm is its own sizable advantage.  Jonathan, Chris, and the rest of the tickle-fighting cast of characters at Port City are no slouches, either, committed to the long hours and on-point customer service that so define the microbrewing industry.

The 2015 GABF victory on the eve of their 5th anniversary presented a challenge to Port City.  Not a challenge to dive into the unknown or conquer the world, but rather one to keep striving for “100% satisfied” with their own beer.  If Bill Butcher has his way, they’ll never get there.  Then again, when your miserable success is to the benefit of beer lovers throughout Virginia and the Mid-Atlantic, you’re clearly doing something right.

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