Reimagined and tucked into the hip and blossoming West End of Alexandria, Portner Brewhouse has sprung up from its slumbering roots just in time for spring. Prohibition forced the Robert Portner Brewing Company to close its doors in 1916, after nearly 50 years in business. Fortunately for us, the new brewhouse and restaurant has re-emerged with a plethora of beer recipes from its family’s rich brewing history, combined with new brewing ideas and a unique business model. I recently caught up with president and cofounder Catherine Portner about her newly revamped brewery, with one foot in the past and one foot stepping confidently into the future of local craft brewing. Read on to learn about what Portner’s new and improved business is up to, including a program to support the aspirations of homebrewers.
On Tap: Prohibition ended your family business and then as great-great granddaughters, you decided it was time to bring the brewery back with your sister Margaret. What inspired that decision, and what changes have you made to the family brand?
Catherine Portner: Growing up, we would hear stories every now and then about a member of our family owning a brewery, but it was only much later in life that my sister and I really gained a greater appreciation for our own history, and also how much others appreciated it. After graduating from college, I became interested in craft beer at a music festival while my sister, Margaret, had a passion for hospitality and the culinary arts. Together with our family’s history, the three merged as a trifecta into the genesis of Portner Brewhouse, where we could give this history a proper home back in Alexandria. It is our goal to keep the original brand identity intact while building our own history. We showcase a celebration of the American Dream and strive to assist others in their own pursuit through our Craft Beer Test Kitchen®.
OT: What’s your long-term vision for the brewery outside of the actual brewhouse and restaurant?
CP: The greater vision for Portner Brewhouse is through that of the test kitchen. The goal is to create a new sublevel distribution network within the existing three-tier alcohol system. We will be fine-tuning the program at Portner Brewhouse, and then looking to offer it to other breweries/brewpubs around the country so that other aspiring brewers in different areas may take part in such a program or any other location within the network.
OT: What else does the Craft Beer Test Kitchen® offer beyond giving aspiring homebrewers the ability to brew onsite and showcase their beer at Portner?
CP: April 7 was the official launch of the test kitchen with the release of two beers: the Andrew Wales Strong Ale and Andrew Wales Small Beer, brewed with local homebrewers Mike Stein and Pete Jones. We hope to accommodate a new applicant every four to six weeks. The overall program is designed to offer those accepted [the] experience [of] working in a commercial setting, consultation with our head brewer on scaling their recipe, a public launch party for its official release at the brewpub, and dedicated feedback and sales data related to their beer. This is private production for public consumption as opposed to private production for private consumption that may be done at a traditional brew-on-premises operation. The program is open to brewers at any level, though [the] focus [is] mainly on intermediate homebrewers to breweries in planning.
OT: Any exciting releases this summer?
CP: Our first full Craft Beer Test Kitchen® beer release will take place in mid-May: Mike Stuppy’s Pale Ale. The next seasonal lined up is a German hefeweizen, and we are still working out the remainder of our brewing calendar to provide flexibility for test kitchen applications.
OT: Is your focus more on perfecting the historic recipes of Portner, or breathing fresh air into them?
CP: The total beer portfolio breaks down into three series: the pre-Prohibition series, which are our reconstructed recipes from the Robert Portner Brewing Company and will remain on tap year-round, brewmaster seasonal selections and the Craft Beer Test Kitchen®. Over the last three years, we perfected the historic recipes to the best representations of what those would have been a century ago. Should additional information become available, we would definitely consider brewing a recipe that reflected that new information. While you can’t change history, there is always more to learn from it.
OT: Tell me about Portner’s outdoor space for the summer months.
CP: The 54-seat outdoor patio is about a week away from opening, and will provide one of the largest outdoor seating areas in Alexandria’s West End.
OT: Other than the brewing company’s place of origin, why did Alexandria’s West End feel like a good fit for Portner?
CP: We were dedicated to opening our business in the City of Alexandria, back where it all began. The West End is a very diverse and growing area within the city, which was attractive to us for sharing the history outside of the confines of Old Town.
Bierdo Pro Tip: At Portner, start with the easy drinking Hofbrau Pilsner or the Tivoli Cream Ale.
Are you interested in participating in the Craft Beer Test Kitchen®? Visit www.portnerbrewhouse.com or www.craftbeertestkitchen.com to apply, and drop off or send in a sample of your beer recipe.
Portner Brewhouse: 5770 Dow Ave. Alexandria, VA; 571-312-0243; www.portnerbrewhouse.com