Portner Brewhouse to celebrate Robert Portner’s pre-Prohibition watering hole

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By Chris Teale (Photo/Chris Teale)

Due to a reporting error, the original version of this article said the Portner Brewhouse will be the first brewpub in Alexandria. In fact, three brewpubs have existed in the city: Virginia Beverage Company, Founders Restaurant Brewing, and Hops. The Times regrets the error.

In 1869, German immigrant Robert Portner opened a brewery in Alexandria, on the site of what is now the Trader Joe’s grocery store in North Old Town.

Portner, who hailed from Germany’s Westphalia region, first settled in New York but headed south after a few years. He first opened a series of grocery stores before noticing that troops stationed in Alexandria during the Civil War liked to drink beer at the end of the day. The entrepreneurial Portner looked to take advantage of that desire, and his brewery was soon born.

It became the largest brewery in the southeastern United States, but was forced to close in 1916, 10 years after Portner’s death, when Virginia enacted its statewide Prohibition on alcohol. All that survives are the old brick facades, while his bottling plants are now condo and office buildings around North St. Asaph Street.

But Portner’s business and his recipes have been revived by two of his descendants: his great-great-granddaughters Margaret and Catherine Portner. The Portner Brewhouse is set to begin operations with a February 23 soft opening on Dow Avenue, on the ground level of the Modera Tempo apartment complex.

And the new brewpub will feature a nod to the Portners’ past, as its four flagship pre-Prohibition beers will be made using Robert Portner’s recipes. So when patrons sip the Portner Porter, the Vienna Cabinet Lager, the Cream Ale or Hofbrau Pilsner, the drinks will taste the same as they did in the old brewery. Other, newer creations will also be available, including seasonal selections.

Finding those old recipes was a challenge for the Portner sisters, who said they combined their love of food and beer with a desire to open a business together. Typically, brew masters did not write down a method for making their concoctions, so it required some creative thinking a century on and a trip to the Library of Congress.

“At that time, there was really one main brewer, so a lot of these recipes weren’t passed down on paper,” said Margaret Portner. “A lot of it was taught as a trade. So you’d come in as an intern or do an apprenticeship,
and you’d come in and learn the beer then graduate to the brew master position…. Catherine went over to the Library of Congress, and there were old purchase orders in there.

“So whenever you’re ready to brew something the same way, there’s a purchase order, and we also took an old family memoir that discussed where things were.”

Margaret Portner said it took some trial and error, but the recipes are finalized and will be overseen by head brewer Brian McElvaney, containing ingredients predominantly grown in the Pacific Northwest.

The new space is slated to contain 156 indoor seats, of which 40 will be in the bar area. Catherine Portner said the space is being decorated to give the whole brewpub the feel of an outdoor beer garden, with nods to Alexandria’s historic past — including various artifacts dotted in display cases. Outside there is room for another 73 seats. The brewing facilities will be visible to all through large windows in the bar.

In terms of scale, the Portners said operations will be relatively small compared to the larger production breweries, able to produce three-and-a-half barrels at a time, which equates to seven kegs. The fermenters are able to produce seven barrels at a time, so products can be double-batched during the brewing process.

Meanwhile, the food menu will include German-American offerings, another reference to Robert Portner’s heritage as a German immigrant.

One of the most significant concepts of the new brewpub is its so-called Craft Beer Test Kitchen, which allows home brewers to produce their creations using the Portner facilities, have a launch party, sell the beer and then receive feedback.

“It’s supporting the local community, and it’s also a marketing thing for us, because it helps to bring in new people that we might not have reached,” said Margaret Portner. “The same way you go to your neighborhood pub and they’re doing bingo night, it’s just a different way to host parties and bring new people in. It also gets some- thing new and different on tap.”

One challenge has been the search for an appropriate space for the new brewpub, and getting everything up to standard before opening. Originally, the Portners had planed to open their brewpub last year on the centennial of when their great-great grandfather’s brewery closed.

While that did not work out, the pair said they received invaluable support from many people, especially Bill Reagan, executive director at the city’s Small Business Development Center, and those behind the Max Fox Brewing Company, which operates a brewpub in Falls Church.

With the soft opening so close after months of work, the Portners said they are excited to begin this new chapter in their family’s storied history.

“It’s fantastic to really see it all come to life: this project that we’ve been working on for some time takes shape,” said Catherine Portner. “Seeing everything go from a 2D plan to a 3D experience is just great. It’s been a fantastic learning experience. We’re really excited to be at this point where we’re so close to one finish line, but at the same time that finish line is the starting line.”

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