By Chris Teale (Photo/Chris Teale)
When Bill Butcher founded Port City Brewing Company on Alexandria’s West End four and a half years ago, he was not in it for the medals or victories at competitions. He said he and his staff simply wanted to produce high quality beer from what looks on the outside to be a relatively unassuming space on Wheeler Avenue.
And after garnering plenty of local recognition and expanding distribution from as far north as New York south to as far as North Carolina, the company has gained national honors too, winning three awards at the Great American Beer Festival, including the prestigious Small Brewing Company and Small Brewing Company Brewer of the Year award.
The festival in Denver last month was attended by more than 60,000 visitors over the course of four tasting sessions, and featured approximately 1,500 breweries from across the U.S. with around 6,600 beers competing for a wide range of awards. Butcher said it is quite an achievement for Port City to stand above such exalted company, especially given the company’s youth.
“In my wildest dreams I didn’t expect to achieve this in four and a half years, but I’ve always believed that we’re producing some of the best beer in the country, and that’s been proven true,” Butcher said.
In addition to its brewery-wide award, Port City also took home a bronze medal for its Optimal Wit in the Belgian-Style Witbier category, and silvers for its Monumental IPA and Porter in the English-Style India Pale Ale and Robust Porter categories, respectively. Mayor Bill Euille offered special congratulations to the company during a recent city council meeting.
Butcher sees the praise as an affirmation of the good work Port City does.
“I’ve been telling our brewing team and our sales team and our team here in the tasting room that they are the best in the industry, and I believe that,” he said. “I’ve always believed that. The cool thing is now the rest of the country knows it as well, and we’ve been recognized as such. Our brewing team is experienced, they have a lot of creative ideas and they have a lot of wisdom as well from years of experience.”
As distribution has grown, Port City has noticed an influx of people from across the country, curious to see the brewery and experience all they have to offer. Butcher said it is an especially popular stop for business travelers, as a way to wind down after a conference or meeting in the area.
“Obviously this is a very transient area; people visit here from all over the world, and we oftentimes are one of the stops on people’s travels,” Butcher said. “What’s cool is that beer tourism is on the rise, the same way you saw vineyard and winery tourism grow into a cottage industry over the past 40 years, the same thing is happening now with craft beer.
“We do get people that take ‘Beercations’ and they go and visit different cities and check out the local brewing scene wherever they go.”
Officials with Visit Alexandria also lauded the company’s success, and believe it has helped increase tourism in the city as a whole.
“Visitor research shows that our culinary scene is a top reason why people come to Alexandria,” said Visit Alexandria president and CEO Patricia Washington. “Within that, craft beer is hugely popular, especially among millennials. Beer fans already come to Alexandria for tours, events and tastings at the brewery and enjoy locally made Port City beer
at Alexandria restaurants.
“We now expect an increase of visitation from beer aficionados who want the experience of touring the best small brewery in the U.S. Port City Brewing Company is a powerful brand ambassador for Alexandria.”
Despite its success, the need to expand is an ongoing challenge for Port City Brewing, as it experiences growth in keeping with the rest of the craft beer industry. In the last four and a half years, the company has grown on average 40 percent per year, but Butcher sees great opportunities with the high demand in the D.C. area.
“We’re coming into a market where there is a lot of pent-up demand for our product, for good quality local beer,” he said. “We can continue to grow, we’re just limited by our capacity, and that’s really one of the things we’re faced with now, is where do we go from here. We’ve been operating at maximum capacity really since we opened, and it’s been a series of expansions within this space.”
For now, Port City is focusing on one of its newest creations, a Black IPA called Long Black Veil that will be released on October 14 in time for Halloween to honor the legend of the Female Stranger, said to haunt Gadsby’s Tavern. October 14 is the 199th anniversary of the stranger’s death, and with many projects on the horizon, Butcher anticipates further success.