At Port City, brewers get help from the cloud


Port City Brewing Co. founder Bill Butcher talks with brewmaster Jonathan Reeves as they make a batch of beer. Port City uses a cloud-based software application called BeerRun, to keep track of inventoryand managers can update it. ( Photo by Jeffrey MacMillan )

Port City Brewing Co.’s most popular beer — Optimal Wit — derives its flavor from Huntsville, Va., wheat, which is mashed and brewed in 120-barrel tanks in an Alexandria warehouse.

Just as essential, says owner Bill Butcher, is the software that manages the company’s production and distribution.

Since Butcher founded Port City three years ago, he has been gradually modernizing its operations. Much of the process is still manual — brewers, wearing safety glasses, turn a valve switch to move the grain from a silo to a mill room to a mash tun and eventually to a fermentation tank. Head brewer Jonathan Reeves still records his recipes in handwritten notes.

But when a new shipment of Amarillo or Saaz hops is delivered to the warehouse, the employee who receives it might pull out an iPhone and update an app called BeerRun, which keeps track of the company’s inventory. And when one of Port City’s many distributors sells a keg to a restaurant, Butcher tracks the sale on software called VIP, so he can offer Port City’s most faithful drinkers special rewards.

Based in the cloud, BeerRun tracks Port City through brewing, bottling or kegging, packaging and distribution. When Reeves decides to brew a batch of the Essential Pale Ale — one batch produces about 13 cases of beer — he clicks “Produce” in the app, which automatically subtracts the ingredients from Port City’s inventory. Butcher also uses the software to purchase orders for everything from cardboard six-pack holders to grains, and employees automatically update the inventory when orders are delivered.

Before subscribing to BeerRun about a year and a half ago, Butcher and his handful of employees relied on Excel spreadsheets and Google Docs. “There was a lot of duplication of effort, a lot of reinventing the wheel,” Butcher said. “They weren’t necessarily sharing information.”

For instance, on a brewing day about two years ago, Port City ran out of barley when employees hadn’t consistently tracked grain levels, Butcher said. Though Port City’s silo holds about 56,000 pounds of grain, employees had to make an emergency order from a local farm; in the time it took to be delivered, some of the other ingredients went bad, costing even more production time.

Around that time, Butcher realized that his company was growing too fast for spreadsheets. In its first year, it was producing 3,000 barrels a year. Today, it does about four times that. “Once you get a certain amount of production you need to have more sophisticated tools.”

As he ramps up production, Butcher uses VIP to see where and how often Port City’s distributors are shipping it; distributors who also use the software import their sales data into it. He usually accesses it from a laptop perched on the bar in Port City’s tasting room.

“Based on VIP, we can look at loyalty — we can find the customers that carry our products on a regular basis,” Butcher said. He offers these top buyers limited batches, such as the Maniacal Double IPA brewed only six times a year.

Butcher also uses VIP to compare Port City’s sales each year, especially to determine how much to produce of seasonal beers (porters and some IPAs are more popular in the winter, for instance, while Optimal Wit sales skyrocket in the summer) and whether to bottle them. A couple of years ago, Port City brewers produced too many kegs and not enough bottles of its summer seasonal, the Derecho Common (named for the windstorm that blew through D.C. in the summer 2012).

“The decision we made was based on intuition,” he said.

Now, he said, the company stores about 70 percent of its beer in kegs and 30 percent in bottles, based on sales data from VIP.

Butcher said VIP and BeerRun software subscriptions, which total a few hundred dollars a year, have saved him the cost of a full-time employee to manage inventory and sales. But he is hesitant to automate other parts of the brewing process: Though Reeves could use open-source applications like ProMash to formulate recipes, Butcher prefers that he create recipes based on his palate.

“We intentionally bought a low-tech [brewing] system,” he said. “We prefer to have control rather than letting a machine do it.”

Mohana Ravindranath covers IT and small business for the Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication.
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