Beer: Six microbreweries race to open

February 25, 2011

It’s New Beer’s Eve in the area, with a half-dozen local microbreweries set to commence mixing malt and hops in 2011.

Who will be first out of the gate?

Port City Brewing Co. in Alexandria has the edge, in that its 30-barrel brew house and 60- and 90-barrel fermenters arrived Dec. 8 and installation is nearly complete. “We’re hoping to do our first brew the second week in January,” said owner Bill Butcher. He expects his maiden effort, a classic Belgian-style witbier spiced with coriander and orange peel, will be available in time for Feb. 6 Super Bowl parties, although you’ll have to pick up a growler jug at the brewery’s tasting room at 3950 Wheeler Ave. The rest of the lineup (an American pale ale, an IPA and a porter) should hit area outlets — first in kegs, then in bottles — by March.

Nanobrewer Cabot Boyd of Washingtonian’s Brewing Co. in Fort Washington seems to be running second. He has brewed two batches of his Monumental Triple on his one-barrel system and plans to have corked bottles on the market next month.

“Destiny only allows you to go so fast,” cautioned Brandon Skall, chief executive of DC Brau Brewing on Bladensburg Road in Northeast Washington, which ordered a 15-barrel brew house and 30-barrel fermenters from a manufacturer in China. “We wanted our first brew day to be Dec. 24, but our equipment is still at sea. It doesn’t look like it will get here until Jan. 18.” Initial brew now is anticipated on or before Valentine’s Day, with beer on the market “by the end of the first quarter of 2011.” DC Brau, Skall added, is to receive a shipment of 170,000 aluminum cans this month for the Public (a pale ale). Other regular offerings will include the Citizen (a Belgian-style pale ale) and the Corruption (an IPA).

The situation is similar for Chocolate City Beer. Its
31 / 2-barrel brew house already resides in a former stonecutting shop in the Brookland neighborhood of Northeast Washington, but the rest of the hardware — mash tun, fermenters, glycol chiller — is in transit from China. “We’re still holding out for March for our first legal beer,” said brewer Ben Matz. That first beer, draft only, will be called Big Chair IPA after the oversize piece of furniture that’s an Anacostia landmark. A home-brewed prototype I tasted last month was appetizingly dry, fruity and floral.

“My first beer?” asked Favio Garcia, when questioned about the microbrewery he and a partner are opening in Ashburn, not far from where Old Dominion Brewing Co. used to make beer. “I’ve been wrong so many times before. Let’s say sometime this spring. Just on draft at first.”

Garcia has Old Dominion’s 25-barrel brew house in place, but he had to drop his original choice for a name, 28 North, after a similarly named band from Pittsburgh challenged the trademark. The brewery has been redubbed Lost Rhino Brewing Co., and its debut beer will be Lost Rhino Pilsner, a peppery golden lager dry-hopped with Hallertauer and Saaz hops. That will be followed by New River Pale Ale (a brand that Old Dominion used to make under contract) and possibly a seasonal Maibock. Garcia will package some of his production in 22-ounce bottles but is also looking at a canning line.

Dave Coleman, president of
3 Stars Brewing Co.
, said he is close to signing a lease on a warehouse “on the D.C. side of Takoma Park.” In the meantime, he and partner Mike McGarvey have been testing recipes on a three-gallon pilot brewery in McGarvey’s home. Coleman says he hopes to have a 20-barrel brew house operational by August, with his first offering a hoppy, American-style India pale ale to be called District IPA.

To cite two cities renowned as craft-beer producers, will Washington blossom into a Seattle or San Diego on the Potomac? Making that prospect even less fanciful is a long-range plan to revive the Robert Portner Brewing Co. in Alexandria. Portner was a leading figure in the U.S. beer industry in the late 19th century, a president of the United States Brewers Association and a pioneer in the use of artificial refrigeration in beermaking. He died in 1906, and his brewery closed in 1916 when the alcohol trade was outlawed locally, four years before Prohibition. It never reopened after repeal. “He had 13 children who went their different ways,” explained great-great granddaughter Catherine Portner. “Brewing wasn’t their passion; it was their father’s passion.”

And also, apparently, Catherine’s. She’s drawing up a business plan for a kegging and bottling brewery that would supply an adjacent biergarten and also act as an incubator for aspiring craft brewers. Budding beer barons would be able to borrow the plant to brew their own recipes, which the company would then market commercially to gauge demand. Catherine Portner is attending business school in Boston and doing marketing work for Erie Brewing Co., a Pennsylvania microbrewery eager to expand its presence in New England. She says she will return to the area in 2012 and relaunch the family business sometime between 2014 and 2016.

All of these current and future brewers are aware they’re part of a logjam set to enter the local market at about the same time. But none expressed worry that there might be a limit to beer drinkers’ thirst. “The local brewing community is one of benevolent competition,” said Coleman. “What’s good for one of us is good for all of us.”

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