A race against the thermometer for Alexandria brewery

There were no pint glasses raised for the derecho.

Not at the Port City Brewing Co. in Alexandria, where owner Bill Butcher and head brewer Jonathan Reeves paced nervously, fretting about thousands of gallons of craft brew — especially an ever-warming tank of seasonal pilsner more than two days into the fermentation process.

“It should be around 50 degrees,” Butcher said Monday morning after a long weekend without power in the midst of a relentless heat wave.

“It’s around 62 right now,” Reeves said.

The two men were racing against the thermometer to preserve the contents of the 1,860-gallon stainless steel tank, which (they hope) will be bottled as Downright Pilsner.


Bill Butcher, owner of Port City Brewing Company pushes his son, Key, 8, on a cart through the brewery's darkened facility on Monday. (Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

“If we have to drop the tank, it’s about $20,000,” Butcher said. “As a start-up business, every dollar in sales is critical. We don’t have any margin for error. This is a crisis situation.”

So, Reeves said, “we’re getting a generator to save the beer.”

As Washington struggled to power up in the wake of Friday night’s freak storm, some area businesses scrambled to protect their perishables and other heat-sensitive products.

A Northern Virginia pediatrics practice moved hundreds of vials of vaccines — worth more than $100,000 — to a pharmacy refrigerator at Inova Alexandria Hospital.

Dry ice and generators were in short supply.

Largess was not: Wagshal’s, the high-end grocery in Washington’s tony Spring Valley neighborhood, grilled prime cuts of meat before they could spoil and gave them away at a neighborhood cookout.

“I felt good about it rather than throwing it away,” said owner Bill Fuchs, who estimated his losses in the tens of thousands of dollars — a “pretty devastating” toll.

But insurance should cover the majority of the losses, he said — and other businesses lost just as much, if not more.

“The guy who slaughters my beef up in Baltimore had to throw away 80 cattle,” Fuchs said. “So all the way up and down the food chain, you have people with some real devastating issues going on.”

Since Friday’s mass outages, neighbors with power have helped those without save milk, ice cream and frozen meat. Elliott Staren, owner of Wide World of Wines, helped in a completely different way: A customer who’d lost power wanted to know whether he could bring in 30 bottles of wine before they were ruined by heat.

“Another guy called and said he had six cases,” Staren said. “It’s just like how they tell you to look out for your neighbors, we’ll look out for your bottles.”

Other tales from a newly unrefrigerated world weren’t reaching the Port City Brewing Co.

Butcher, the year-and-a-half-old brewery’s owner, was too busy worrying about 13,000 gallons of imperiled beer.

Already, he said, Port City had lost an estimated $15,000 in tasting-room business during the weekend.

The company was falling behind on bottling, too: 576 cases of Belgian-style ale were to have been bottled Monday morning, and more than a third were scheduled to go out on a distributor’s truck that same day.

The beer wasn’t ready during one of the most important sales periods of the year. “July 4 is a big, big beer holiday,” Butcher sighed.

Adding to the anxiety: The brewery’s ale and lager yeasts were warm and getting warmer and could eventually spoil.

The Dominion Virginia Power guys already had come and gone, taking pictures of the downed lines but leaving without offering a service-restoration timetable.

The brewers were running a small generator outside the steamy warehouse in an industrial section of Alexandria — “it’s for the radio and our coffeemaker, and we’re charging cellphones,” Butcher said — but the big find was a 75-kilowatt generator powerful enough to run Port City’s cooling system. Miraculously located, it arrived on a United Rentals Truck trailer from Manassas just before noon.

“This is a welcome sight — just awesome,” Reeves said. “I hope it works.”

If not?

“It will just commit suicide,” Reeves said, explaining that at a certain temperature, the fermenting brew would become undrinkable. “It would taste like nail polish.”

With extensive heat exposure, the beer in the other tanks — thousands of gallons of lager and ales and such — could eventually become stale or spoil, too.

He got in his car to fill up three 20-liter tanks with diesel fuel while everybody else waited for the electricians to show up.

A customer dropped by to return an empty keg. His review was rave: “Only three drops left,” he told Butcher.

By mid-afternoon Monday, the electricians had arrived to connect the generator.

Shortly after 5 p.m., they had it hooked it up to the cooling system.

Within minutes, temperatures in the tanks began to drop.

“Things are looking good,” Butcher declared.

He’ll drink to that.

UPDATE: Having saved the beer, the Port City guys have decided to party it up. They’re throwing a kegger Tuesday, to toast a new state code that allows Virginia breweries to serve beer 16 ounces at a time in their tasting rooms. (Previously, they were limited to six-ounce pours; the code took effect Sunday, and Port City Brewing Co. had planned to throw a pint party that day before the derecho knocked out the power.)

The party will run from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m., and it’s BYOB. As in Bring Your Own Sweat Blotter: The tasting room’s air conditioning isn’t yet running. 

Bonnie Benwick and Lena H. Sun contributed to this report.

J. Freedom du Lac is the editor of The Post's general assignment news desk. He was previously a Local enterprise reporter and, before that, the paper’s pop music critic.
Theresa Vargas is a reporter for the Post’s local enterprise team.
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