An Interview with Bill Butcher of Port City Brewing Company
Originally a bustling Virginia port just outside of Washington, DC, Alexandria is now a popular destination for its historic Old Town and locally-owned establishments like Port City Brewing Company. Proudly sourcing quality, regional ingredients, owner Bill Butcher is passionate about producing unique craft beers. His philosophy is to brew beers that are full flavored, with layers of complexity, that are also approachable, full bodied, and well balanced. This approach has earned Port City numerous awards over the past few years that include top medals and recognition from the World Beer Championships, Great American Beer Festival, Virginia Craft Brewers Fest, GFMG Good Food Award, Draft Magazine, and the RAMMY Awards.
Port City Brewing offers tours, tastings of seasonal beers on tap, and a variety of creative events like beer yoga. I recently visited the brewery where Bill shared some of the history and adventures that kick-started his journey and discussed the ingredients and travels that inspired Port City’s distinctive creations.
What was the inspiration behind founding a craft brewing company in Alexandria, VA?
My wife Karen and I thought that the mid-Atlantic could use more options for great quality beer. We buy our produce from local vendors, and our meat from local farmers, but all the beer we were buying was coming from the West Coast. It seemed like there was a disconnect there and we started looking at more East Coast beers and we didn’t find ones that we liked as much as the stuff from the West Coast, so we looked into making our own. The more we looked at it, the more we found that Metro-DC was the only big city in the country that didn’t have a craft brewery. Here, we have a very sophisticated food and drink market and a very robust restaurant scene. You can buy some of the best wines in the world, but nobody was brewing craft beer inside the Beltway.
The reason we located it in Alexandria is twofold. One, from a personal standpoint, it is my hometown – I grew up here. My family has been here for over a hundred years so I wanted to try to keep it here. Two, the business reason is that we wanted to be close enough to DC that we could connect directly with the DC beer drinkers.
How have your travels influenced your selection of beers?
I worked for 18 years as a supplier rep in the wine business and 12 of those years with the Mondavi Family from Napa Valley. I traveled extensively since the Mondavi family was very committed to wine education. They wanted us to be the most educated wine reps in the industry, and so they invested heavily in us to go travel to many vineyards. I traveled not only to Napa Valley, but also across Tuscany, Austria, Spain, and visited the vineyards we worked with there as well. We had a partnership in Chile as well, so we got to see the wine culture in all those different countries. We drank a lot of beer along the way!
The wine industry really influenced the beers that we decided to produce. If you look at a typical California winery, they’ll produce a Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and maybe a Cabernet. You’ve got light and crisp on one end of the spectrum and you’ve got dark, full-bodied and very robust flavors on the other end. Our brewery does resemble a winery. What we ended up with on the crisp and light end is our Optimal Wit and our Downright Pilsner, and on the other end of the spectrum is our Porter which is a very dark, full bodied beer. There are also a couple of stops in between: Essential Pale Ale and a more robust Monumental IPA. We were mimicking what a California winery would do when we came up with our flagship portfolio.
What are some of the most unusual ingredients that you have worked with to create craft beers?
That’s a good question! Probably the most usual ingredient that we’ve worked with is Chesapeake Bay oysters. We brewed an Oyster Stout, which is an unusual style of beer. Keeping our sourcing local is very important to us, but if you want to brew with local ingredients in Virginia, you’ve got to get creative. The hop industry is not located here so we don’t grow a lot of malting quality barley. The beer does contain the actual oysters. During the boil, we take the oysters and the oyster liquor and put it in a mesh bag and drop it into the kettle for the last 20 minutes of the boil. We also use the shells, we put those in another bag and put them in the water as well and it extracts some mineral content. The calcium content hardens up the water and makes it better for brewing beer. It gives the beer a textural element, a mouth-feel. Eating oysters on the half shell is all about the texture, and a lot of that savory character makes its way into the beer and gives it a very velvety, soft and smooth mouth-feel, a subtle bit of brine, and a whiff of ocean breeze. Keeping our sourcing local is very important to us, but if you want to brew with local ingredients in Virginia, you’ve got to get creative.
Which is your personal favorite Port City beer and why?
I’m not supposed to play favorites, but I will say that there’s one that I drink the most of and that would be our Monumental IPA. That’s the beer that I’m really proud of, and that’s the beer that drove us to start the company. My wife Karen and I were drinking a lot of West Coast beer. The one in particular I refer to, was Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, which is an American IPA, and we wanted to find a beer that we liked as much, but sourced locally. So when we started brewing our Monumental IPA, we wanted it to be a beer that not only resembles that style of beer, but one that we like to drink as much our West Coast favorites. I’m also very proud of that beer because it was our first ever medal winner. We won a bronze medal in Denver in 2012 for the Monumental IPA, so that beer really helped put us on the map.
What are your favorite food pairings with Port City beers?
What I try to do with beer and food pairings, is that I like to match the weight of the beer with the weight of the food. So, if it’s a lighter’s style dish, I would go with a lighter style beer. Our Wit beer is great with seafood – the bright acidity in that beer really enhances seafood. Our Monumental IPA that has a spicy, citrus, hop character to it that goes really well with meats, Virginia barbecue, and Virginia pulled pork. For dessert, I recommend a bittersweet chocolate with our Porter. It is a robust style of Porter with roasted coffee and bittersweet chocolate aromas – it’s almost like drinking a chocolate milkshake!
I love the city of San Francisco, and every time I go there, one of the first things I do is seek out an Anchor Steam Beer and Anchor Liberty Ale. Those are both beers that I’ve been drinking since I’ve been old enough to drink beer, and they have always been some of my favorites. It’s a brand that just has a wonderful history and an iconic standing in the craft beer industry. Another memorable trip has been going to Brussels. This isn’t for my work, but my wife travels frequently for her business and when I can, I tag along with her so I can go drink beer and eat great food. Some of the Belgian ales have been great experiences to have at the source, right there in Brussels. My wife and I did a road trip – we drove from Seattle down the coast and ended up in San Francisco again on a beer tour. That was 20 years ago, when we started in Seattle’s Pike Brewery. The craft beer business was very different then, but it had a very great impact on us, and left us with really positive memories. The Pacific Northwest – Oregon, Seattle, and Northern California – is the cradle of the craft beer movement in America, that’s where it all started.
What is your most favorite beer infused dish that you like to cook?
I’m probably proudest of my Thanksgiving turkey. I brine it for 24 hours in the brine that I make from our Wit beer and from the spices that go into the beer. I actually grab some of the brewing spices: dried Spanish orange peel, coriander, and grains of paradise – a cooking spice from northern Africa that resembles peppercorn, and has a peppery flavor to it. I let the turkey rest in the brine with the spices for 24 hours and it just makes it deliciously flavorful and moist – my family loves it.
PORT CITY BREWING COMPANY
3950 Wheeler Avenue
Check Port City’s Beer Finder to see if its beers are carried at a retailer near you.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gia Coelho was born in India and holds an MBA in Marketing. She lived in Toronto and has traveled extensively in India and Europe. She now lives outside Washington DC and pursues passions that include wildlife conservation, writing, culinary adventures, painting, and creating colorful Zentangle art that she sells on her Etsy site at www.etsy.com/shop/giacoelho.
We want to hear from you! Tell us your favorite craft brewery in the comments section below.