Portner Brewhouse Opening Revives Family Brewing Legacy

News by | Mar 2017 | Issue #122
Catherine and Margaret Portner, great-great granddaughters of brewer Robert Portner. | Photo courtesy of Cat Portner

Virginia went dry in 1916, shutting down the Alexandria-based Robert Portner Brewing Company, which opened in 1862 to support thirsty Union soldiers during the Civil War and eventually became the largest brewery in the South. When Prohibition ended in 1933, Portner’s six sons had passed away, leaving no one to reopen the brewery.

But history is full of surprising twists. Two of Portner’s direct descendants took the reins to continue the family’s brewing legacy: Catherine and Margaret Portner, sisters and great-great granddaughters of Robert Portner. They opened Portner Brewhouse in February, a pre-Prohibition inspired brewpub in Alexandria’s West End. “My sister and I are thrilled to bring Portner beer back to Alexandria a century after the original brewery’s closure,” says president Catherine Portner.

Head brewer Brian McElvaney began production on January 4 to ensure that there would be enough beer on hand at opening. The 3.5-barrel brewpub focuses on flagship pre-Prohibition beers, made in the style of their great-great grandfather: Hofbrau Pilsner, Portner Porter, Tivoli Cream Ale, and Vienna Cabinet Lager. None of the historic brewing recipes survived, so Catherine and Margaret Portner spent years researching old advertisements, supply orders, and even Portner’s memoirs, then test batched and designed the best representations of these beers. The results provide a taste of often-forgotten styles that will be refreshingly new to many.

Meanwhile, head chef Donnie Dennis focuses on traditional German and contemporary American cuisine. “Our philosophy is to celebrate the past, present, and the future,” adds general manager Margaret Portner.

A unique component is the Craft Beer Test Kitchen,® “a development program for homebrewers interested in going pro,” says Catherine Portner. This program supports brewers who would like to test a recipe, making the beer available for sale to the public and providing customer feedback and sales data—all without owning a brewery, having a license, or opening a company of their own.

First up in the CBTK are two historic beer recreations from Andrew Wales, a Scottish-born immigrant who became the first commercial brewer in the DC area in 1770. Portner will brew Wales’ Strong Beer, an Edinburgh-style ale, followed by a Small Beer using the second runnings and a wee bit of molasses. Beer historians Mike Stein and Pete Jones recreated the recipes based on input by Wales biographer and Capital Beer author Garrett Peck. 

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