Growing up, sisters Catherine and Margaret Portner probably knew more about their great-great-grandfather than most kids. Family history involving beer and a small fortune probably makes you pay attention.
Robert Portner emigrated from Germany and opened a grocery store in Alexandria. Noticing the best-selling item was beer, which he attributes to the demand from Civil War troops passing through town, Portner capitalized on its popularity and opened Robert Portner Brewing Co. in 1869 (where the Trader Joe’s is now). It became the largest pre-Prohibition brewery in the Southeast United States. Portner died in 1906, before the brewery closed in 1916 and before Prohibition forced the country into sobriety. (His estate was valued at $2 million.)
One hundred years later, his heirs are opening Portner Brewhouse, a brewery and restaurant tapping into both family history and today’s taste for experimentation, in late December. The tap lineup includes beers inspired by the original brewery—Tivoli Cream Ale, Hofbrau Pilsner, Vienna Cabinet Lager and Portner Porter—which, because there were no written records of the recipes, the Portners (Catherine is a certified beer judge) recreated using supply orders and Portner’s memoir, among other historical items. Brewmaster Brian McElvaney will contribute contemporary styles (don’t worry, hop heads). McElvaney spent the last five years in Germany, most recently at Stone Brewing Company‘s lone European site in Berlin.
A third section of the draft list will showcase homebrewers. The Craft Beer Test Kitchen is a bit like a mentoring program, helping homebrewers develop their recipe to commercial scale with the help of McElvaney. The beer’s sales will be tracked along with customer comments, and the homebrewer will receive a report card when the keg kicks. (There’s an application process that includes submitting a sample of beer and could cost anywhere from $200 to up to $1,000 depending on ingredients, administrative fees, etc.)
The restaurant, overseen by Margaret who has 10 years of experience, along with chef Donnie Dennis (who cooked locally at Falls Church’s Heirloom Catering and Black Market Bistro in Garrett, Maryland), will serve German-inspired fare like a savory white asparagus tart and short rib goulash. More simply, says Catherine: “brats, burgers and beer.” A perfect family, really. // Portner Brewhouse: 5770 Dow Ave., Alexandria