Portner BrewhouseThe beer barons are back, or at least they are on their way.

Three great-great-grandchildren of Robert Portner, who founded his own brewing company nearly 150 years ago, will use their famous name as a springboard when they open their own brewhouse in Old Town Alexandria.

“Our great-great-grandfather at the time was operating the largest business in all of Alexandria,” Catherine Portner said. “We’re putting that history and story back into the brew pub.”

While a location for The Portner Brewhouse hasn’t been determined, Portner said she’s been working with the local town offices to find possible places. From 1869-1916, the Robert Portner Brewing Company was located at the corner of King and St. Asaph streets.

“We’d love to be able to get as close as possible to that original location,” she said.

The waterfront could be another possibility, as the city of Alexandria looks to revamp that area. Doors to The Portner Brewhouse would open, at the latest, in spring 2014.

While the new establishment will be a bit more modern than its century-old namesake, Portner said she and her two siblings, Charles and Margaret, plan to offer a taste of the really Old Town, and draw on their family’s history inside the brewhouse. The Portner Brewhouse will offer “old family recipes,” she said, including a typical lager, a porter and a cream ale. Of course, some of the ingredients will be slightly different than they were more than 100 years ago.

“It will be a very, very close representation to what the original beer was,” she said. “Those three will remain on tap.”

In addition to a brewhouse, part of the Portners’ “grand vision” includes the trademarked Brewing Studio Program. Portner explained this would be a way to highlight local brewers who don’t have the means or capacity to produce a craft beer on a larger scale. She said The Portner Brewhouse would allow client brewers to use contract-brewing services, allowing for smaller batches than other contract breweries. Also, once made, the pilot beer would be taste-tested by patrons, providing customer feedback and sales data.

If a specific beer gains popularity, instead of shipping and distributing bottles and kegs, through the Brewing Studio Program the recipe could be transferred to another brewhouse.

“Overall we really want to help change how small craft beer is distributed around the country,” Portner said.

If their family history is any indication, the three siblings will do just that. In his heyday, Robert Portner revolutionized the way his bottles of beer were transported. According to Catherine, he was a pioneer of chilled railcars and was credited with having the first air-conditioned home in the United States. With Portner brew making its way down most of the eastern seaboard – from Virginia to the Caribbean – Robert became a millionaire by 1900.

“He really, truly achieved, what I think of as, the American Dream,” Portner said. “It’s definitely inspirational to us.”

And this might be the last chance to revitalize the Portner Brew name. Catherine and her two siblings are the only ones left in her generation to carry on Robert’s surname.

Robert died in 1906 and 10 years later, Virginia approved prohibition so The Robert Portner Brewing Company was shut down. Still, during his short-lived beer empire, the Portners were wildly successful.

“If we can even achieve half the success that our great-great-grandfather did in comparison to what he did in his time, that would be amazing for us,” Portner said.

So far, even without breaking ground, the trio is off to a good start. The siblings entered a contest in February of this year to win the grand prize of $100,000 worth of marketing and public relations from the communications firm Nicholson Kovac.

While pursuing her MBA in Boston, Catherine, 28, along with Margaret, 21, and Charles, 24, worked to submit their brewhouse plan to the “Last Plan Standing” contest, which calls on entrepreneurs with unique business ideas. After making it through several rounds, one of which included a one-minute video on YouTube, they gave a 45-minute presentation to a Nicholson Kovac panel in Kansas City, Mo.

“We were ecstatic. We couldn’t be more excited,” Portner said. “The amount of support we got from everyone was absolutely stupendous. … It reaffirms the fact that there’s a desire for us to achieve this business.”


June 21, 2011