Unrated

Unrated — Upon a Virginian Wheat

A lone pineapple sits next to the sign for Port City Brewing Company in Alexandria, VA. Pointy and proud, the fruit seems a little out of place in an otherwise brown and boring industrial park, especially in front of a brewery with nary a fruit IPA on the menu. But as per the colonial Virginian tradition, the rare and quick-to-rot pineapple is a universal sign of hospitality—a tropical herald that the business is open, and undeniably good.

Since opening its doors in 2011, Port City has established zymurgical dominance in the Northern Virginia brewing scene. The little tap room buzzes with human energy every evening, as two parallel bars serve pints to the crowds under a white-tiled drop ceiling. A pillar in the middle of the room is covered in a multitude of stickers from seemingly every brewery and bar in the country. Down another hallway, just past the restrooms, the space opens up to a large spiral staircase and an even bigger chandelier—the leftover architecture from a lighting showroom that occupied the space long before yeast and malt had set up permanent residence. On one wall, retro arcade machines double as pub tables, and upstairs, another bar serves people looking to get away from the main crowd—and its noise—below.

There’s no beer drinker left behind at Port City. Bill Butcher, brewery founder and former marketer for Robert Mondavi wines, used his understanding of creating a broad wine portfolio to build a flagship lineup of beers that appealed to all palates: an IPA, a Porter, an easy-going Pale Ale. When it came to deciding on a style that fit the spectrum but didn’t utilize a lot of hops, Butcher and his head brewer Jonathan Reeves unanimously agreed upon a Belgian-style Witbier. 

“The IPA was supposed to be the best seller,” Butcher admits, letting slip a storytelling smile loaded with his presuppositions about what sells in the modern beer market.

Chris Van Orden, marketing and outreach manager, laughs as he fills a snifter with hazy yellow, adding, “It’s the only time in the history of the brewery that Bill was wrong.”

Against the nationwide trend and common sales statistics, Port City’s Monumental IPA—despite being an award winner itself—is not the best seller. Instead, Optimal Wit holds that title, consistently making up 35-40% of all Port City’s sales. 

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The allure of a low-hopped, slightly-tart wheat beer has somewhat faded Stateside, with the nuance of cleverly brewed balance being replaced by a sledgehammer of one-note base malts and insatiable hopping. Large scale options like MillerCoors’s Blue Moon and AB InBev’s Shock Top keep the style alive domestically, but outside of the ubiquitous joy of Allagash White, the craft sector tends to relegate wheat to spring and summer seasonals, rather than year-round, portfolio-boosting staples. It’s simply an unfortunate product of the landscape. 

IPA dominance means IPA proclivity, and that creates a cycle so self-fulfilling it would make Oedipus blush. It’s hard to blame a business for making and pushing the product that sells the best, even if it does turn the retail environment into a mush of near-indecipherable similarity. But IPA as brewery success is not a perfect tautology. Like Port City, a few breweries shatter the stereotype, and find success on the back of a style not packed to critical mass with lupulin.

But it wouldn’t be fair to say Optimal Wit’s success is purely a product of luck. Reeves brewed professionally for several years at the Sanibel Brewpub off Fort Meyers, Florida, so the batch he presented to Butcher was one of practiced pedigree. Part of his experience also came from the love of his life. A native of St. Louis, his wife was used to lighter beers and was partial to Belgian Wits, so he honed his recipes in pursuit of the perfect beer for her. Ultimately, he brewed some for their wedding, the result of which would form the backbone of Port City’s award winner.

“Since we opened, Optimal has always been our best seller, but it jumped up after winning at GABF,” Butcher says. The beer won gold in the Belgian-style Witbier category in 2013, and then bronze in 2015. It has a number of other awards to its name, including gold at the World Beer Championships in 2013, and several other local food and drink accolades.

Optimal Wit is a celebration of nuance. Brewed in the traditional Belgian style, it drinks deliciously dry. The grains of paradise added to the coriander and orange peel offer peppery accentuation to the yeasty phenols, but the experience doesn’t end sweet, like Sam Adams Summer Ale (which uses very similar ingredients). The turbid yellow pour might remind one of their first Hoegaarden, but the pilsner malt base and local raw wheat brings something decidedly American and contemporary to an otherwise unmitigated classic. It’s a deceptively simple beer: easy to slug down in the oppressive swampy heat of a Mid-Atlantic summer, but at the same time, when analyzed, a triumph of the technical aspects of brewing. 

As Stan Hieronymus notes in Brewing with Wheat, “Wheat is not a style. It is an ingredient that contributes to flavor in a variety of ways.” At Port City, roughly 30% of Optimal Wit’s grain bill is made up of unmalted—and thus, unmodified—wheat, which contributes significantly to both the taste of the beer, and the proteins left in suspension after brewing. While big on taste, raw wheat lacks the enzymes needed to help with the starch conversion process during mash. Their recipe calls for 2200 pounds of wheat per 30 barrels, which creates a heavy slurry when mixed with the other ingredients. 

“The bed has to be cut throughout the sparge to prevent clogging,” says Jake Sullivan, who steps away from an active brewing session to pantomime using a mash paddle for me. “The protein rest is really important, too. The unmodified wheat doesn’t provide as much extract, so we use a step mash to get the right body and flavor. It’s difficult sometimes, too, because the raw wheat can cause color variations.” 

Since color is so important to the style, and consistency so important to business, it’s a frequent game of small adjustments to keep Optimal Wit’s quintessential golden straw hue.

What started as a simple addition to round out a lineup has become nearly synonymous with the brewery itself. Optimal Wit is the only beer Port City cans, and it now comes in 24-ounce tallboys during the summer. Its plain white label pops up everywhere, including the Washington Nationals’ stadium, where it makes the rounds up and down the aisles with other, more traditional macro Lagers. 

“We’ve had to schedule a few additional runs of Optimal Wit during the summer to meet the new demand,” Van Orders says of the newfound sales at the baseballs games. “It’s a good problem to have.”

The beer intertwines with the identity of the brewery itself. Ross Virando, director of food and beverage at Tavern64 Regional Kitchen in Reston, VA, raves about the local appeal of a national award winner. “Optimal Wit is the one beer that hasn’t been off a handle since we opened in 2013,” he says. The restaurant sources as much of its ingredients from the closet sources possible. Explains Virando, “That’s the magic of Port City to me—in an era of jalapeno beers and triple dry hopped gimmicks, they’re making perfect, to-style beers.”

That’s the magic of Port City to me—in an era of jalapeno beers and triple dry hopped gimmicks, they’re making perfect, to-style beers.
— Ross Virando

But to him, from a sales perspective, it isn’t only the quality of the beer, but who Port City are, and what they represent. “Remember the Derecho beer?” he asks, hinting at the California Common style beer Port City made after they lost power for five days after a freak summer wind storm and couldn’t control fermentation temperatures. “It’s stuff like that I love about them. The story my bartender can tell a customer about the beer they’re drinking, and the fact they have the skill to recreate that beer they made by accident.”

He’s not alone in his thinking, which explains Optimal Wit’s success despite only being distributed in a small region on the east coast. “We temporarily killed the Optimal Wit line, and immediately had people coming back and asking us where it went,” says Ari Valdez, manager of Liberty Tavern in Arlington, VA. “People who come in thinking Blue Moon is the height of Witbier are blown away by Optimal Wit. It’s our second best seller, right behind Evolution Brewing’s #3 IPA.”

Riding the success of all that wheat, Port City is poised to go from 17,000 barrels per year in 2016, to at least double that over the next few years. A massive $6.2 million dollar expansion project is underway, which would add additional bright tanks and fermentation capacity to the main brewery space by relocating the kegging and bottling facilities to another location down the street. In addition, the expansion would create a new 6,000 square-foot area for cold storage. That’s a lot of space for wheat beer.

The city of Alexandria, aware of beer’s growing economic power, and Port City’s sweeping success, decided to support their own local business in the best way possible: financially. The state provides grants to the many agrarian companies and organizations via the Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development Fund.

“The Alexandria Economic Development group approached us,” Van Orden explains. “They’d encountered a grant that had historically always gone to a rural business and said, ‘you guys use tons of wheat each year, you might be eligible for this.’”

Turns out, they were. “Tons of wheat” is quite literal. In 2016 the brewery used 150,000 pounds, and they expect to use around 213,000 (more than 100 tons) in 2017. The grant provided Port City with $500,000, half of which was paid by the city, half by the state. Of that grant, $300,000 would be paid back via taxes over five years, making it essentially a well-timed boon that the brewery could use as part of their expansion financing. 

The one caveat of the grant is that 75% of the wheat had to come from a Virginia-based farm. As part of Butcher’s master business planning, Port City always seems ahead of the game. Which is to say: it wasn’t a problem to use local wheat, because they already were. Optimal Wit’s soul is sourced from Bay’s Best Feed in Heathsville, VA. Its original owner, Billy Dawson, was Virginia born and raised, making the final beer, from ingredients to creation, from farmer to bartender, a true manifestation of the agricultural power of the Commonwealth.

“Beer is an agricultural product,” Van Orden says as he sifts through some spilled grain near the mill. The brewery is bustling at midday, with the pungent smell of Witbier yeast permeating everything. It’s hard to deny that fact when staring at so much piled grain, digesting that this was one of the first times a brewery was given a fully agricultural grant, putting it on equal footing with large scale food producers like Kraft and Kelloggs.  

A lot of little differences separate Optimal Wit from the chaff of its competition. All the kegs are stored upside down to keep the yeast properly in suspension. The orange peel used in the mash comes from Spanish oranges. Even the name itself hints at the use of the “optimal” amount of spices and wheat to create the perfect balance a Witbier needs. 

“We feel like we’re just scratching the surface,” Butcher says, admiring the glass of Wit Van Orden places in front of him. While he admits his surprise at its commercial success, Butcher clearly loves the 4.9% alcohol beer that got them to where they are today. The brewery is experimenting with other things, too, including a well-received double IPA appropriately called Maniacal. But something in Butcher’s eye, reflected off the branded glass, says he won’t be focusing any less on wheat in the future.

“We’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing,” he says, smiling again before taking a tiny sip and setting the glass back on the bar.

Words + Photos by
Oliver Gray