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Bill Butcher Talks About Port City Brewing Company’s Colossal 4th Anniversary

If you follow our Twitter account or calendar at all, you've no doubt seen a ton of Port City Brewing Company events for the next week. This little brewery-specific beer week is all in honor of the Alexandria brewery's fourth anniversary. Be sure to check out their beer brunch at Sixth Engine this Sunday.

We had the chance to chat with founder Bill Butcher via email this week about all manner of topics surrounding the brewery and the local craft beer scene. Before we get to that, a few fun facts about PCBC:

  • At their launch, PCBC had only Optimal Wit and Essential Pale Ale on draft. They later added Porter and Monumental IPA as flagships. Downright Pils, the fifth flagship, didn't come along until summer 2012 (as a summer seasonal), and then became a mainstay.
  • In 2014, PCBC produced 12,000 BBLs.
  • The 2014 release of the Derecho Common, at the end of June, marked the first time they date stamped each bottle, because of a desire to ensure freshness for the consumer.
  • They are the only 30 BBL, as well as American-made, brewhouse in the region.
  • PCBC's building used to be a lighting supply warehouse. People still stop by looking for light fixtures. There is still a chandelier hanging that's currently in a storage area, but hopefully will be shared with the public soon.
Now that we've satisfied your thirst for trivia. Let's get into some meatier (beerier?) topics with founder Bill Butcher. Bill is a well-known beer resource in the DMV area. An excellent companion for topics casual and serious, he has a wealth of knowledge about not only the beer industry (but also the wine industry, where he was formerly employed). Bill is active within the Brewers Association and was selected to speak at the Democratic National Convention in 2012. Here's a lightly edited transcript of our email chat with Bill.
 
DCBeer: Rehash for us the rate at which PCBC has grown over four years. It seems like it has doubled every year? What size do you think the brewery will ultimately settle into, or is the plan to keep getting as big as demand allows for? (i.e., some breweries say "we're not getting any bigger than X." Does "X" exist for PCBC?)

Bill Butcher: Our average rate of growth is just over 60% per year since we have opened. We have gone from zero to 12,000 barrels of beer over these four years. Our current production capacity, with November’s brewery expansion, is approximately 16,000 barrels. We will continue to add capacity this year to put us over 20,000 barrels of capacity. Our current facility will max out around 25,000 barrels per year, and we plan on achieving that in 2017. We have not planned beyond that. We can be profitable, happy, and small by staying at 25,000 barrels, or perhaps we will find a need to expand. Right now we are focused on achieving our current plan of 25,000 barrels in 2017.

All of this depends on our ability to continue to keep up the consistent quality and supply of our beer. [Head Brewer from the start] Jonathan Reeves and I agreed at the beginning of this thing that we only would increase our production if we can simultaneously increase our quality. We have enacted new quality control measures and quality improvements every step of the way. I’m proud to say that our beers have never tasted better, and Jonathan and his team are brewing the best beers of their careers.

DCBeer: You're still brewing on the same brewhouse you had when you opened. Is there a need or any plans to upgrade that to something bigger any time soon? Related, is there any ability or plan to expand your overall building space?

BB: There is not a need to upgrade our brewhouse. The growth we are experiencing is part of what we planned at the beginning. We went with a rather large system for a startup brewery, 30 barrels, which has given us the ability to grow and keep up with market demand. The debate we had at the beginning was whether to go with a 30 or 40 barrel system. We went with 30 barrels because we were comfortable that we could be brewing often enough to ensure that things are selling through and staying fresh in the market. We talked to lots of small brewers during planning, and we kept hearing the same story: They’d get a bit of success after opening, and soon would outgrow their equipment and facility. We built this type of growth expectation into our plan. We wanted a brewery facility that we could grow into, not out of.

One thing we have grown out of is our parking situation for the Tasting Room. We are now open seven days a week, and we get about 1,200 people per week come to visit our brewery. We have just signed a lease for the parking lot directly across the street from the brewery. This will take some of the pressure off of the on-street parking, which does get tight.

DCBeer: What do you think the perception is of PCBC and your beers in the DMV among casual beer fans? Among serious craft beer fans?

BB: DC is a very sophisticated food and drink market, and people expect great quality. Our brewing philosophy is to brew beers that are complex with layers of flavor, and yet are approachable and delicious. This may sound simplistic, but it is actually a very fine line that we walk to achieve the perfect balance of complex flavors without being aggressive on the palate.

The feedback we get from the market is extremely positive. Casual beer drinkers like our beer because it is easy to drink, and the complex layers of flavor hold the interest of serious craft beer fans. One of the consistent comments that we get on our beers is that they all have this refreshing quality to the finish. This refreshing finish even shows on our Porter, which is a style not always thought of as “refreshing.” I do think this is becoming the defining characteristic of our beers.

DCBeer: Why the logo and branding refresh four years in? What are the aims of this move?

BB: We wanted to update our logo to better reflect who we are today. This is definitely an evolution, not a rebrand, so our customers will still easily recognize the brand. The diamond has been updated a bit to resemble the original layout of Washington, DC. As you know, DC was laid out as a perfect diamond, 10 miles per side, and originally included what was then called Alexandria County. Our new diamond also depicts the boundary stones that defined DC, several of which are near our brewery.

We sell our beer all over DC, suburban Maryland and northern Virginia, so our footprint basically encompasses the Beltway. We think our new diamond better reflects this geography, as well as our identity as a mid-Atlantic brewery that is based in Metro DC.

DCBeer: You opened before any of the current DC breweries. What do you think of the beer scene over the river? What does it do right and what can it improve on? 

BB: I don’t think of the DC market in terms of the Potomac River. I don’t know of many beverage companies that do. Metro DC is one single food and beverage market. Its people live, work, eat, drink, and commute across all of the different legal jurisdictions that make up metro DC.

Our beer scene is evolving and growing very quickly. This is a healthy trend for all of us, and it needs to continue. I’ve traveled across the country and seen what other great beer cities look like, and I’m encouraged by what we have here in DC. We are off to a great start with our young beer scene, and we have a lot more work to do. We are beginning to develop this culture of embracing local beer, and we need to continue to expand the offerings for area restaurants, bars, and bottle shops. This means we need more local breweries. We need more breweries making great quality beers, which will get more people drinking better beer. This in turn helps restaurants offer greater choice to their customers, and so on and so on. We all need to build this thing together. Another Atlas, Mad Fox, or DC Brau tap doesn’t diminish our ability to sell our beer, rather it grows the opportunity for all local beer. 

DCBeer: PCBC has made a commitment to being a part of the Alexandria community. How have you gone about that, what have some of your most important moves been on that front, and how has the buy-in from locals been?

BB: Alexandria is my home town, and my family has been here for over 100 years. Because of my history here, I do have strong ties to Alexandria.

I see craft beer as a part of what I consider ‘the good life,’ and as such I believe it is important to give back to the community and to those who have less. We support local charities all over the DC region, and some of them are based in Alexandria. We host many local gatherings, fundraisers, and even local political forums. I see our brewery as a part of the fabric of the community, and we are always looking for ways to bring people together. Beer is a great way to build communities; good beer always draws a crowd.

I see a great amount of local pride associated with our brewery. Not just Alexandria, but from all over the DC area. We often get comments from DC locals who are happy to see a hometown beer on tap in New York, Richmond, the Outer Banks, or Asheville.

DCBeer: Bill, you have your ear to the policy world, whether that's speaking at the DNC or being knowledgeable about the Brewers Association. A lot of brewers and brewery owners eschew involvement in the politics of beer. Can you speak about what interests you about craft beer policy and politics?

BB: As you know, brewing beer is a highly regulated, highly taxed industry. Every level of government is interested in our business. To me, it only makes sense to get to know those who can control how we do our business. By being involved, it gives us opportunities to educate the people who regulate us and help them get to know our industry better. This can lead to more common sense regulation that doesn’t unnecessarily restrict our business.

A good example of this is our spent grain. The FDA was recently drafting new rules to modernize farming practices. One of the proposed rules dealt with cattle feed, which is how many breweries dispose of their spent brewing grain. The new rules would have required us to change the way we handled the grain, requiring new processes and to purchase expensive new equipment in order to comply. All of this was unnecessary because brewers have been giving spent grain to farmers as cattle feed for centuries, and it has never caused a problem.

Because of our proximity to Capitol Hill, we were asked by Congressman Pete DeFazio, of Oregon, to host a tour for the FDA officials who were drafting the proposed rules. We were happy to show them our process to deal with spent grain and to show them exactly how it benefits both the farmer and the brewer. This helped the regulators see that the new rules were trying to solve a problem that did not exist. To me, this is a great example of government working exactly how it should, and it’s a great reason why I enjoy being involved in the politics and policy of beer.

We are also in a rapidly growing industry. Craft beer is posting another year of double digit growth, with a 17% trend in 2014. That is the type of thing that gets the attention of people in government. Craft beer drives job creation, can help reinvigorate failing urban centers, and can rebuild the tax base of cities. These are all things that elected officials should pay attention to. I see this as a great time to educate government leaders on the great things that small breweries can do to help revitalize the tax base and build communities.

I also serve on the Events Committee of the Brewers Association. Our big events are SAVOR, the Great American Beer Festival, and the Craft Brewers Conference. One of the main reasons that I do this is that I want DC to continue to be well represented with these important events. I like to remind the Events Committee that while the Brewers Association may regard SAVOR as a national event, we in DC regard it as “our” event.

DCBeer: You've become something of a go-to for aspiring brewery owners. What are the biggest mistakes that breweries-in-planning make, which of them did PCBC make four years ago, and what's the best advice you would give to your past self now?

BB: I do talk to a lot of people that want to start new breweries. Many of these people plan to do it on a very small scale, perhaps so they can minimize the risk of failure. I believe that this is a mistake. You can only make beer for a living if you have a way to achieve scale. Otherwise it is an expensive hobby. There is nothing wrong with expensive hobbies, but if you want to brew beer for a living you have to go all in, plan to scale up, and plan to be wildly successful!

The best advice I would give to my past self is to hire more people more quickly. We run a relatively tight ship; we are very efficient, and we all get a lot done every day. I now believe that we all could have been a bit less harried, frazzled, tired and overworked if we had been quicker to expand our team and spread the workload a bit more.

DCBeer: At the eight-year mark, what do you envision PCBC will look like? How many GABF medals will you all have by then?

BB: At the eight-year mark we will be brewing 25,000 barrels per year. We will be selling our beer throughout the mid-Atlantic region, from New York to North Carolina. We will be known as an innovative, reliable brewer of great quality beer that also gives a great educational beer tour at the brewery and puts on lots of fun events. Hopefully a few of our people will have gone on to start their own breweries and can help continue the growth of the small brewing industry.

As far as medals go, who knows? Medals are fun to win, and it is an honor to be recognized by your peers as the best in the business. But medals and other awards do not affect how we run our business. We brew beers that are right for us and for our customers. When we win a medal for those efforts, that’s great, but it is not what drives our business.

DCBeer: At the end of a long day, which beer in your portfolio do you absolutely have to have in your beer glass?

BB: I’ve been drinking some Ways & Means lately. It has become a favorite of our team as well.

Thanks to Bill for his time. Congratulations to everyone at the Port City team on their milestone. We wish you many years of continued success!

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