Week Four: a Brewery Tour and Jones Point Light

Port_WhatsOnTapAbout ten months ago, I resolved to develop a more sophisticated taste for beer. Why beer, you ask? Well, (1) I’m not much of a liquor drinker; and (2) becoming a wine connoisseur posed a danger to my pocketbook. Frankly, I have absolutely no desire to lose my appreciation for an $8.99 bottle of Malbec purchased at the corner store. Further, as a fan of supporting small and local businesses, I was intrigued by the microbrew phenomenon that has been #trending in recent years.

In keeping with my new mission, I began to explore local establishments that offered tasting menus and/or a wide selection.* I registered for a BeerAdvocate account in order to track each beer I tried and better understand my preferences. I’ve discovered that I tend to favor IPAs with a moderately bitter, hoppy finish and Amber Ales with a good balance of malt and hops.

*For my fellow Washingtonians, Churchkey in Logan Circle and the Black Squirrel in AdMo are my favorite haunts when I feel like exploring nbrew horizons.

Sadly, almost a year into my newfound beer-snobbery, I had yet to see where the magic happens. Thus, touring a local brewery became New Thing #47 on my 52 Things list. Enter – Port City Brewery in Alexandria, Virginia.

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As the oldest microbrewery in the DC area, Port City will celebrate its second anniversary next week. No – that isn’t a typo. Craft beer is in its infancy inside the beltway. Port City Brewery is owned by an Alexandria native. The name pays tribute to Alexandria’s history as one of the major seaports in the time period following the Revolutionary War. Fortunately, my visit to Port City gave me more than a history lesson. During the guided tour, I learned many new things about the brewing process. Some highlights:

  • I had the opportunity to taste the barley grain that served as the base for all of Port City’s beer. The grain was crunchy and slightly sweet. We also sampled “green beer” – beer that hasn’t been adequately and thus isn’t “ready” for consumption. The unfinished brew was cloudy and tasted a bit flat and a more bitter than intended.
  • The tour guide passed around a bucket of hops for us to smell. We were warned not to taste because hops are unbearably bitter. I was nonetheless tempted until the guide noted that we wouldn’t be able to taste our beers afterwards.
  • I learned that the longer the hops are allowed to boil, the more bitter the beer becomes. For example, a “60 minute IPA” signifies that the hops boiled for an hour. The extra bitterness from the hops must then be balanced with sugar.
  • I also discovered that brewers use many phrases that sound either risqué or ridiculous – these terms include “dry hopping,” “flocculating,” and “hopzooka.”
  • A microbrew isn’t a streamlined, tight operation. For example, Port City employs a used bottling machine that allows every 9th bottle to move along the line, empty. The employees are only sometimes successful at snatching the bottle midway through the process before it is capped and labeled.
  • Having temperamental equipment isn’t without its perks, however. Port City employees frequently take home “shorties” – an affectionate name for any bottles of brew that were not filled to the top.

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After the tour, my friend Matt and I had the opportunity to taste each of the brewery’s “Essential” brews – the Monumental IPA, the Essential Pale Ale, the Porter, and the Optimal Wit. We also sampled one of Port City’s “Limited Ales,” an oyster stout named Revival. Unsurprisingly, my favorite was the Monumental – a bitter IPA with a citrusy (mildly grapefruit) flavor. My friend enjoyed Revival, a dark, heavy beer with malty and coffee-like finish. I enjoyed the brew as well, after I got over my initial shock at the fact that it was literally made with oysters from the War Shore Oyster Company. Although I’ve had an oyster stout before, I naively assumed that the “oyster” reference was simply a suggested food pairing. After this first taste, however, I can see myself enjoying a pint alongside a dozen oysters on a half shell once the humid DC summer hits. Hopefully, one of the venues on the Georgetown waterfront will be serving Revival come June!

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With the tasting finished and it not quite dinner time, Matt and I decided to explore Alexandria a bit in order to work up an appetite. Having toured Port City Brewery, it seemed fitting to visit Jones Point Light – the historic lighthouse that guided ships along the Potomac when Alexandria was still a major seaport. We arrived in time to catch the sun setting behind the lighthouse. As Matt and I ambled around, we began to inspect the half-dozen placards that highlighted the site’s history. We discovered that Jones Point also houses the southernmost cornerstone from the 1792 geographical survey that established the boundaries for the District of Columbia. The weathered stone may seem unremarkable in pictures. As a self-proclaimed history nerd, however, I found it rather thrilling to standing on a spot where the border of our nation’s capital was drawn more than 200 years ago. With our appetites restored, we escaped the brisk January air and returned to the car. As we pulled away, I made yet another resolution – to visit the other three boundary stones that frame the District. With any luck, I’ll find some New Things to do nearby!

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