Power outages threaten beer brewing

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 1:59 PM

J. Freedom Du Lac

There were no pint glasses raised for the derecho.

Not at the Port City Brewing Co. in Alexandria, Va., where owner Bill Butcher and head brewer Jonathan Reeves paced nervously, fretting about thousands of gallons of craft brew - especially an ever-warming tank of seasonal pilsner more than two days into the fermentation process.

"It should be around 50 degrees," Butcher said Monday morning after a long weekend without power in the midst of a relentless heat wave.

"It’s around 62 right now," Reeves said.

The two men were racing against the thermometer to preserve the contents of the 1,860-gallon stainless steel tank, which (they hope) will be bottled as Downright Pilsner.

"If we have to drop the tank, it’s about $20,000," Butcher said. "As a start-up business, every dollar in sales is critical. We don’t have any margin for error. This is a crisis situation."

So, Reeves said, "we’re getting a generator to save the beer."

As Washington struggled to power up in the wake of Friday night’s freak storm, some area businesses scrambled to protect their perishables and other heat-sensitive products.

Elliott Staren, owner of Wide World of Wines, heard from a customer who’d lost power and wanted to know whether he could bring in 30 bottles of wine before they were ruined by heat.

"Another guy called and said he had six cases," Staren said. "It’s just like how they tell you to look out for your neighbors, we’ll look out for your bottles."

Other tales from a newly unrefrigerated world weren’t reaching the Port City Brewing Co.

Butcher, the year-and-a-half-old brewery’s owner, was too busy worrying about 13,000 gallons of imperiled beer.

Already, he said, Port City had lost an estimated $15,000 in tasting-room business during the weekend.

The company was falling behind on bottling, too: 576 cases of Belgian-style ale were to have been bottled Monday morning, and more than a third were scheduled to go out on a distributor’s truck that same day.

The beer wasn’t ready during one of the most important sales periods of the year. "July 4 is a big, big beer holiday," Butcher sighed.

Adding to the anxiety: The brewery’s ale and lager yeasts were warm and getting warmer and could eventually spoil.

The Dominion Virginia Power guys already had come and gone, taking pictures of the downed lines but leaving without offering a service-restoration timetable.

The brewers were running a small generator outside the steamy warehouse in an industrial section of Alexandria - "it’s for the radio and our coffeemaker, and we’re charging cellphones," Butcher said - but the big find was a 75-kilowatt generator powerful enough to run Port City’s cooling system. Miraculously located, it arrived on a United Rentals Truck trailer from Manassas just before noon.

"This is a welcome sight - just awesome," Reeves said. "I hope it works."

If not?

"It will just commit suicide," Reeves said, explaining that at a certain temperature, the fermenting brew would become undrinkable. "It would taste like nail polish."

With extensive heat exposure, the beer in the other tanks - thousands of gallons of lager and ales and such - could eventually become stale or spoil, too.

He got in his car to fill up three 20-liter tanks with diesel fuel while everybody else waited for the electricians to show up.

A customer dropped by to return an empty keg. His review was rave: "Only three drops left," he told Butcher.

By mid-afternoon, the electricians had arrived to connect the generator.

Shortly after 5 p.m., they had it hooked it up to the cooling system.

Within minutes, temperatures in the tanks began to drop.

"Things are looking good," Butcher declared.

He’ll drink to that.

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Bonnie Benwick and Lena H. Sun contributed to this report.

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