The Punk Rock Roots of Port City Porter

Port City Porter has become a Beltway mainstay while racking up medals over the years. It's a recipe with roots in the 1990s, amid punk-rock shows, the homebrewing boom, and the brewpub bubble. Joe Stange hears the tale from Brewmaster Jonathan Reeves.

Joe Stange May 16, 2020 - 9 min read

The Punk Rock Roots of Port City Porter Primary Image

Porter is nearly gone, but it’s not forgotten. This is the story of Johnny Rotten… or at least, it begins with him.

“One of the things that really made Guinness cool to me was going to see Public Image Limited with English singer, songwriter, and musician Johnny Lydon,” says Jonathan Reeves. He would watch as Lydon—aka Johnny Rotten—would guzzle stout after stout on stage. “And the whole time, I don’t know how many Guinness Stouts he drank. He would drink it out of the bottle—not the draft stuff. This was before nitro. And I mean, Johnny Lydon was just slamming them back. So I was like, ‘Man, this is my beer.’”

Reeves—now brewmaster at Port City in Alexandria, Virginia—has always liked beer. His dad would drink one or two a night, sometimes giving his boy a sip or two. One of his earliest memories is swiping a paper cup full of Bud from a keg at a picnic when he was about six years old. “But it wasn’t until I tried Guinness that I really was like, ‘Wow, you know, this is how beer can be completely different.’ I started drinking when I was 18 because I’m old. And my mother got me a case of Guinness for my 18th birthday. It just was my original connection.”

“So, I’ve always liked stouts. And Porter is kind of my rendition.”

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The Porter has been a Port City flagship since it opened in 2011. The brewery is a perennial medal winner at the Great American Beer Festival, most recently taking home gold in 2019 for its German Pilsner. Meanwhile the Porter—robust at 7.2 percent strength, full-bodied, nimbly walking its tightropes between coffee and chocolate, roast and caramel, rich and quaffable—has won silvers at both GABF and the World Beer Cup. It’s one of the beers that made Port City the GABF Small Brewery of the Year in 2015.

It started in the mid-1990s as a homebrew recipe. “It kind of reminds me of back when I first started brewing,” Reeves says. “I was like, ‘Well, if I put in more malts, it's going be a better beer, right?’ I think it has seven types of malt in it. But now, my recipes tend to be a lot more stripped out. I definitely have a different philosophy than I used to.”

Before that, there were trials. And there were errors.

“So I started brewing porters with extract,” Reeves says. “And then we tried to brew a stout from whole grain. I think it was maybe the second or third batch, I brewed whole grain with a friend. I was homebrewing with this guy who I worked with. I didn’t really know him before that, but I thought if he was a homebrewer, we ought to be friends. We brewed a stout, and we put way too much—I think we put like 25 percent roasted malt in it. And it was just awful. Really, really awful.”

That was in the early 1990s. Reeves remembers those early homebrewing days fondly. There was no Internet full of forums and recipes, but you found your networks just the same. “I think there were more homebrewers back then than there are now,” he says. “I think there are a lot fewer homebrewers now because you can actually get decent beer at the store.”

By 1995, Reeves was brewing at the legendary Bardo Rodeo brewpub in Arlington, Virginia—a D.C.-area institution where many professional brewers got their start. That was the year of his first GABF gold, for a ginger beer he brewed at Bardo. Meanwhile, at home he would try out recipes on a kit he built from old kegs. That was where his porter recipe was born.

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Reeves then got a job brewing on Sanibel Island, Florida, and he took the porter recipe with him—along with a pale ale and a golden ale. Those three recipes became the Sanibel Brew Pub’s flagships, except that the porter had to put on a disguise. “The owner was like, ‘We've already got the artwork; it’s going to be a stout. So, can you make it a stout?’ So, I took the recipe, and I made it a little lighter. I reduced the gravity on it, and I added roasted barley to it. Poof! It was a stout.”

The Sanibel Brew Pub had barely been open six months when Reeves called the owners with news from Denver. They had just won two medals at GABF: bronze for the pale ale and gold for that Hammerhead Stout.

In the years before Port City opened, Reeves worked at other breweries, including in Virginia for Atlanta-based Sweetwater, but didn’t often get to formulate his own recipes. Later, while working at the Ruddy Duck brewpub in Maryland, he got to revive his recipes, make new ones, and dial them all in. The porter was still with him, always in his head. “I kind of used Ruddy Duck as a platform, as my pilot system, to formulate the recipes for Port City,” Reeves says. “And I brought this recipe back, pretty much.”

Reeves says that he has never been a meticulous record-keeper, carrying exact recipes with him from brewery to brewery—and at times, noncompete clauses would make that impossible anyway. But he clearly has a good memory for ingredients and flavors; he knows how he wants his beers to taste and how to get them there. He views the Port City Porter as a direct descendent of these other beers—a child of the 1990s.

There are minor differences, partly based on ingredient availability. In the early days, Reeves enjoyed using the Belgian specialty malts from DeWolf-Cosyns. That company went out of business almost 20 years ago, with Dingemans taking over its specialty varieties.

Something today’s Porter has in common with the one from 25 years ago: a preference for black malt over chocolate. “I use a lot of black patents,” Reeves says. “There’s like three or four times as much black patent as there is chocolate. I just like the bitter taste of it better. I think it’s more like a bitter chocolate taste. More bitter, less roasty, I guess.”

Besides a big pilsner base, the Porter gets sizeable splashes of aromatic and black malts; a combination of Caramalt, melanoidin, and brown malts that fill out the beer’s sweetness and body, giving it roundness and depth; plus that dab of chocolate for a final flavor touch.

Reeves says that the Porter is Port City’s third-best seller, behind the Optimal Wit and Monumental IPA. However, in Maryland it ranks No. 2. Reeves muses that the state has a liking for, and a history of, stout and porter. An early beer influence on him was the Blue Ridge Porter, made by Frederick Brewing in the early and mid-1990s, before that brewery closed and made way for Wild Goose, which became Flying Dog. Maryland is also where Guinness chose to put its Open Gate Brewery in 2017.

When people come to the Port City taproom in Alexandria and ask about the Porter, one word that they are likely to hear is “balanced.” It has a striking appearance, sturdy brown foam, and an easy appeal to those who may not be in the mood for an IPA—not to mention a sneaky strength. “People like it,” Reeves says. “I mean, we have people on our staff, that’s all they drink.

Photo: Courtesy Port City Brewing

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