Port City Brewing (Alexandria, VA): Monumental, Essential, Porter and Optimal

Before I came out here to San Antonio, I spent quite a few years living in Albuquerque, New Mexico and getting pretty deep in the local film scene there. I had the group of filmmakers that I worked with, ad then my own little group that worked on my films, and then there were quite a few other groups out there doing their own thing. We all knew, or at lease knew of, each other, and saw each other films at local festivals like the TromaDance New Mexico festival sponsored by Burning Paradise Video. One of the people I didn’t personally know, but I knew of, was Josh Center, who worked with filmmaker I did know, Chris Dillon, on his movie IN TROUBLE (review here). Well, time moves on, and I eventually made my way here to San Antonio for a job that I love. Mr. Center made his way to the East Coast, and eventually after working his way up, landed a job as a brewer at Port City brewing. I had the opportunity to visit the brewery on a recent trip to Washington D.C. (since they are located in the nearby suburb of Alexandria, VA), and finally got to meet someone I had know via reputation and internet acquaintance for years. Josh was kind enough to meet me on his day off and give me a tour, pour me a few beers (well, Tammy poured me some beers, Josh just enjoyed them with me), and share some time and some samples to take home and review.

Port City Brewing, Alexandria, VA
Port City Brewing, Alexandria, VA

About the Brewery (from portcitybrewing.com):
Port City Brewing Company is an award winning craft brewery located in metropolitan Washington, DC. Our state of the art artisanal brewery is located in the historic port city of Alexandria, Virginia. We are proud producers of an exciting line of hand made, great quality, locally crafted beers for the DC and Mid-Atlantic market. Our name is derived from Alexandria’s rich and colorful origins as an important colonial seaport, which later became a major brewing center, and was home to the largest brewery in the southern United States. Port City Brewing Company is proud to revive, celebrate, and continue this rich brewing tradition right outside of our Nation’s Capital.

Monumental

About the Beer (from portcitybrewing.com):
Monumental® IPA is a rich copper color, and is intensely hoppy. We add a special blend of American hops throughout the brewing and fermentation process to create a complex combination of aroma and flavor. This ale exhibits floral notes, flavors of citrus and resin, combined with delicious caramel background notes. Our IPA’s perfectly balanced style will keep the palate fresh and invite the drinker back into the glass. Monumental IPA won a Bronze Medal at the 2012 Great American Beer Festival, and a Gold Medal at the 2012 Virginia Craft Brewers Festival.

Style: American IPA
ABV: 6.3%
IBU: 57

Being the hophead that I am, when I pulled up to the bar to get a pint to walk around with, of course I had to grab one of these first. Just about every brewery makes an IPA these days (except for those breweries that are specifically avoiding them JUST to be different), and I find that this can be a good place to get an idea of a brewery’s skills. Sure, a brewery might be able to make an amazing lambic from passionfruit on a six-year-old base, and that’s awesome, but if they can’t make the classics it says a lot. This was a good start to the tour.

Monumental American IPA
Monumental American IPA

MONUMENTAL pours a burnished golden-copper in my glass, a deep orange that almost matches the color on the beer’s label. This is capped with a luminous, billowing white head that refuses to go away no matter how much I insist. Oh, let’s be honest, I’m ok with this stranger sticking around, and I’m definitely ok with the graffiti he leaves behind on the inside of my glass when he does finally take off. When the fumes emanating from my glass hit the receptors in my nostrils, my brain starts going off to Florida: I’m getting citrus, grapefruit in particular. This is backed up by a malt sweetness that smells like it’s going to be a good balance for that hoppy aroma. I understand from talking to Josh at the brewery that Port City has their own device, dubbed “The Hopzooka,” that hey have created in order to be able to dry-hop a beer without introducing any oxygen to it. While it does not specifically say it on their website, I have to assume that MONUMENTAL has had the Hopzooka happening, because the aroma on this beer is amazing.

Port City's 2013 GABF haul...
Port City’s 2013 GABF haul…

Taking some of the MONUMENTAL to my tongue, I get just what my nose was telling me to expect. The beer is assertively hoppy without being in danger of going overboard, heading a bit towards the bitter end of the spectrum but not a hop bomb in any way. There is a beautiful balance between the sweet malt backbone that I observed in the nose and the hops that I knew were going to be there. It is obvious just from looking at the stats on this beer that this is more of an aroma-hop IPA rather than a bittering-hop IPA, and that’s my preference. The malts bring a light caramel and a slight breadiness to the flavor as well, which also helps to work that balance even better.

The HOPZOOKA
The HOPZOOKA

MONUMENTAL is a bit thin, and on the zesty end with the body it brings. This is not a heavy or thick beer, and I would not expect it to be for the style. The carbonation is pretty light overall (after that initial head recedes), and this helps to not overwhelm the delicate flavors the beer is bringing. This is a very easily drinkable IPA overall, and will be one that both your friends that like IPAs will be able to see the beauty in, and would also be a good choice for introducing the uninitiated to the style. MONUTMETAL is a good balanced beer overall, that leans towards the aroma but has a harmony between the early and late additions.

Overall 7.5 / 10

Beer Page: http://www.portcitybrewing.com/beer/monumental-ipa/

Essential

About the Beer (from portcitybrewing.com):
Essential Pale Ale® is a deep golden color with hop aroma reminiscent of fresh fruit. The pleasing bitter taste from American hops is balanced with English and German malts, and offers a complex full flavored character that is smooth and refreshing. Essential Pale Ale earned a 93 point rating in Draft Magazine, May, 2013.

Style: Pale Ale
ABV: 5.5%
IBU: 35

ESSENTIAL is Port City’s pale ale, aka to many as IPA’s little brother. And it kind of can be, but a good pale ale can also be it’s own expression of love for hops in a different direction. Pale ale’s are usually a more aroma hop-forward beer, so a lot less of that bitter that many hopheads are looking for. This is evident when you look at the stats on this beer versus MONUMENTAL, as this is 35 IBU versus the IPA’s 57 (which is actually a bit low compared to many IPAs in this bigger better more society we live in these days). I went for this one second, as it was going to be my next favorite, style-wise, in the offerings Josh had for me that day.

Essential Pale Ale
Essential Pale Ale

ESSENTIAL plops down into my glass (that’s right, I’m using an IPA glass for my pale ale… what?) a brighter, more golden orange than its predecessor, and again somewhat matches its label art. ESSENTIAL has a top-hat of ivory, much like it’s more bitter big brother, and like MONUMENTAL before it, that head sticks around for an extended sojourn before finally taking off and leaving some defacement on the side of that aforementioned IPA glass. Again, much like its predecessor, ESSENTIAL is very much citrusy in the nose, which is interesting since Port City uses a completely different hop bill in the creation of this beer. Not to say that this is just a watered down version of MONUMENTAL, because it is very far from that; ESSENTIAL has its own personality and life brimming in between the bubbles, but it does lean towards Disneyworld in its aroma.

Beer is brewed to a lot of metal here at Port City...
Beer is brewed to a lot of metal here at Port City…

The sapidity brought by ESSENTIAL is crisp, piquant, and pungent. This pale ale is not pale in its flavor notes at all; it brings a mouthful of flavor with each sip that hits all of the parts of the tongue. It is a touch sweet, a bit bitter, but not overly so as again this is a pale ale not an IPA. ESSENTIAL brings a whole lot to the table with the notes on the tongue. In the mouth, the torso of this brew is smooth, thin, and not overly carbonated after that first hit of suds that tops the elixir in the beginning of the pour. This beer is not tough to put down, as long as you enjoy hops. If you are not one that likes the hoppy beers, this might be a one-bottle beer for you. If hops are your thing, this one goes down smooth as silk, as it is on the more bitter end of the pale ale spectrum.

Overall 7 / 10

Beer page: http://www.portcitybrewing.com/beer/essential-pale-ale/

Porter

About the Beer (from portcitybrewing.com):
One of our earliest noted brews, our robust Porter remains a flagship brew for Port City. This beer shows bittersweet flavors of coffee and dark chocolate, with a very complex malt character enhanced by yeast fruitiness. It pours ink black with a rich, long lasting brown lace in the head. Port City Porter has earned a 90 point rating on Beer Advocate, and was named “One of the 40 Essential Dishes Every Washingtonian must try” by The Washington Post!

Style: Robust Porter
ABV: 7.5%
IBU: 45

Porter is one of those styles that I have a hard time wrapping my head around. In general, I’m not much of a fan, and that’s not because I don’t like dark beers… I do. I enjoy my self a good stout, and the stouter the better; when I drink most porters they seem to come off as little more than a watered down stout and I think that’s my issue. If I’m going to go for a dark, thick, viscous beer, I want it to be really, well, dark, thick and viscous. Porters usually look similar to a stout from afar, but then when you drink them, it’s a much thinner, much lighter-bodied version of really what I am generally looking for in a dark beer, and I usually come away disappointed.

Porter
Porter Robust Porter

Port City’s PORTER does not suffer from this affliction. As a matter of fact, if you handed me this beer and didn’t say anything, I’d swear it’s a stout. Maybe it’s just that I’ve never really had a true “robust porter” before, but if all porters were like this PORTER, I’d like this style a lot more. PORTER slinks into my glass wearing a coat of deep chocolate-coffee brown that is just a tinge away from being black. Holding it up to the light, I get pretty much nothing through it, like I would expect from a good stout, not a porter! This coat has a taupe lapel, which is not too overwhelming or fluffy, but does stick around for an extended period and leaves impeccably lovely lacing behind on my glass. Seriously: it’s like a road map of where this beer has been before, every little turn and stop along the way on a journey to flavortown. I realize that’s really cheesy, but this beer brings it out in me. Taking a sniff of the essence the PORTER is expelling, I get roasted chocolate and just a hint of coffee, a great compliment to the color that the beer has draped itself in. The roast is strong, but not overly so, not to the point of any sort of burnt characteristics.

Port City's lineup (at that moment)
Port City’s lineup (at that moment)

Imbibing a swallow of this black juice, I get a nicely toasted component to the flavor overall, which is layered over that heavy chocolate and underpinned with jut a touch of coffee. If the coffee bitterness component were more present, I would swear to you this was a stout, but the fact that it is a bit more reserved lets me argue that this could be a porter. On the back of my swig I get a residual sweetness that compliments the chocolate flavors ever so nicely, and then a decent bitterness that is again less salient than in a stout, so I can start to surely see how this is not one. PORTER is smooth to the point of being somewhat velvety, not quite to the oily and thick that I would expect from a good stout, but much more substantial than that average porter that I expected and really was measuring this beer against; the body on this is just a bit less than a stout, and much more manly than your average porter, this is not a stout-lite. As far as drinkability goes, this one is amazing. For those of us that like dark beers, the only limiter is going to be that 7.5% ABV; this is no session beer. PORTER is easy to drink, and if I lived in the area, this would be my go-to, every week dark beer hands down. Could this be the best porter I’ve had? Well, I’m not much of a fan of porters, but good goddamn it just might be.

Overall 8 / 10

Beer page: http://www.portcitybrewing.com/beer/porter/

Optimal

About the Beer (from portcitybrewing.com):
Our Optimal® Wit is brewed in the Belgian Wit Bier tradition. It is brewed with raw wheat and oats, and steeped with coriander, orange peel and grains of paradise. This ale is a pale golden color with a bit of cloudy haze from natural yeast in the bottle. This unfiltered ale offers layers of complex, nuanced flavors that evolve in the glass. It finishes crisp and refreshes the palate. Optimal Wit won the Gold Medal at The 2013 Great American Beer Festival, recognized as the best example of the style in America!

Style: Belgian Wit
ABV: 5.0%
IBU: 15

Ok, so here we go again: wit is not one of my favorite styles. In general, I find it somewhat bland and pedestrian, which is kind of weird since the Belgians were the ones to take beer away from four ingredients and make it interesting. I do realize that wit is well know for having adjuncts, like coriander, orange peel, etc., that make it not your average beer, but it really is just kind of a style that I really don’t give much of a crap about. Just to be up front and honest. Now, on the other hand, I have to take this particular wit seriously since sitting in its presence I got to have a GABF Gold Medal in my hand. For the vast majority of people this means about nothing, but for beer nerds like myself, this is pretty damned amazing (thanks Josh!), and I have to give up some respect and reverence for that.

Optimal Wit
Optimal Wit

OPTIMAL pours a somewhat, but not overly, cloudy lemon-yellow with a resplendent alabaster head that lasts for a little while, and leaves a nice chronicle of its adventures behind. Taking a snort of what it has coming off the top, I get literally exactly what I would want to get from a wit: moderate sweetness, a nice grainy / bready backbone, with some spicy herbal notes that are not overpowering and a little fruitiness that is somewhat reminiscent of high school for me (I grew up in Germany drinking hefeweizens, so that banana and clove yeast is home). The yeast from a Belgian beer has its own distinct scent and flavor, but I still get a touch of that fruit that brings me back to graduation night, or at least the first half of it or so.

Port City was feeling festive!
Port City was feeling festive!

Nipping a bit of the OPTIMAL I get an alluring sweetness that is not saccharine in any way, and is not over the top but just sweet enough. There is some honey in that sweet thing’s trunk, and that is nice to bring to this party for sure. On the end of my sip, OPTIMAL finishes dry with just a touch of tartness, but nowhere near being a sour in any way, shape, or form. There is that spiciness that one would expect from a good wit, and this comes from the coriander, orange peel, and grains of paradise that are added to the liquor as the beer is created. These spices bring a nice earthiness, which is well counterbalanced by the fruity characteristics brought by the yeast employed in this brew (which is where I’m getting that touch of hefe banana, though this is definitely a Belgian wit not a German Hefeweizen).

The GABF Gold Medal I got to hold.  Oh, yeah, and Optimal won it too, I guess that's important.
The GABF Gold Medal I got to hold. Oh, yeah, and Optimal won it too, I guess that’s important.

OPTIMAL relies on a medium-built body to carry its flavors, and it does so with great precision. It is creamy, thick without being too thick, and not as highly carbonated as some wits I’ve had, which I do not fault this beer at all. The lighter carbonation OPTIMAL employs makes it a bit more refreshing and would make it more sessionable; this would be a great after-mowing-the-lawn or day-at-the-ballpark beer. OPTIMAL is truly what BLUE MOON is wishing, trying, and hoping it could one day aspire to maybe be… but will continue to fail to do so. I see why this is a medal winner. While I’m still not a fan of wits, if I was going to drink one, this would certainly be my first choice.

Overall 7 / 10

Beer page: http://www.portcitybrewing.com/beer/optimal-wit/

Brewery site: http://www.portcitybrewing.com/

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