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With craft brewing boom, D.C.'s beer scene returns to its regional roots

Thursday - 3/13/2014, 4:14pm  ET

We're taking a look at Greater Washington's beer industry in our print edition this week, focusing on the many local breweries and brewpubs that have sprung up in recent years. (Stay tuned for more bubbly beer content Friday.)

Arlington-based author Garrett Peck, whose book "Capital Beer" was released this month, has been looking into the earlier wave of D.C.'s breweries, which in the Civil War era numbered around two dozen.

The one thing that today's beer businesses have in common with the District's brewers of old? A regional focus.

The heyday of Washington brewing was probably in the 1850s and 1860s, when tons of breweries sprung up to produce lager for the many Union soldiers stationed around the city. Eventually, the smaller, family-owned breweries closed, leaving about six huge breweries serving the region.


Click through the gallery at right for historical photos of the region's breweries.


Those breweries were well known and respected businesses, according to Peck. Their founders also owned real estate, started banks and operated rail networks. Robert Portner, whose brewing company sat where Trader Joe's is now located on Washington Street in Alexandria, distributed his beer by rail throughout the south.

The largest Washington brewer, and the only one that survived Prohibition, was the Christian Heurich Brewing Co. (Heurich sold ice during the 1920s to keep his business solvent.) Booze may have been able to flow freely, but that didn't mean all was well for the brewer. One side effect of "The Noble Experiment" was the strengthening of huge, national beer companies.

"By the 1930s, there had emerged a national media market for advertising, so the ones who best competed in that were the national brewers, rather than the regional brewers like Heurich," Peck said. "The smaller brewers couldn't compete, and the national beer market really consolidated in the years after Prohibition."

Christian Heurich closed his massive brewery — which sat on the Potomac River at the spot where the Kennedy Center is now — in 1956, and it wasn't until 2011, when D.C. Brau opened, that the city had another production brewery.

And what didn't work for Heurich — selling beer primarily regionally — is actually a much more viable business model today. The local food and beverage movement, along with a strong local loyalty among craft beer drinkers, makes for a robust regional craft beer scene.

D.C. Brau expects to distribute as far away as Connecticut, co-founder Brandon Skall told me. The significant resources necessary for distribution prevent the brewer from thinking bigger.

"At any given time, we'll have 300 to 400 kegs out in the marketplace. So add another market, and now I need to have a pool of 500 kegs, which is a huge amount of money," he said. "And it gets harder the farther away you get."

Bill Butcher of Port City Brewing Co. in Alexandria pointed out that keeping distribution closer to home helps ensure that everyone's getting the freshest and best-tasting beer possible.

"We don't have to travel very far to sell all the beer we plan to make," Butcher said.

Both D.C. Brau and Port City have a ways to go before they catch up to Heurich's capacity. At approximately 15,000 barrels per year each, they're making just a fraction of the 500,000 barrels per year Heurich was making at his peak. 

© 2014 American City Business Journals, Inc.

Tags: beerbreweries