A Bostonian’s Path Less Traveled: NoVa Brewtopia (Part III – Port City)

Having whetted our malt beverage appetites at Lost Rhino Brewing Company and Mad Fox Brewing Company, our grad school gaggle found Port City Brewing Company, in my one-time home of Alexandria, VA, to be hopping. The Brewery’s name commemorates Alexandria’s historical role as an important colonial seaport, and later brewing hub, once home to the Robert Portner Brewing Company. Founded in 1866, the Portner Brewery was the largest brewery in the southern U.S. up until Prohibition. Port City achieved recent fame with its release and re-release of Derecho Common beer, an accidental but fortuitous result of the 2012 Derecho storm that knocked out power to most of the DC area.


When we arrived, groups of beer drinkers lined the Port City tasting room, and spilled into the picnic tables in the brewing warehouse. A few of us ambitiously arranged for a full tasting of beers on tap. Starting again on the light side, I breezed through the crisp, easy-drinking Downright Bohemian Pilsner and moved right on to the Essential Pale Ale. An American Pale Ale made from American hops and English and German malts, it offered a fruity, slightly bitter taste and finished smoothly. The Monumental IPA, named for, yes, D.C.’s many monuments, poured a bright amber color from the tap. The brewers add American hops during the brewing and fermentation processes, so the floral, bitter hop taste – reminiscent of orange peel – hit pretty hard, and it was only somewhat balanced by some background caramel malty notes.


My favorites were the Tartan and the Oyster Stout. The Tartan is a tribute to the 80-shilling style beer of Scotland in the 1800s. Looking very much its part as a Scottish beer, the Tartan was deep amber in color and featured a rich roast caramel flavor, with very little hop bitterness. Port City produced only a 90 barrel batch of the Tartan as its spring seasonal. The Revival Stout, brewed in the British and Irish traditions of oyster stouts, does indeed call for oysters in its recipe. Port City steeps War Shore Oyster Company’s Chesapeake Bay oyster shells in the brewing water, and also adds oysters into the brew during the boil. I didn’t taste much of the sea in the brew, but it did have a slightly salty, very smooth character, with notes of roast and chocolate. Five percent of the sales of Revival Stout are donated to the Oyster Recovery Partnership’s efforts to revive the oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay.


Our three brewery NoVA tour complete, we clamored back into the minivan for our last stop: dinner at the Bier Baron Tavern near Dupont Circle in D.C. Now filled with beer and getting hungry, all that was left to do was turn the minivan music up, dance in the confines of our seat belts, and plot which of 500 beers we were about to enjoy with dinner.

A Bostonian’s Path Less Traveled: NoVa Brewtopia (Part II – Mad Fox)

With one brewery under our belts, the grad school gaggle strode confidently from our minivan into the Mad Fox Brewing Company in Falls Church, VA. The Mad Fox styles itself as a Euro gastro brewpub, and like the Lost Rhino, sources its food from local farms and butchers, as well as the Falls Church Farmer’s Market. Its beers, which span German, English, Belgian and American traditions, are all brewed on-site. When you enter the establishment, you immediately encounter 15-barrel stainless steel serving tanks, standing more than ten feet tall behind the host stand.

Our group took over a hightop table near the bar and decided that the best strategy to take advantage of the extensive array of beer offerings was to order three 4-beer samplers. Since our samplers arrived so thoughtfully arranged from light to dark, and since we were no longer taking the path less traveled at Lost Rhino, I made the executive decision to taste in traditional fashion, beginning with beers we could see through and ending with the darker, more mysterious, brooding concoctions. I read out descriptions from the very detailed Mad Fox beverage menu and passed around the glasses.


One of the first tastes at the light end was a Mad Fox signature beer, the German style Kölsch. The Kölsch incorporates German noble Hersbrucker hops, which add piney notes to the flavor, with German malts to balance out the subtle hop bitterness. The Kölsch yeast keeps the beer crisp and light. Further down the row of glasses stood Lindy’s Weiss, a Bavarian Style Hefeweizen, heavy on the German malts and light on the hops. A very traditional Hefeweizen, the taster is treated to heavy flavors of bananas produced by the yeast that ferments the beer. Closing in on the mid-point of the sampler beckoned the Broad Street IPA (weighing in at 7.3% ABV), a single hop IPA, brewed with Centennial Hops and then also dry-hopped with almost 50 pounds of Centennial Hops, producing an herbal and citrus aroma that is transformed into hoppy bitterness upon taste.

After 7 tastes, I was amazed that the group still paid attention, or pretended to pay attention, to the very helpful descriptions I was reading from the menu. The scientific method in our hearts, we plodded on. My favorite turned out to be the Leonidas – Batch 300 Ale. English and German malts provided a sufficiently solid malt backbone to balance out the kettle additions of 100% Citra hops and the dry hopping with more Citra and other Simcoe-type hops. The citrus of the hops and sweet smoothness of the malt, with a slight alcohol finish, resulted in my ordering an entire glass of it once the sampling was finished. (DC-ers: I just read that the rest of the batch was barrel aged and released in June, so get to Mad Fox and drink some for me!)


Last in the tasting was a porter and an imperial stout, both very good. Big Chimney’s Porter, an English-style robust Porter, is brewed with English malts that create a dark color with reddish highlights, in addition to the roast and chocolate flavors. English hops add just a touch of bitterness. The Crazy Ivan Russian Imperial Stout is also brewed with English malts, along with roasted barley and flaked oats, but incorporates heavier hopping than its porter cousin. The result was a very big, complex, flavorful stout.


Our sampling complete, urbanites, suburbanites, PhDs, neuroscientists and social scientists alike chose their favorite beers to finish off. At some point, a visionary had the presence of mind to order a pretzel and delicious frickles from the food menu to line our stomachs for the last brewery of the day, Port City Brewery. Before I knew it, I was sandwiched in that back middle seat again headed toward my high school stomping grounds of Alexandria, VA. Somewhat subdued by the latest round of beers and food, the natives in the back of the minivan felt sufficiently satisfied to sway with traffic, catch air on the worst bumps in the road, and jeer quietly about “mom’s” driving. (to be continued…)

A Bostonian’s Path Less Traveled: NoVa Brewtopia (Part 1 – Lost Rhino)

It wasn’t our original plan, but the 7 of us ended up renting a 7-seat minivan for our NoVa (that’s Northern Virginia, for you New Englanders) beer tour. And it wasn’t my original plan, but I sat in the middle of the 3-seat back row the entire trip. What did we have in common? Attending some sort of graduate school, and beer. Anyone who has survived grad school will advise focusing on the beer. To avoid my own education-induced version of PTSD, (yet again) I will do just that.

First, the suburbanites abandoned the safe confines of Silver Spring (home of the FDA) to lure those in DC (home of the Michael Jackson house) from their urban utopia. The minivan now complete, I sat sandwiched between two PhDs on my way to the Lost Rhino in Ashburn, VA. It was a mellow, temperate Saturday morning in Virginia, and we kids in the back required little regulation from “mom and dad” (actually, newlyweds) up front.


After my own heart, the brewers at Lost Rhino believe in “inspiring excursions” and “taking the path less traveled” (“it’s a tasty one”). Creations including Holy Brew Brown, Helles and Back, and Final Glide Hefeweizen suggest just what sort of life experiences motivate these brewers. The tour guide certainly took the path less traveled, tracing the history of beer all the way back to Mesopotamia, delving deep into the science of gravity, and (cue spacey-sounding music) expounding on the many possible, and not at all possible, origins of the name Lost Rhino.

nova_1_2 nova_1_3

Our scientists’ brains full, but our glasses empty, the minivan contingent grew restless. My Pretty in Pink – a brisk pomegranate saison, with notes of hibiscus, spice, and a slight sour funk, created by four women from four breweries in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness month – had disappeared around Mesopotamia, so I eagerly plotted my tasting strategy while the tour guide explained the final steps of bottling.

At long last, we retired to the tasting room, for lunch and for the implementation of my carefully planned tasting strategy. The food menu complementing this casual, family-friendly space features fresh ingredients from local vendors, from artisanal cheeses to potato chips to sausages, providing endless pairing opportunities with the brewery’s beverages. Ever focusing on the beer, my tasting strategy began where most finish (on the dark, heavy end) with the Woody Stout, offering an aroma of spicy chocolate and coffee, balancing the caramel and vanilla flavors created by aging in Bourbon oak barrels. Hints of molasses and brown sugar added complexity. It was not the biggest, fullest stout I’ve ever tasted, but would likely be a good introduction to the style for lighter beer drinkers.


Next, I watched as smooth, hazy It’s Not My Falt Altbier flowed from the tap to my glass. The nose hit with sweet, roasted malt, and caramel notes, and it tasted of chocolate, with a light, spicy finish. It was around the time I ordered my next beer, Holy Brew Honey Blonde, that my tasting strategy succumbed to the temptations of group tasting: sharing. My Blonde was light with hints of honey wheat; the Faceplant IPA, an unfiltered amber ale dominated by Cascade and Centennial hop flavors, offered a floral nose but resisted the classic bitter IPA finish despite multiple hop additions during the brewing process; the New River Pale Ale featured a balance of sweet and bitter flavors, with two types of malts and 4 types of hops, hitting the tongue with pine, citrus and fruit flavors.

A group favorite was the Holy Brew Brown, a sweet brown ale brewed with Pilsner and Caramel malts and Candi Sugar, a traditional Belgian brewing ingredient used to increase alcohol content without adding extra body to the beer. This Brown was malty with a touch of spice, and quite effervescent and crisp for a dark beer. Dried-fruity notes gave way to a slightly alcohol finish.


Now fortified and quite familiar with the Lost Rhino tasting menu, we crammed back into our minivan chariot. The animal behaviorist PhD having escaped to the middle row, I now sat between two social scientists. Mysteriously, the atmosphere of the minivan shifted as its occupants became more boisterous. “Mom and dad” began to yell at us from the front seats (“stop kicking each other!”), but nonetheless got dragged into our heated argument over the merits of the survival of pandas as a species, given their lackadaisical attitudes toward sex (and general ineptness at it). Throughout the lively discussion, mom faithfully kept the minivan pointed toward Falls Church, VA, home of Mad Fox Brewing Company… (to be continued)

La verità è nella biera

The Tuscan sun has surrendered to a warm July evening, and you are strolling down a pleasant road in Ponte a Moriano with a merry band of 14 fellow Villa dwellers. You are all merry because you have identified the sole craft brewery within kilometers, and it happens to be a mere 3 km from your Villa. The blue dot (you) is steadily closing in on the red dot (brewery) on your GoogleMap App. All is well in the world.

You are so content that you actually bump into the lead stroller when he halts, quite abruptly. It appears that Google Maps did not reveal the minor detail that the last .6 km of the trip is a highway. The merry band reconsiders, retreats, but then retrenches. The highway is a terrifying Italian one with little Fiats and Renaults, accompanied by rather large freight trucks, zipping by at alarming speeds, mercilessly honking at 15 (haphazardly) merry beer seekers. But soon, the blue dot is on top of the red dot and you are in what you have come to imagine as Shangri-La: Bruton Brewery.


The brewery is named for the beer that the Minoans on Crete would offer to the minotaur that was locked within the labyrinth of the Palace of Knossos. Its ales are unfiltered and unpasteurized, and the brewers incorporate a re-fermentation process once the brew is bottled to increase the complexity and the longevity of the beer. Upon entering the brewery, you can see the sparkling kegs and keglines that are serving the taps upstairs through a small window, and the fermenters are proudly displayed through a larger window.

bruton2 Bruton's kegs and keglines

Out back there is a lovely oasis of a beer garden and a full menu to accompany your beer tasting.

Safe arrival and beer at Brewery Bruton

Bruton Brewery offers a wheat beer (Bianca), a blonde ale (Bruton di Bruton), a strong golden ale (Stoner), a bitter (interestingly, Lilith), a dubbel (Momus), a barley wine (10), and a Christmas seasonal (St. Renna). My favorite was (interestingly) the bitter, inspired by the classic American pale ale. It incorporates Cascade hops that create a citrus taste, but the beer is balanced by caramel flavors and bitter notes at the end. The strong golden ale was tasty as well, with a nose of apricot and dried fruit. The flavor combines hops, honey, and malts, along with the higher alcohol finish.

After a long meal and many pitchers of beer, it is time for the merry band to return to the Villa. The highway is now darker and more terrifying, but the group, now fortified and (for better or worse) encouraged, is ready to meet it. Fast time is made on this Italian night, and you marvel as your head hits the pillow at your luck – at finding great beer in this Tuscan countryside, and at dodging certain death as a pedestrian on a dark Italian highway.

To watch a YouTube video of the head brewer talking about the brewery, whose mom kindly drove certain merry Villa dwellers from the Pisa airport to town, please click here.