John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
With 13,000 gallons of beer about to get skunked in a power outage, a Northern Virginia brewery found that it had many, many friends.
If you want to see a community come together at lightning speed, threaten its supply of beer.
This law of nature was on display recently in the wake of June 29's derecho, a line of obese thunderstorms that gunned over America with the power of Steve Austin throwing a clothesline from a motorcycle. When the 80 m.p.h. winds had finally departed, at least 22 people lay dead, power grids had sputtered and failed, and entire neighborhoods looked like they suffered a direct hit from bombs packed with broken branches and trampolines.
In Northern Virginia, Bill Butcher started the day by learning that his mom's car had been crushed by a fallen tree. After dealing with that mess, he headed in to his office at Port City Brewing, an industrial Alexandria microbrewery he founded in 2011 between a wrecking business and a sausage-making factory.
A quick scan confirmed his fears: Electric wires hung broken and the warehouse was dark. That was a problem, because inside he had six huge tanks of still-green beer fermenting in gentle stasis. With the glycol-based cooling system offline, the liquid was slowly heating up and would eventually hit the temperature where yeast (and happiness) dies.
It was, in effect, a ticking beerbomb.
“The beer would've committed suicide,” says Butcher. “If it got too hot, we would have to sewer all that beer.”
And that's when this story of imperiled alcohol took a liver-warming turn. With no power trucks in sight on July 2, Butcher put out the word on Twitter about the dire situation: “Still trying to save 13,000 gallons of beer. #savethebeer.” The news spread out in all directions like a tidal wave of porter, eliciting a virtual “NOOOOOOOOO!” from brewski lovers countrywide. Here are a few of the concerned tweets and Facebook comments from people biting their nails over the potential waste of booze:
- @amysample: Hey @DomVAPower. Help @PortCityBrew #savethebeer, and I'm sure they will give you a taste.
- Jay Sullivan: try really hard! My kegerator can help too.
- Jacob Melcher: You're doing God's work.
- @crashmaster007: I volunteer to drink all the beer before it goes bad. You know, for humanity & whatnot.
- Marc Armstead: I volunteer to ride a stationary bike hooked up to a generator if that would help.
- Stephanie Bardack: I'll take second shift after Marc.
“We had breweries as far away as Seattle send their well-wishes,” Butcher says. A Texas company even offered to mobilize refrigerated trailers to rescue the warming suds. “Seeing that type of support was very touching, very moving.”
Three chaotic days after the storm, Butcher and his friends had scrambled around enough to locate a portable generator. That cranked out enough juice to support the glycol system and a keg-cooling room, and the men spent the next few days ferrying 5-gallon cans of diesel between a nearby business and the hungry generator.
They also threw a "pint party" in Port City's revamped tasting room. It was the biggest such event in the company's history, in part thanks to fans who swarmed the business with nice, if not a little self-serving, offers of assistance. “There was one guy who said, 'I heard if I didn't get down here and drink this beer, you'd go out of business,'” Butcher recalls.
By the time the electricity came back on, almost a week later on July 5, the brewers had managed to salvage all of their young beer... except for one tank, which had overheated and no longer qualified as “lager.” So Butcher rechristened it “Derecho Common,” after a “common” or “steam” beer refined in San Francisco that ferments lager yeast at a temperature more suitable for ale.
“Derecho will be amber, dark for a lager,” he says. “The pilsner would've been light. This will have a fuller body with caramel and fruity notes.”
Bars that lived through the powerful tempest will serve the meteorological brew on draft in August; check Port City's website for locations. Butcher says he hasn't yet penned a slogan for the mutant tipple, but perhaps he'll go with one customer's suggestion, “The taste will blow you away.”
Epilogue: Putting a coda on the brewery's stormy week, on Monday Butcher posted an open letter of thanks on Tumblr. It reads, in part:
The willingness to step up and help a neighbor is what defines a community. We found in a very real way that D.C. Beer community is strong and supportive of each other, and we will always be grateful for this. We are truly honored and humbled by the response, and we’ll always remember the support that everyone has shown us.
Photo of beer tank and used grains outbound for farm animals by John Metcalfe. Downed-wire photo from Port City Brewing on Facebook.