The year was 1853 when Robert Portner emigrated from Germany and settled in New York City. At 16 years of age, he began obtaining first-hand business experience; working his way the economic ladder from a grocery clerk to a bookkeeper in a Brooklyn factory. As time went on, Portner relocated to Alexandria, Virginia to open a grocery store of his own.
The grocery business was good, yet it did not take long for him to realize there was a more lucrative market on tap: beer. Although his business success pre-dates the first graduate business program—disallowing him the opportunity to complete an MBA degree—Portner proceeded to build the largest brewery in the South, The Robert Portner Brewing Company.
With the passage of Prohibition, Portner’s rein as king of the Southern beer industry came to an end. Now, almost a century later, his great-great granddaughter, Catherine Portner, seeks to follow in his footsteps. Catherine is a 2012 MBA candidate at Babson College, reigniting her family’s legacy by opening a brewery restaurant of her own.
Even though I never met my great-great grandfather, his legacy is alive in our family and his success well-documented. As a grocery store owner in Alexandria, Virginia, he provided provisions to the Union troops during the Civil War. Beer and other alcoholic beverages were profitable and in great demand by the soldiers and local citizens since lack of transport, restrictions, and guards at the Potomac River crossings made these commodities hard to come by.
Robert Portner paid close attention to what his customers wanted and seized the opportunity to open his first brewery. It was not long before he left the grocery business and focused all of his energy on expanding the brewery operations, creating outposts that stretched from Virginia to Florida.
Like a true entrepreneur, he was also an innovator. The beer needed to stay cold, so my great-great grandfather invented a way to keep it at the right temperature during shipping and transport. He devised a unique system of refrigerated rail cars which became an early prototype for air conditioning, something unheard-of at the time.
Honoring the Legacy
My great-great grandfather’s business was based entirely on the production and sale of beer. Together with two of my siblings, I hope to duplicate his success, but with a modern twist: a brewery restaurant set to open by early 2014. At Portner Brewhouse, we will brew original recipes from The Robert Portner Brewing Company with a few small adjustments for today’s palette. In addition to the old favorites, we will brew five other beers including house seasonal recipes and recipes from our Craft Beer Test KitchenTM (CBTK).
The CBTK provides brewers at all stages the opportunity to rapid-prototype beer recipes in a live test market. The recipes will be brewed and served at Portner Brewhouse, then our staff will collect feedback and sales data from the brewpub patrons and provide the data back to the brewer. Just as Robert Portner was able to achieve the “American Dream,” we hope that we can assist others in the industry with similar aspirations.
The restaurant’s food and décor will contain a mix of American and German influences plus Robert Portner Brewing Company artifacts such as bottles, cork screws, and advertisements that ran in local newspapers.