Historic Beer Birthday: Robert Portner

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Today is the birthday of Robert Portner (March 20, 1837-May 28, 1906). He was born in Rahden, Westphalia, in what today is Germany. He emigrated to America when he was 16, in 1853. He worked at several professions before becoming a successful grocer in Washington, D.C. area, and then bought a brewery in Alexandria, naming it the Robert Portner Brewing Co., though it later traded under the name “Tivoli Brewery.” By the 1890s, it was the largest brewery in the south, but closed down because of prohibition in 1916. There were also branches in Roanoke, Virginia and Washington, D.C.

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Here’s a short biography from Find-a-Grave:

Beer brewer, inventor, and businessman in Alexandria, Virginia and Washington, D.C. His brewery was considered to be one of the largest in the south prior to Prohibition. He also invented two machines for his brewery, and later combined them to form an early form of air conditioning for his summer estate, Annaburg, in Manassas. He was survived by his wife Anna and ten of his thirteen children.

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And this is his obituary, from an unknown source:

MR. PORTNER DEAD

He Passes Away at Annaburg, his Beloved Country Home.

Mr. Robert Portner, a retired merchant and capitalist of Washington and Manassas died Monday after noon at 4:45 o’clock at “Annaburg,” his country home here. Mr. Portner had been in ill health for more than a year, and death came as the result of bronchial trouble.

He left his city home, 1410 Sixteenth street, Northwest, Sunday, May 20, for Manassas and was taken ill here the following Tuesday and died on the 28th inst.

Robert Portner was born March 20, 1837, at Rahden, Westphalia, Prussia. His military education was received in the Prussian school of Annaburg, Saxony. He came to this country in 1853 and held various clerical positions and was also engaged in the manufacture of tobacco, inventing a new cigarette paper. At the beginning of the war he moved to Washington to establish a wholesale grocery business but not finding the field a likely one he moved to Alexandria, Va., where he established a grocery business. Later he became the owner of a small brewery, and sold supplies to the sutlers of both armies. The brewery industry [?] until, in 1883, he incorporated the Robert Portner Brewing Company of Alexandria. The National Capital Brewing Company of Washington was later organized, and Mr. Portner became vice president.

Mr. Portner always took an active interest in the growth and development of Manassas and was a liberal contributor in all beneficent undertakings. The magnificent hotel here, The Prince William, is an illustration of his kind interest in the town and the people of this section.

The first successful machine for artificial refrigeration with direct ammonia expansion was invented by him in 1873. He was the founder of three building and loan associations in Alexandria, of the Alexandria ship yard, and of the German Banking Company of which he was president.

Among the other institutions in which he was interested are the National Bank of Washington, the American Security and Trust Company, the Riggs Fire Insurance Company, the Virginia Midland Railway, the National Bank of Manassas, Va., and the Capital Construction Company of Washington. In 1880-1881 he was president of the United States Brewers’ Association. He removed to Washington in 1881, and among his large holdings of real estate are the Portner flats, the first apartment house to be erected in that city.

Mr. Portner’s summer home, “Annaburg,” a part of which is in the corporation of Manassas, consists of an estate of 2,500 acres, formerly a celebrated battle ground for both armies. On this tract he had erected a castle similar to those found along the Rhine of his native country. He is survived by a wife and ten children , all of whom were at his bed side during his last hours. The children are as follows: Edward, Alvin, Paul, Oscar, Hermann, Etta, Anna, Elsa, Hildegard and Mrs. Alma Koehler.

The funeral was held privately at his home here at 3:30 o’clock, Wednesday and was conducted by the chaplain of Manasseh lodge, A. F. & A. M. Julius Koehler, a son in law of Mr. Portner, and five sons, Edward, Alvin, Paul, Oscar and Hermann, acted as pallbearers. His remains were laid to rest with masonic ceremonies in the cemetery, near town, where rest two of his children.

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In 1890, Portner, along with the combined efforts of some brewing partners, established the National Capital Brewery Company in D.C.:

The National Capital Brewery Company is a combination of the firms of Albert Carry, Robert Portner and the Robert Portner Brewing Company, the latter selling out the Washington branch of the business. The capital stock of the company is $500,000, all paid up. The company has been in operation since last November [1890], but has been supplying from its new brewery only since June. The officers of the company are as follows: Albert Carry, president; C. A. Strangmann, secretary and treasurer. Directors: Albert Carry, Robert Portner, John L. Vogt, John D. Bartlett, Charles Carry, C. A. Strangmann, Frank P.Madigan.

A brewery that turns out 100,000 barrels of first-class pure beer every year for local consumption solely is a big institution for any city, and yet Washington has recently had just such an addition made to its business enterprises in the National Capital Brewery. Organized by Washington men, officered by Washington men, and with every share of its stock owned here at home, it would seem to be a local enterprise first last and all the time.

This business is the result of the combination of two of the oldest and most successful breweries in this part of the country, and that the new firm will be even more successful is a foregone conclusion. People who have had occasion recently to traverse D street southeast have noticed a splendid new building on the south side of the street between 13th and 14th streets. This is the new home of the National Capital Brewing Company, and it is by long odds one of the most substantial and imposing buildings of the sort to be found anywhere. Although it has been completed hardly more than a month, it has about it already that well-kept appearance and air of bustling activity that always denote prosperity following upon enterprise.

This fine new building, standing as it does in a very desirable location for such a business, with almost an entire block of ground about it, is a five-story structure of brick with handsome stone trimmings and surrounded by a graceful cupola. It covers a plot of ground 94 by 136 feet, and owing to the unusual height of the several stories the building itself is quite as high as an ordinary seven or eight-story building. Attached to the main building are several roomy and substantial outbuildings, including an engine house, stable and cooperage shop, all pleasing in appearance and forming a handsome group.

To make a good pure quality of beer for local use so that it can be drawn from wood and not adulterated with any chemical whatsoever in order to make of it a “beer that keeps well,” this is the purpose of the National Capital Brewing Company. They do not make beer for shipment, and hence their beer is not treated with any salicylic acid or deleterious substances that are sometimes used with bottled beer to keep it clear and lively.

Pure beer is generally considered a healthful drink. The president of the National Capital Brewing Company told a STAR reporter that any person with a proper interest in the matter might take the keys of the entire establishment at any time, go through it thoroughly, and if he found anything at all used in the making of their beer that was not pure and wholesome the company would give him $1,000.

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Beer drawn from the wood is almost certain to be a purer and better quality of beer than the bottled. The National Capital Brewing Company does not bottle. It serves its customers fresh every day with beer that has reached its prime in the immense cooling rooms of the brewery. F. H. Finley & Son, the bottlers, however, have a contract with the company for 20,000 barrels a year of their pale extra beer, and this they bottle and serve to customers in Washington. They get their beer early every morning, as needed, so that people who buy the bottled variety of the National Capital Company’s beer are using beer that left the huge casks at the brewery that very day. J. F. Hermann & Son, Wm. H Brinkley and Jas. A Bailey also acts as agent for the company.

A STAR reporter, accompanied by Mr. Albert Carry, president of the brewing company, recently made a complete inspection of the buildings of the brewery, spending several hours seeing how beer is manufactured from the time it comes in in the form of malt and the raw materials until it leaves the building a clear, cool, foaming beverage inclosed in stout kegs and casks. How much beer there is that leaves the building may be judged when the statement is made that the company uses 10,000 kegs and barrels of all sizes simply in supplying the Washington trade. Nine huge wagons and thirty big horses are used steadily in carrying beer from the brewery to the consumers.

In truth this is no small business. But what strikes the visitor, be he a casual or an interested one, first and most forcibly of all is the absolute cleanliness and neatness that prevails everywhere. The walls and stairways, for the most part of stone and iron – for the building is fireproof throughout – and the floors are all of iron or concrete and immaculate. On all sides there is hot and cold running water, and indeed the wards of a hospital could scarcely be cleaner or more orderly than the various departments of this brewery. There are no secret chambers into which one may not go. Everything is open and above board, and the fact that the company has no objections to the beer consumer examining every branch of its manufacture is a pretty good sign that they know that everything is honest and fair.

As a proof of this the company intends giving a public tour Tuesday, July 28, from 8 to 8 p.m., when everything will be in running order and everybody is invited to visit the brewery and inspect it thoroughly from cellar to roof. A handsome luncheon, consisting of all the delicacies of the season, will be spread. Everything will be free, and the National Capital Brewing Company intend to prove that they are as liberal in their hospitality as they are enterprising in their business. It is needless to say that beer will be plentiful and none need to go to bed thirsty Tuesday night.

Connecting the main building with the engine house is a handsome arched gateway leading into the big court yard, where the wagons stand while they are being loaded. The entrance to the offices is through this gateway. The offices consist of a number of connecting rooms on the main floor in the northwest corner of the building. They are handsomely finished in oak, and are fitted with the most improved office furniture for the convenience of the officers of the company and the corps of bookkeepers and clerks required to transact such an immense volume of business. Opening from the main office and adjoining it is the ice machine room, containing an ice machine with a refrigerating capacity of fifty tons and an eighty-horse-power steam engine, used for grinding and mashing malt and for general hoisting purposes. The ice machine on that hot summer day was almost covered in with ice and snow, and in fact the temperature of the larger part of the brewery is kept down in the neighborhood of freezing point all the time. On the second floor is an immense refrigerating room, and separated from it by an iron door is a room for cleaning and automatically weighing malt, and arranged on the principle of a grain elevator is a store room for malt with a capacity of 20,000 tons. On the third floor is a great copper kettle holding 300 barrels of new boiling beer. The fourth floor is used for hot and cold water tanks and above is a tank for fire purposes. After boiling in the kettle for seven hours the beer is pumped up, strained and left to cool in a big tank under the roof, where a cool current of air blows constantly. To the rear and on the fourth floor is a big store room and a patent cooler. The beer from the tanks above runs down over coils and is cooled to 40 degrees. This and the rooms below are all 76×94 feet and feel like a cold day in midwinter. On the floor below is the fermenting room, and here the beer stays for two weeks in sixty-five tubs, each holding seventy barrels.

After the beer is through fermenting it is piped down below into huge vats, each of a 240-barrel capacity, and here it stays in the rest casks for three or four months, beer four months old being about the best. On the floor below a little new beer is added to give the necessary foam, and after being given about three weeks to clarify it is sent by air pressure into the filling room, where it is run into barrels and kegs ready to be loaded onto the wagons. In neighboring rooms a dozen men are busy all the time cleaning, washing and scouring the kegs so there is no chance for any impurities to mar the flavor of the Golden Eagle and the Capuciner beers.

A few years later, in 1893, he opened a branch of the Robert Portner Brewery in Roanoke, Virginia.

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And this thorough history is from Boundary Stones, WETA’s Local History Blog:

The history of brewing beer in the United States is a rich and storied one. Cities like St. Louis, Missouri and Milwaukee, Wisconsin resonate with most beer drinkers across the country as centers for American brewing. For Virginia residents, you might not realize how close Alexandria, Virginia came to being one of those brewing capitals. From the closing years of the Civil War until prohibition turned Virginia into a dry state, the Robert Portner Brewing Company was the leading brewery and distributor in the southeastern United States. Led by its visionary namesake, the Portner Brewing Company became the largest business in Alexandria and remains a fascinating tale of innovation.

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In 1853, Robert Portner immigrated to America from Westphalia, Prussia. A natural businessman from the start, Portner spent eight years in business ventures before opening a small grocery store in 1861 with his friend and fellow immigrant Frederick Recker. Within a year, Portner & Recker’s Grocery Store earned over $10,000 and became the largest grocery in Alexandria. At the time, Portner showed no signs of interest in starting a brewing company. Unfortunately, it would take the violence of the Civil War to bring him into his famous business.

With the quartering of Union troops in Alexandria during the course of the war, demands for alcohol grew. Portner recognized this trend, gathering three other investors to design plans around their own small brewery. This business venture came at an advantageous time for Portner. In 1862, sales of alcohol were banned in Alexandria by the military governor of the city, mainly due to the public drunkenness and general sloppiness of the Union troops stationed there. Portner mentions some of the conditions in his memoirs:

“Soldiers who had consumed their quota of drink tumbled onto the streets and into the hands of guards, who marched them to the slave pen. On February 3, more than 125 men were arrested. The following night, 100 other rowdies sobered behind bars. Authorities policed the city as best they could by putting prostrated men in wheelbarrows and pushing them over rutted streets…”
Though businesses who sold hard liquors suffered under these new regulations, the beer industry thrived, as beer was thought to be less intoxicating and generally harmless to consume.

Another factor that contributed to the rise of beer consumption was the growing popularity of lager beer. Lagers were native to Germany and Austria before being brought to the United States with the wave of German immigrants in the nineteenth-century. Lagers were lighter and more refreshing than American ales, making them a natural fit for the hot and humid summer months. Unfortunately, the yeast used to make lagers requires cooler temperatures, limiting the brewing of lagers to the cooler months of the year.

As sales continued to grow, Portner sold his share in his grocery business and bought out the shares of his three brewing investors, becoming the sole owner of the newly named Robert Portner Brewing Company in 1865—it could not have been a worse time.

By the summer of 1865, the Civil War was over and federal troops began evacuating Alexandria. Suddenly, demand for alcoholic beverages within the city plummeted. Portner’s factory was now filled with barrels of unsold beer and thousands of dollars of raw materials waiting to be used. To make matters worse, Portner’s brew master left the company to pursue his own business ventures. While Portner was a successful businessman, he knew very little about the brewing process in these early years. Determined to never be beholden to a brew master again, Portner taught himself as much as he could about the brewing process. He gained insight into brewing theory from Carl Wolters, who Portner would soon hire as his new brew master. The two men would spend ten to twelve hours a day for months testing and experimenting in order to produce the perfect lager beer.

To aid in this process, Portner created what would become the first practical artificial cooling and ice-making machines in July of 1880. Prior to this, natural ice and cooling cellars were the only way to provide refrigeration on a large scale. Portner’s cooling device worked by direct ammonia expansion, where a solution of liquefied ammonia and water ran through pipes along walls and ceilings. As this solution rapidly changed into gas it drew heat and moisture from the surrounding air, cooling it. Smaller-scale cooling and ice-making machines existed prior to Portner’s, but his contributions worked on a large scale and were heralded as the first practical designs by trade magazines. His designs would later contribute to modern day air-conditioning technology. With Portner’s innovation, the brewing and transport of lager beer no longer remained limited to the cooler months—it now became a year-long process. So while cooling off indoors during the hot and humid summers of the Washington area with a cool glass or bottle of lager, tip your hat to the memory of Robert Portner.

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Together, Portner and Wolters would test and reformulate different brews for taste and consistency. Their experiments with lager beers paid off with two of Portner’s most famous blends, the Tivoli Hofbrau and Tivoli Cabinet (Tivoli being “I Lov It” spelled backwards). Within ten years, Portner Brewing Company’s sales tripled. With a majority of demand coming from southern states, Portner opened branch offices and bottling plants throughout Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. Beers shipped in refrigerated train cars with ice created from the Alexandria plant’s thirty-ton capacity ice maker, reaching great distances without spoilage. Soon nearly every restaurant and hotel across the South and the Mid-Atlantic served Robert Portner beers in their establishments. In 1890, plans were underway to build a new brewery and distribution center in Washington, D.C., at the southeast corner of Thirteenth Street and Maryland Avenue southwest. The Robert Portner Brewing Company was on its way to becoming one of the nation’s leading beer distributors.

All good things eventually come to an end, and the Robert Portner Brewing Company faced two big challenges in the early twentieth-century that it couldn’t recover from: the growing movement of prohibition in Virginia and the death of Robert Portner in 1906. Prohibition movements were strong in Virginia in the years following the Civil War, with local churches and numerous “temperance” conventions denouncing peddlers of alcohol. Early movements called for the enforcement of “Sunday laws” to prevent the sale of alcohol on the Sabbath. Statewide efforts to license and regulate saloons began springing up in the early twentieth century, causing high prices on alcohol and large licensing fees barring entry to prospective distributors and saloon owners.

With the death of Robert Portner in 1906, the weight of external pressures began to mount on the company. To combat the negative campaigns against alcohol and alcohol distributors, Robert Portner Brewing, along with many other brewers, began extolling the good qualities of their beer. Portner beers were “the best of tonics” and recommended “by physicians to all sufferers from nervous and weakening ailments.” It was claimed that the contents of one bottle of Tivoli Hofbrau would “frequently produce the most refreshing sleep, even in severe cases of insomnia.” Portner Brewing also began experimenting with non-alcoholic beverages or “near beers” and opening soda-only distribution lines in Virginia.

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The movement towards prohibition couldn’t be stopped, and a petition drive called for a statewide referendum on the banning of alcoholic beverages. Held on September 22nd, 1914, the referendum passed by nearly 35,000 votes. With this, Virginia would become a dry state on November 1st, 1916. With nowhere left to turn, the Robert Portner Brewing Company ended their production of alcoholic beverages and converted their warehouse space over to a wholesale feed business, handling stock for dairy and poultry feed. Though there was talk of a Robert Portner Brewing revival when the prohibition of alcohol sales ended in 1933, nothing came of it. The two main brewing houses in Alexandria and Washington were demolished and the Robert Portner Corporation dissolved in 1936.

A century after its doors closed in 1916, the Portner beer legacy in Alexandria may yet return. Robert Portner’s great-great grandchildren Catherine and Margaret Portner look to revive their namesake’s vision when they open the Portner Brewhouse in the Van Dorn neighborhood of Alexandria in the summer of 2016. Not only serving as a brewery and restaurant, the Portner sisters look to create a testing kitchen for aspiring brewers, allowing them to “work on a recipe, see it sold and collect feedback and sales data on their own creation.” Much like how Robert Portner and Carl Wolters labored over their creations, the Portner sisters are offering that same opportunity to hopeful brewers. With this revival, Alexandria and the surrounding area will be able to relive the legacy of Robert Portner and Alexandria’s history as a pre-prohibition brewing capital.

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More recently, Robert Portner’s great-granddaughter, Catherine Porter, along with two siblings, has opened a new brewery with the family name, the Portner Brewhouse, a modern brewpub in Alexandria, Virginia. Before opening, graduate business education website Poets & Quants featured her in My Story: From A Brewing Legacy to A Babson MBA:

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.

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 Kitchen (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.

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