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History, Tradition, and the Business of Beer

By John Crawford

Catherine Portner

Catherine Portner, MBA ’12 Photograph by Webb Chappell

Beer was good for Robert Portner. A German immigrant who became an American citizen in time to vote for Abraham Lincoln, he opened his Alexandria, Va., brewery in 1869, and it ultimately became the biggest in the South. To keep his beer cold for shipping, he helped develop an early prototype of air conditioning, and his business holdings eventually extended well beyond beer to include an ice plant, shipyard, bank, construction company, and grocery stores.

Then something got in the way: Prohibition. Virginia outlawed booze in 1916, and just like that, the business of beer came to an end. Portner’s brewery closed that same year.

Flash forward nearly 100 years to Babson, where Portner’s great-great-granddaughter, Catherine Portner, MBA ’12, has dreams to honor that beer-brewing legacy. Portner and her siblings (sister Margaret and brother Charles) plan to open a brewpub in Alexandria, not too far from where the headquarters of the Robert Portner Brewing Co. once stood. “My great-great-grandfather was an innovator,” Portner says. “The number of things he was able to accomplish inspires me.”

The future pub, to be called the Portner Brewhouse, will be filled with history. It will serve beer made in the style of their great-great-grandfather’s old brews, and the pub will incorporate a number of historical artifacts from the brewery. Old artwork will hang on the wall, for instance, and customers in the pub’s mug club will receive replicas of old steins.

Besides honoring the past, the pub will look to the future through its Craft Beer Test Kitchen, which will allow small brewers to test-market their beer in the pub and receive customer feedback and sales data.

To make these plans a reality, though, will take time. “It’s a very capital-intensive business to start,” Portner says. She aims to open the brewpub in early 2014, but that doesn’t mean Portner and her siblings are standing still at the moment. They’re busy fine-tuning their beer. More significant, in the spring they won The Last Plan Standing, a business plan competition with a big prize: a free marketing communications plan valued at $100,000 from Nicholson Kovac Inc. in Kansas City, Mo.

This marketing will come in handy, for the pub will face competition from plenty of other eating and drinking establishments. Portner believes her pub’s historical bent will prove a valuable differentiator. Located close to Washington, D.C., Alexandria attracts more than 3 million tourists a year, and the pub’s story could appeal to many of them.

But Portner wants to be careful to use her family’s heritage in the right way. “When you put your name on a business, you must respect that,” Portner says. “We don’t want to do anything that will disrupt our legacy.”