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Beer is big in D.C. It feels like beer is bigger than it’s ever been. But it’s not. One hundred years ago the District’s beer industry dwarfed what the city has today. According to the Brewers Association, in 2016 D.C.’s breweries produced 29,502 barrels—equivalent to 59,004 half-barrel kegs. (Brewers Association economist Bart Watson says some breweries’ numbers were estimated since they weren’t provided.)
Compare those numbers to 1916 when D.C. produced 122,285 barrels, equivalent to 244,570 half-barrel kegs, according to the 1917 edition of Tovey’s Official Brewers’ and Maltsters’ Directory of North and South America, available from the New York Public Library.
Author and beer historian Garrett Peck even writes in his treatise The Washington Brewery at Navy Yard that brewers were once the second largest employer in the city after the federal government. These large numbers are in part due to the fact that Anheuser-Busch, Pabst, and Schlitz all had bottling plants in the area.
The longer you’ve lived in this city, the more likely you’ve been in a store, school, or theater that used to be a brewery. D.C. had breweries and bottlers in all four quadrants. Take the following four addresses, three of them in the District and one just across the river in Alexandria. Each used to be the site of a brewery. On one of the sites, the original brewery building still stands.
Robert Portner’s Tivoli Brewery
Modern occupant: Trader Joe’s (and others)
Modern address: 612 N St. Asaph St., Alexandria
Historic Address: St. Asaph, Pendleton, Washington & Wythe Streets, Alexandria
Why it matters: According to Peck’s Capital Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in Washington, D.C., Alexandria remained adamantly wet while the rest of Virginia went dry. Robert Portner was Alexandria’s largest employer and he hired both black and white laborers. At the height of his brewing empire in the late 19th to early 20th century, he had a $140,000 payroll—that number in 1913 would be more than $3,000,000 by today’s standards.
In 1877 Portner rolled out the Tivoli brand. Not only would he call his beer Tivoli Cream Ale, but he would brand his brewery with his beer’s brand name. “TIVOLI” is “I LOV IT” spelled backwards, according to Portner’s great-great granddaughters, Catherine and Margaret Portner.
Tivoli Brewery included two bottling plants as well as an ice plant, additional buildings, yards, and a railroad line that ran right through the complex on Washington Street.
Portner’s great-great granddaughters opened Portner’s Brewhouse in March 2017, a century after Tivoli closed. The new location is at 5770 Dow Ave., Alexandria, a few miles from the historic brewery site. They serve Tivoli Cream Ale year-round. Enjoy it with German meatballs, Schnitzel, or the bratwurst platter.
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The Historic Chr. Heurich Brewing Company
Modern occupant: The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Modern Address: 2700 F St. NW
Historic Address: 25th, 26th, D & Water Streets NW
Why it matters: Christian Heurich arrived in America an orphaned immigrant and built a legacy that’s memorialized at the Heurich House Museum at 1307 New Hampshire Ave. NW.
He owned several breweries in D.C. before building his final, largest brewery at today’s Kennedy Center. His beers even earned medals in Belgium and France.
A widower twice before the birth of his first child, his career went on for decades. He last reported for work in the brewery nine days before his death. He died in 1945 at the age of 102.
The Historic Jos. Schlitz Brewing Co.’s bottling plant
Modern occupant: DC Public Library Operations Center/Department of General Services
Modern address: 1709 3rd St. NE
Historic address: 3rd Street & Randolph Place, NE
Why it matters: While Anheuser-Busch, Pabst, and Schlitz all had bottling plants before prohibition, Schlitz’s is the only structure that still stands today. The D.C. Government, not Schlitz, now owns the building.
On the corner of 3rd and R Streets NE, you will see a sign that reads DC Public Library Operations Center, providing temporary housing for library overflow. When Schlitz became the world’s largest brewery in 1902, it had already operated a bottling plant for 12 years at 615 D St. SW, a block from L’Enfant Plaza. In 1909, it moved to the Eckington neighborhood, at 3rd Street and Randolph Place NE. In 1917, the year D.C. went dry, Schlitz had to lay off 70 employees.
Next time you’re heading south on the Metropolitan Branch Trail, look right at Randolph Place NE before you hit R Street NE and remember that this four-story building was built on beer.
Washington Brewing Company
Modern occupant: Stuart-Hobson Middle School
Modern address: 410 E St. NE
Historic address: 4th and F Streets NE
Why it matters: The Stuart-Hobson Middle School site was once home to the Washington Brewing Company and, according to Garrett Peck, a massive 1,000-seat beer garden called The Alhambra from 1889 to 1917. It was a beer garden under different ownership in the mid 1880s as well.
According to advertisements in the Evening Star and Washington Times newspapers, the Washington Brewing Company made several beers, but in 1895 they rolled out Ruby Lager, their new brand. An ad from 1897 stated, “Physicians recommend it especially for nursing mothers and convalescents.”
A Washington Post article from 1926 described the land below the brewery as a “maze of subterranean vaults somewhat similar to the tomb of King Tut or the catacombs of Rome.”