No Monks Needed – A Look Back At Roanoke’s Beer and Brewing History.

Beer and its history.  The two truly go hand in hand.  You can’t really enjoy one of the world’s oldest beverages without someone at the table at least attempting to make a couple of historical bullet points.  When it gets down to it, there is a certain romanticism that goes along with truly enjoying a beer and feeling that it somehow has ties to ancient civilizations.  Even if what you’re drinking is a golden, beautiful, clear pilsner which has been delicately poured into your glass, and in many ancient civilizations, would be “beer” drinkers drank a beverage which was more akin to something called gruel which was sucked through reeds in order to try and avoid chunks of various solids left over by the brewing process of the time.  Indeed, chances are good that no one at your table will mention gruel or sucking beer through reeds.  This is a good thing, considering the affect such a story would have on everyone’s appetite.  Thankfully and more likely, someone will update the discussion with talk of beer brewing monks and the Old World, and that gleam in your beer loving eye begins to come back.  Sort of.

So I thought I would update the discussion quite a bit this time, and narrow down the history of beer to how it developed in our own Roanoke area.  Not just because I live here, but because with all the craft beer interest that’s beginning to simmer in the Roanoke and New River Valleys – multiple restaurants featuring craft beers on tap, Roanoke’s annual craft beer festival growing each year, Blacksburg adding another craft beer store this month are all examples – I thought it was a good time to look back at our own local beer history.  To see where we’ve come from, as it were.  At the very least, it would make for good beer discussion fodder.  And no matter what I found, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t discover that Roanokers ever attempted to drink beer through reeds.

One name that often pops up in Roanoke beer lore is that of Robert Portner.  In the late 19th century, Portner’s Brewing Company, based in Alexandria, became one of the south’s largest breweries and in 1885, the company began operating a depot in Roanoke, for their beer to be shipped to and bottled.[i]  The depot was located along Shenandoah Avenue just a few blocks behind the Hotel Roanoke.  While Portner’s beers were widely distributed – shipments reached into Georgia at one point – it was Portner’s innovations that often gained recognition.[i]  In the 1880’s, brewers began to use some of the first artificial refrigeration machines and air conditioning units to help regulate beer temperatures during production and for the storage of lager beer.  There were many designs of the devices, with varying degrees of success, but it was a design that Portner made his own modifications to that apparently became one of the more efficient ones used by any brewery at the time.[i]

But while the Robert Portner Brewing Company shipped their beer to Roanoke to be bottled, the Virginia Brewing Company, or VBC, brewed their beer right here in what was often referred to as the “Magic City”.  As far as I could tell, the VBC was situated near the corner of what is now Norfolk and Wise Avenues, which would’ve placed it right across from the railroad’s machine works.  Not only was the operation located here in Roanoke, but the VBC prided itself on having been established by several businessmen who were native to the area, a fact that would make it a regional favorite among nearby  saloon owners, and would also come to aid them quite well in their defense against outside competition.[ii] The owners hired a German born brewmaster named Louis Scholz to manage the company and its beer production.  In 1890, the company’s first beer, a pilsner, went on sale, and as the story goes, the company had sold their entire supply by mid afternoon of the first day of bottling.[ii]  Distribution would soon expand into central Virginia locations such as Lynchburg and Shenandoah, as well as into North Carolina, but the brewery’s growth seemed to be not just based on good business strategy and their reputation as a local brewery.  Apparently, the beer was quite good, and the pilsner won a gold medal at the 1907 Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition’s beer competition.[iii] It also didn’t hurt that at the time, there wasn’t much competition in the area.  In fact, Portner’s Brewery seemed to be the VBC’s primary opponent, but shipping from Alexandria meant selling their beer at higher costs, and they lacked the local “flavor” the VBC had.  Not even a fire which destroyed their facility sometime in the early 1890’s could stop the VBC, as the brewery quickly rebounded, enlarged their operation, and grew from bottling 6,000 beers when it began in 1890 to nearly three million in 1905.[iii]  But no other story seems to prove both the popularity and the quality of VBC’s beer as like the well documented battle it eventually waged with a growing brewery from St. Louis called Anheiser-Busch.

Around 1892, perhaps driven by disappointing sales in the area, Anheiser-Busch launched the tactic of aggressively cutting the pricing of their barrels to below the actual cost of production, becoming the least expensive beer in town.[ii]  The strategy was one apparently used in many cities by Anheiser-Busch, and here in Roanoke, seemed to be aimed solely at the VBC.  In what might seem very odd by today’s standards though, Anheiser-Busch’s move would eventually fail, as editors at The Roanoke Times took sides and vocally rallied behind the VBC, calling the local brewery a “home enterprise….built up and owned in great part by Roanoke people”, and one that “deserved every residents’ patronage, even if it meant paying a few cents more for a mug of beer.”[ii]  The editors continued, calling Anheiser-Busch a “foreign enterprise”, with plenty of capital to bring down the VBC.[ii]  Bolstered by the hometown support, Anheiser-Busch would eventually concede their plan, and return the pricing of their barrels to earlier levels.  The battle between the local brewery and the growing giant was certainly interesting in its own right, a true story of a local business taking on the larger, nationally known giant and winning.  But more interestingly, I couldn’t help but think how this particular “Beer War”[ii] from nearly 120 years ago seems to strangely mirror the type of struggle today’s craft brewers sometimes face with large macrobrewers.

Needless to say, prohibition changed the face of both the Portner and VBC companies for good.  Virginia approved prohibition roughly four years before it was a nationwide law, in 1916.  The Robert Portner Brewing Company had, as many breweries did, begun bottling soda, but could not sustain itself with only this.  The company attempted ventures into real estate and the production of feed for farms with only limited success.  Rumors circulated about a comeback for the brewery that never occurred.  Over the years, the buildings in which the Alexandria brewery once operated changed hands several times, and each time one or another were repurposed or demolished.  The only substantial remnant of the brewery is the former bottling house, now home to condominiums.[i]

As for the VBC, after prohibition, it also attempted a comeback.  However, before the first new VBC beer could hit the market, Louis Scholz passed away and his heirs sold the brewery.  Over the years, the facility would be owned by other brewers and breweries, first in attempts to revive the VBC name and later to use the facilities for their own companies.  Finally, in 1964, the original brew house was torn down to reuse the lot for other purposes.[iii]

So as it turns out, we Roanokers have our own historical bullet points to make.  As interest in good beer in the area continues to grow, those discussions woven lightly with beer lore will undoubtedly grow as well.  But we don’t necessarily need to bring up the Old World, drinking beer through reeds, or even those crazy beer loving monks.  We can sit around our table, friends gathered on the next lazy summer evening, and after a few quality brews, talk about how our own brewery was based near the Norfolk and Western machine shops we drive past today, and how it once fought off the big boys.  Settling a little more into our chairs, and with deeper reflection, someone will recall the brewery’s name, and then the whole table will undoubtedly, finally wonder just how good the beer must have been.


[i] Robert Portner And His Brewing Company, by Timothy J. Dennee, for Saul Centers, Inc., Parsons Engineering Science, Inc., and Alexandria Archaeology.  Document found on the alexandriava.gov website.

[ii] Roanoke, Virginia 1882-1912 Magic City of the New South, by Rand Dotson. Published by the University of Tennessee Press.

[iii] Dotson, Paul R. (2003)  Magic City. Class, Community, and Reform in Roanoke, Virginia 1882-1912.  A Dissertation submitted to the graduate faculty of the Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College.  From The Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Library of Louisiana State University.

The photos of the Robert Portner Brewing Company depot and Virginia Brewing Company buildings are from the Norfolk Southern Archives, used with their permission.  They can be found on the Virginia Tech Imagebase.  The individual pages for the photos are as follows.

http://imagebase.lib.vt.edu/view_record.php?URN=ns5770&mode=popup and

http://imagebase.lib.vt.edu/view_record.php?URN=ns5718&mode=popup

Also, thank you so much to Mr. Mike Cianciosi for letting me use an image from his collection of beer and soda bottles. His website can be found here.

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~ by thebeerroad on January 30, 2011.

 
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