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Robert Portner's claim to fame: the cold brew

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Robert Portner

Robert Portner (1837-1906) built Annaburg for his wife, Anna, and their 11 children in 1892-94.

Those who appreciate a cool home and ice-cold beer on a warm summer day can thank former Manassas resident Robert Portner, in part, for making such things part of modern life.

Born in Westphalia, Germany in 1837, Portner immigrated to the U.S. with two brothers when he was 16 years old. Portner first landed in New York City, where he tried various trades and even operated a liquor store before moving to Washington during the Civil War. With a friend, he bought a grocery store at the corner of King and Asaph streets in Alexandria, which they named Portner and Recker.

With Union soldiers occupying the town, the two did a brisk business. A customer who catered meals for military higher-ups suggested they brew beer, which was hard to find during wartime. With the help of that customer and a local brewer, Portner and Company Brewery opened on the northeast corner of King and Fayette Streets and brewed almost 2,000 barrels of beer as the war raged on.

Concerned about soldiers imbibing, the Union Army banned troops from liquor during the war, but beer was allowed. Soon, Portner and Co. was sending its brew down the Potomac River to troops stationed in Fredericksburg.

The demand for beer around Washington waned after the war, when the Union army disbanded. Still, Portner stayed in the business. He bought out his partners, who left for other pursuits, and continued on, believing the demand for beer would return and grow. Portner relocated his brewery, expanded the operation and invested in a beer garden and area saloons to develop a direct line to customers.

Portner developed a brand, “Tivoli” (I love it, spelled backwards), and specialized in lager, which requires cool conditions to ferment and age. The process was laborious and required ice houses stocked with ice cut from the frozen Potomac River or shipped expensively from Boston.

That changed in 1878, however, when Portner invented what would become for the first practical artificial chilling system that worked by direct ammonia expansion, which he patented. That same year, he added a machine that could manufacture ice. The achievement led many brewers to buy the systems, earning Portner even more money. His designs would later contribute to modern air-conditioning technology.  

Refrigeration was a gamechanger for Portner’s Tivoli-brand lager. Without it, the South was generally too warm to brew lager, yet the variety was especially refreshing during the hot summer months. The ability to produce the variety lager year-round, combined with his brewery’s proximity to a rail, offered Portner the opportunity to become a leading brewer in the Southeast.

He opened offices and bottling plants throughout Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. Beers shipped in refrigerated train cars reached great distances without spoilage. Soon, Portner beers were served in restaurants and hotels across the South and the Mid-Atlantic.

Meanwhile, Portner met his wife, Anna, the sister of a Philadelphia business partner, whom he married in 1871. The two would go on to have 13 children, 11 of whom survived into adulthood. Portner took his family back to Germany for extended trips on two occasions. Portner was a workaholic and nervous by nature. The trips offered a break from his many business ventures, which eventually included real estate development.

In 1883, Anna persuaded Portner to buy a farm in Manassas, so the family could spend more time in the country.

In 1892, the couple set out to build a home modeled on the many grand homes they had seen on their European travels. “Annaburg” was built with red sandstone from one of the two quarries Portner owned in Manassas. The Portners moved there full time in 1903, about three years before his death in 1906 at age 69.

Portner’s brewing business was eventually crippled by Prohibition. When Virginia went dry in 1916, the brewery closed for good. The family attempted to switch to the animal feed business and opened the Virginia Feed and Milling Corporation in what had been the brewery for several years before closing up shop. The brewery deteriorated and was torn down in 1932.

Source: “Capital Beer,” by Garrett Peck

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