by Jake Tulsky
It’s the sentiment I feel whenever I open up a HopDevil, Helles Lager, or Prima Pils. These beers, of course, are three flagships from the Victory Brewing Company, whose name conjures something almost mythological. At least in the craft beer world. Surely the beer Gods were listening when I sat down for a conversation with Victory's President and co-founder, Bill Covaleski.
In short, Covaleski is an inspiring figure. From his endless craft brewing insight, to his opinions on environmental stewardship and responsibility, to his obscure, yet undoubtedly treasured Simpson’s references, speaking with him will reaffirm your belief in the power of small business.
The story of Victory Brewing is that of old friends. Covaleski and CEO/Co-founder Ron Barchet originally met as 10-year olds on the school bus. As fate would have it, both men developed a love for brewing, first as home brewers, then professionally with jobs at Old Dominion and The Baltimore Brewing Company, respectively. Keeping in close contact, the two founders had a shared vision – to start a “better” brewery, one that would continue the traditional German methods they had learned at their previous brewery positions. So in 1996 they did just that, and Victory Brewing Company was born.
As one might imagine in the beginning, the Victory staff was limited. Covaleski acted as art director and was responsible for the iconic images on favorites such as Golden Monkey, Hop Wallop, and this writer’s personal favorite – HopDevil.
When I admitted to Covaleski how much of a HopDevil fan boy I really am (I almost ALWAYS have one in my fridge), he took and pleasurable sigh and lamented that while he doesn’t drink it as much as he should, when he does, he recalls (humbly) just how damn good it is. Cheers to that.
Rather than boasting about the brewery’s impressive sales, its facility and barrel expansions, or its copious award chest, when I asked him about notable corporate milestones, Covaleski answered confidently, “hops.” More specifically, whole flower hops. As he explained, “working in other breweries, [Ron and I] learned about the virtues of particular products and ingredients. And when we synced up, we wanted to make a ‘better beer’. Using whole flower hops was one of the conclusions we reached.”
In the modern age of brewing it’s rare to see a brewery use whole hops. Quite simply, they’re a pain in the ass. They take longer to work, they’re faster to spoil, and acting as little sponges, they soak up wort, resulting in volume loss. Just considering these three facts, I questioned why a commercial brewer would use them at all. Of course, Covaleski took me to school.
“With whole flower hops, the essential oils and compounds that are critical to full flavor expression haven’t been compromised. When we put it to test, and experimented with whole flower vs. other options (dried hops, pelletized, etc), our predictions were reaffirmed. We stayed with the whole flower."
Lovely as they are, as a dedicated hop heads, Covaleski and I both agreed on the perils of overly relying on a single ingredient. In both 2007 and 2014, brewers experienced a global hop shortage, the first of which was a wakeup call for Victory. At the time Victory was a sizeable operation with good vendor and contractor relationships. So while they weren't hurt as much as others, the experience was painful enough that CEO Ron Barchet made the decision to jump a link in the food chain and establish direct relationships with hop growers.
Keeping in line with their classic German influences, the Victory team went to Tettnang, Germany and built a relationship with a small family-owned hop farm. Today, Victory sources almost all of its hops from that same farm. “We addressed the shortage not by eliminating one of the links in the chain”, said Covaleski, “but making that link less important by building direct relationships with our suppliers.”
But as he would echo many times during our talk, the best, and most dependable relationships aren’t those with strict business implications. Covaleski shared that the daughter of their Tettnang hop farmers is concluding her fifth and final month of an internship at Victory’s Downingtown headquarters. Soon she will return to The Technical University of Munich at Weihenstephan to continue her studies in food marketing. “It’s a wonderful story, and just one example of a business partner going from supplier to friends and family.”
It isn’t just whole flower Tettnang hops that keep Victory true to its German roots. Barley, the grain that keeps on giving, is too, of principle focus. Like their hops, all of Victory’s malted barley comes from Germany. “This reason is simple” Covaleski affirmed. “Malt varieties in Europe have been grown for generations, specifically for brewing, while in North America, malt has largely been grown for feed purposes, whether it be animal or human.” German malt is simply more developed, more complex. As Senior Brewer, Matt Couch, writes on the Victory blog, “people associate sweetness with malt, and that’s true, but [with German malt] you also get nutty, biscuity, almost cracker-like notes.”
But like a true statesman, Covaleski made a point to compliment those brewers who may be less steeped in brewing tradition. “Now I’d never want to give the impression that I’m disparaging a brewery that uses hop pellets or oils, or six-row American malt. But if they’re using these ingredients to make the beer that they envision, then God bless them – they’re doing the right thing. But the vision that we had, it was dependent on German malt and whole flower hops.”
More than simply looking to German brewing tradition for inspiration, much of what continues to fuel creativity within Victory is what goes on in their brewpubs. Covaleski praises his brewpub regulars, mostly for their honesty. “When we release a new, experimental beer in the pub, if they like it, they drink it up and say ‘what’s next?’ It’s inspiring.”
“And if they don’t like it?”, I asked
“It’s also on to the next.”
In addition to their local brewpub audiences, it’s always been part of Victory’s mission to be stewards of the local community. Such is the motive behind the Victory Headwaters Grant.
Victory’s main brewing facilities are located in Dowingtown and their newer facility at Parkesburg, PA – 14 and 18 miles, respectively, from their main water source – the Brandywine Creek. And as lucky as they are to have a source of quality water within minutes, Covaleski and Barchet both recognize their duty in protecting the source. The Victory Headwaters Grant seeks to do just this.
For their 15th year anniversary, Victory created the Headwaters Ale. For every Headwaters sold, the brewery donated a percentage of local proceeds to groups that protect the Brandywine Watershed. But after only 4 years, and $42,000 donated, they decided to kick it up a notch and begin donating funds from national sales. Almost instantly, the donation pool increased by 60%. Proud of its evolution, Victory and its Headwater Grant aren’t looking back.
When I asked Covaleski whether or not he and Barchet view themselves as leaders within the Pennsylvania brewing community, he spoke not about any personal accomplishments, rather those made by the Brewers of Pennsylvania (a group which Covaleski was elected to lead).
In 2010, the Pennsylvania state legislature introduced a bill that could potentially harm craft brewers in the state. Victory and its neighboring competitors D.G. Yuengling, The Lion Brewery, Appalachian, Troegs, and others formed a coalition to fight back. However, as Covaleski explained, it wasn’t necessarily the concerns of the big boys that the Brewers of PA were fighting for. “Our legislative achievements have largely been to the benefit of the smaller brewers. While the majority of funding is coming from the bigger brewers, we’re truly looking out for the good of the entire industry”.
Smaller competition aside, it’s clear from speaking with Bill Covaleski that Victory is really looking out for everyone. From their local communities, to the environment, to craft brewers across Pennsylvania, and most importantly, to the millions upon millions who enjoy their beers every day, we all can sit back, open a Hop Devil, and feel victorious.
Published February 2016