Thursday, February 10, 2011

Victory Brewery's 15th anniversary bash on tap for Feb. 15th

Victory brewmaster Ron Covaleski overlooking a topographical map of the county's watershed.

Victory Brewery Co. at 420 Acorn Lane in Downingtown will be the place to be for Chester County beer connoisseurs on Tuesday night, February 15.

That night, starting at 5 p.m., Victory is celebrating its 15th year in business with the unveiling of a new handcrafted beer, Headwaters Pale Ale, a name chosen to raise ecological awareness of the county's fresh water supply.

Additionally, the brewery will celebrate the occasion by continuously running a 15-minute film called "15 Years of Characters" that is dedicated to the local brewery's rabid fans and employees. The first screening will take place at 6:30 p.m. In its 15 years of existence, the local brewery has become a county landmark and a source of regional pride. It has also come to represent a worthy local example of a rising national trend in food aesthetics that has eagerly embraced taste for taste's sake.

Not coincidentally, Victory Brewery earned its rising reputation with a fistful of regional, national and international awards. HopDevil Ale was one of a dozen beers to win the Good Food Awards 2011 and it won the silver metal at the Australian International Beer Awards 2008. The brewery's Prima Pils took the silver metal at both the European BeerStar fest and the Great American Beer Festival in 2007. Its Golden Monkey brand took the broze at the Australian International Beer Awards in 2008.

The 15th anniversary party on Tuesday has plenty to celebrate. What local residents don't know is that the Victory celebration isn't just 15 years in the making. It's been a 37-year journey for its two founders, Bill Covaleski and Ron Barchet.

* * * *

Covaleski, originally from Levittown, and Barchet, originally from Norristown, met one another in Collegeville, Pa., when they were 10-year-olds at Worcester Elementary School. The two boys found they had a lot in common: both of their dads worked for General Electric in King of Prussia. Through the years of their friendship, both developed an interest in making their own handcrafted beers.

Covaleski's father developed the habit of growing his own vegetables and making his own food, a character trait that Bill envied and imitated. "He made his own sauerkraut and pickles," says Covaleski, a talkative guy prone to easy smiles. "And he brewed his own beer in the family basement. He was always interested in how things tasted and what he could do to make them taste better. He was interested in the process of taste." Covaleski took the lesson to heart.

Bill appropriated his father's homebrewing rig after graduating the Tyler School of Art at Temple University and started to make his own home-brewed beer in the family basement next to his father's beer efforts. He purchased a start-up brew kit for Barchet, his school chum, and challenged him to come up with concoctions that tasted better than his own. Their friendly competition and interest in the esoteric world of taste variations lead both men on a career path that has made them celebrated.

In 1987, the two of them explored their mutual interest in beer making on a trip to the Trappest monestary of Orval, in Belgium, revered by beer drinkers the world over. "When you live in a monestary, you need to be self-sufficient. Beer was thought of as a necessity," said Covalesk with a sly smile. What they found in Europe was different culture about drinking, a positive mindset.

"In America at the time, Nancy Reagan's 'Just Say No' campaign against drugs and alcohol was in vogue," said Covaleski. "The national attitude about drinking was pretty negative. Bars were seen as dark places, lit by neon lights and occupied by people of questionable character. In the places we visited in Europe, beer was taken by families. Husbands and wives were enjoying it in the company of their children in the open sunshine at lunch and on picnics.

"They reveled in the taste and the smell of it. We saw them consuming beers in litre containers, drinking slowly and savoring the experience of the taste of the beer. It was celebrated as part of the national culture. It really was quite a thing to see. I think for both of us, that trip was series of life-changing moments. We became two young men intrigued by the process of beer making and the culture of flavor."

In December of 1989, Barchet was hired by the Baltimore Brewery as an assistant to the company's brewer, Theo DeGroen, a German brewmaster who had hailed from the Grolsch family of brewers. He impressed his young apprentice on the importance of learning the process of beer making. After a just a year, Barchet left Baltimore to study beer-making at the Technical University of Munich at Weihenstephan. Covaleski replaced him at the Baltimore brewery and, a short time later, left to study beer-making himself at Doemens University in Germany.

Their mutual interest in beer and the way its taste could be tweaked and refined was continually expanding. They both became aware in the mid-1990s that Americans were developing a new paradigm of what food could become. "Americans suddenly became consumers of taste," said Covaleski. "In coffee, bread and beer, their tastes started to develop and expand. They started to become more demanding as consumers."

It was the perfect time to put their life-long passion for developing intriguing tastes in beer to practical use. They leased space in the old Pepperidge Farm bakery on Acorn Lane in 1995 and by February of 1996, they unveiled three different hand-crafted beers: Brandywine Valley Lager, Victory HopDevil Ale, and Victory Festbier, an Oktoberfest lager they planned to brew year round.

At the time, American microbrewed beers were just coming into their own and Americans were beginning to discover the taste differences between local hand-crafted beers and the products purvayed by Miller, Budweiser and Pabst, huge beer conglomerates than commanded the giant's share of the nation's beer market.

Hoppy ales were particularly successful in the early years of American microbrews and Covaleski and Barchet believed they could buck that tide and devolop a distinctive lager that would make local beer consumers re-think their preference for the King of Beers, Budweiser. Both were amused when their HopDevil India Pale Ale became an instant success and runaway best seller.

From the very beginning, Victory HopDevil Ale was the brewery's most popular brand. Today it accounts for 40 percent of the brewery's sales. Beer sales at the brewery have grown every year for 15 years. In 1996, it manufactured 1700 barrels of beer and employed 35 people. In 2010, it brewed 58,000 barrels of beer and now employees 180 people.

Covaleski says his "moment of recognition" that the brewery was going to be a success came at a Philadelphia beer festival in 2001. He was walking down a Philadelphia street with his vice-president of sales, Steve German. At the same instant, they both saw a discarded brown beer bottle, stashed against a wall.
"We looked at one another and said, 'what are the chances it's one of ours?' But when we turned the bottle around and saw that Victory HopDevil label, we both had the same thought: 'Someone likes our beer, not just in Downingtown, but here in the city, too!' Up until that moment, I thought I personally knew each one of my patrons."

It wasn't long after that that Victory went global.

* * * *

American craft beers like Downingtown's Victory, Sly Fox of Phoenixville and Iron Hill in West Chester presently account for five percent of the American beer market. Imports like Amstel, Heineken, Guinness and Harp account for 11 percent of the U.S. market. Covaleski sees a time coming in the near future when American craft beers have earned 10 percent or more of the national market and the size taken by imports is reduced to five percent.

He and Barchet have made several trips to Europe to introduce their beers to European consumers. In 2006, he was promoting several of his brands to beer writers at the White Horse Tavern at Parson's Green in London. One of the British writers asked Covalski a pointed question. "We have beers in Britain. Why are you here?"

The dean of British spirits writers, Michael Jackson, (author of a renowned 1977 book called "The World Guide to Beer" and host of "The Beer Hunter" on the Discover Channel) had tried Victory's beers and liked what he'd discovered in them. He took offense at the question and launched into a diatribe. Jackson died in 2007, but Covaleksi was struck by what he said: "Shame on you! If an individual makes something special, it's a mortal sin not to share it! These fellows are here to share their beers with you! We should thank them!"

Victory doesn't sell a lot of beer overseas, but it ships both kegs and cases of beer there. "You develop an attitude when you run a microbrewery that if someone is going to pay you for what you do, you want to try to accommodate him," Covaleski says. "It's a compliment to us that some people in Europe like our beer enough to request it."

Covaleksi is equally proud that Victory is one of a handful of local handcrafted beers (Yards, Dogfish Head and Troegs are some others) that are offered in specialty kiosks and sold at Citizens Bank Park, the home of the Phillies. "Someone at the stadium was really smart when they first opened the stadium," he says. "They realized there was an audience for microbrewed beers, that many local consumers wanted something more than what the large beer companies were offering. Beer has been associated with baseball for decades. It's really great the Phillies recognize what the small local breweries are doing."

Headwaters Pale Ale, the new beer that will be introduced this week, is Victory's way of making local Chester County residents recognize the importance of their fresh water supply. While overlooking a topographical map of the county inthe brewery's boardroom, Covaleski points out that there's a 750 foot decline from the headwaters of the Eastern branch of the Brandywine Creek, from which Victory gets its fresh water.

"Downingtown is like a huge drain," he says. "The water drops down to us from from various aquifiers in the county. We're very lucky that for long stretches of the Brandwine, there's no industry and no pollution. The water we use for the making of our beers is an integral part of the success of our product. Stewardship of our water supply becomes a community affair. We hope Headwaters Pale Ale will bring some awareness to county conservation efforts regarding our water supply."

Victory's growth and success makes it an obvious target for larger beer companies who know a good brand when they see one and might be tempted to make Covaleski and Barchet an offer they can't refuse. Covaleski smiles at the thought, but dismisses it. Beer is in his blood. It's all he wants to do.

"Ron and I are 47 years old," he says. "This is what we do. It's who we are. We've been wanting to do this since the time we were just boys. We expect to be making beer for a very long time."

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