Interview with Bill Covaleski, Co-Founder of Victory Brewing
Bill Covaleski, Co-Founder of Victory Brewing, shares how he and Ron Barchet started Victory and how it came to be the venerated brewery that it is today.
What spurred you and Ron Barchet to start your own brewery?
Ron and I had both enjoyed careers working at other breweries. Ron had worked several years at The Old Dominion Brewing Company and at The Baltimore Brewing Company, where I had spent 5 years myself. They were good environments and we had good mentors, but we had ideas that we couldn’t bring to life in other people’s operations. We just felt like there was something else over the horizon, and in order to achieve that, we couldn’t expect other people to get us there. We had to roll up our sleeves and create a business to do it ourselves. One of the primary ideas we wanted to bring to life was the use of whole flower hops. So, ultimately, it all boiled down to the desire to innovate and move beyond what already existed in beer.
What was the start-up phase like for Victory Brewing?
We started writing our business plan New Years of 1994. It was kind of a humorous start. Ron, his wife Linda, my wife Sunny, and myself were all gathered at home in Baltimore – at the time I was still working at the Baltimore Brewing Company – and we had planned to ring in the New Year responsibly, with lots of chilled down Chimay. I believe it was after our 5th bottle that Ron and I had the guts to ask our wives if maybe in ‘94 we could venture into starting our own brewery. We had not anticipated or planned to bring it up that night, but Ron and I had seized the opportunity to hash it all out. It turned out to be well-timed - and they must have drank the right amount of strong beer - because they went with it! And although I’m sure there have been moments where we looked at it like, “oh my gosh, what did we get ourselves into?” - no one has any regrets.
What was the first beer Victory sold as a brewery?
We opened up our doors in February of 1996 with 3 beers on tap. Two of them still exist today, and one of them is in a slightly different form. We opened up with an export-style lager called Brandywine Valley Lager, with Victory Festbier (our märzen), and with our Hopdevil Ale. Hopdevil was kind of our vanity beer; we brewed it for ourselves. That was the original lineup, and that export, Brandywine Valley Lager, over time morphed into a Helles Lager. To this day, it’s Victory Helles Lager. So that shows some pretty good durability, that our opening three beers are still part of our portfolio. It’s also a little overlooked, but Victory Festbier is a year round offering, even though we only put it in bottles during the Oktoberfest season. But it is such an excellent food pairing beer, with such a broad range of foods - from spicy wings to salami pizza - that is in our portfolio on draft all year.
Does Victory’s Festbier remind you of the Oktoberfest Beer in Munich?
It does, and it doesn’t. Because the märzen style was honestly designed for a type that was fading out in the 80s, and the German Oktoberfest style is nowadays lighter in color, lighter in body and more bock-like. So we knew going into it that we were kind of recreating a former version of an Oktoberfest beer.
What’s your favorite beer that Victory has brewed over the past 20 years?
You’re asking me to choose my favorite child, but I am on the record for this one on numerous occasions; it’s got to be the Prima Pils. Prima just delivers so much delicious hoppy flavor, and in such a refreshing delivery. Its only 5.3% alcohol by volume, it’s ripe, and it dances on the tongue. No one should be a volume drinker, but that’s the other reason it ranks high for me - it’s the one that I’ve drank the most of over the years.
Can you tell us about Victory’s commitment to environmental sustainability?
Our bigger advances in sustainability started back in 2004 when we installed our first brew house by a German firm called Rolec. They have since done brew houses for Stone, Lagunitas, pretty much everybody. One of the things that sold us on their equipment was how energy conservative it was. Energy pricing in Europe is higher than in the US, so we put extra money up front to gain the benefit of energy saving through the operation of this brew house. Less natural gas goes in, less gas burns, and there’s consequently an overall lower output. So that’s one of the key components. Then, in 2009, we installed solar panels on a portion of our roof here in Downingtown, and although it wasn’t a huge system, what we did was significant because we put a video monitor recording the output and measured it against carbon dioxide that would have otherwise been generated through an alternative energy source. We then put this smack in the middle of our restaurant, so that all of our diners could see what we were doing in hopes it would encourage them and show that this wasn’t such a novel idea. That they could also participate in lessening their carbon footprint through energy generation and conservation. Without being preachy, we just saw the opportunity to entertain the public and demonstrate what we as a company were willing to do. We created a general message like, “hey, this is available to anyone, anyone can adopt this.” Similarly, we are very proud of our Headwaters Grant where we take some funds from the sales of our Headwaters Pale Ale and donate them back to watershed stewardship organizations. So far it’s only two here in the Brandywine Valley that we’re working with, but we hope to roll it out over a larger footprint over time. Once again, it’s not only funds, but it is also the public demonstration of, “here is a cause that is important to us, water should be important to you.” We’re not going to preach to you, but we are going to put it in your face for you to accept or reject.
What can we expect to see from Victory this year? Any new beers we should keep an eye out for?
Well our blackboard series is going very well for us. Our blackboard is where we do seasonal releases that borrow something from the culinary world. We essentially allow our brewers to view a seasonal opportunity, much as a chef would. “What can I get from the market, what is fresh today, what’s going to be fresh for that season, and how can I bring that to life in a beer?” We’re just concluding with the Cold Brew Coffee Cream Ale and the next one up is a Belgian peach infused blonde ale. I think that those releases will give our audience very seasonally adjusted exciting opportunities to enjoy something right in the moment, that is relatively short seasoned. Meanwhile, we are looking to refresh the main line up as well. We’ve got a release coming up this summer which is a lower ABV American hopped lager along the lines of a pils. But obviously, when you have something as delicious and wonderful as Prima in your portfolio, you tread lightly around that. We definitely are looking to continually invigorate our offerings and we feel there is a lot more possibility ahead for our brewery in the lager vein as well. We’re not overlooking ales by any means, but the next big thing, so to speak, is going to be in the lager vein.
Any tips for aspiring craft brewers?
It may seem a little mundane or trite, but be a good listener. You learn from listening to others. The actual craft of brewing can be learned by people who are more proficient or more experienced than you, but almost more importantly listen to the audience. Because if you’re ever going to go from brewing for yourself to brewing for others, the audiences that you serve are going to be the most important asset you have. Being able to listen to them and really assess what they appreciate and what they don’t appreciate, will be fundamentally important to your business. We brew to make ourselves happy, but we operate three restaurants, and we pay attention to the numbers and to the audience’s comments. We have a lot of friends in this community and with a beer or two in them, they are not afraid to tell us exactly what they think of our stuff. The listening part is really invaluable.