Some breweries are lucky to make it a couple months, others, a few years. However, two decades is an accomplishment that’s been attained by a smaller percentage and one that is worth celebrating.
Twenty years is also enough time that most have heard by now the story of how Bill Covaleski and Ron Barchet met on a yellow school bus, only to one day, down the road, start a little brewery in Chester County together. It’s a great story, but is easily found with a Google search of the many articles written about them over this time or on a tour of their brewery, it is one that’s not needed to be told yet again; at least not as a celebratory piece in honor of a twentieth anniversary.
Victory Brewing Company has accomplished a lot over its twenty years and has played a vital role in the growth of craft beer, not only in the Philadelphia region, but the country as a whole. To celebrate their two decades of brewing world-class craft beer, we went back to some of the people in the craft beer industry who were there when the brewery first opened. From former and current brewers to writers and friends, we asked them to share their first impressions of Victory Brewing Company, because what are twenty years of anything without memories?
As the founder/creator of The CANQuest™, my ongoing attempt to drink and review EVERY CANned beer in existence, I recount with glee a CANversation that Bill and I had shortly after I began my CANpaign, in which he swore that Victory beers would only be in CANs when hell froze over. Ski pants and down jackets are currently flying off of the shelves in Hades! Word has it that Golden Monkey is next to be CANned.
Another dates to the second or third iteration of The Brewer’s Plate, which was still (originally) being held at the Reading Terminal Market. Victory was one of the major sponsors and they had taken over the market’s beer garden for the VIP session. It must have been ten years ago as they had just released Ten Years Alt in jeroboams and Bill had several with him for the event. His rep at the time was Tracy Mulligan, who I knew well from other beer fests. Bill had other things to take care of, so he left Tracy and me (in full Bro. Woody persona) to pour their beers while he ran errands and checked on proceedings. We quickly realized that trying to get them uncaged and uncorked was taking too long, so we uncaged and uncorked ALL of them. When Bill returned, he fell to his knees and began to cry. We were then directed to take all remaining beer onto the main floor after the VIP session to ensure that none of it went to waste.
I spoke to Bill a couple of times before I visited the fledgling Downingtown brewery, and was struck by his modest congeniality. It was surprising, then, to see their operation in action, specifically their brewhouse. Were these guys really decoction brewing? What kind of masochist would subject themselves to the extra work, time and complexity of that method? One that (I thought) was obsolete with modern malt. What I didn’t get was Victory was introducing a level of professionalism that had not yet been seen in the craft brewing industry.
The beer landscape was very different then. Brewers were lauded for dreaming up outlandish swill. We were in a race to see what new item we could sprinkle into the mash tun (Cheerios, Chuck Taylors). It was really fun, and sometimes the beer was excellent, other times, not so much. If we struck out with one beer idea, there was always another one waiting in secondary fermentation. What Bill and Ron introduced was the idea of excellence, from brewhouse technique to packaging design. They were professionals. If you bought a case of HopDevil or Prima Pils, you knew what you were getting: a consistent, excellent product with no bad surprises.
After that first brewery tour where I wondered why they would bother to build a decoction brewhouse, we shuffled off to the tasting room. Sample number one was either a helles or a pils and it struck me like a ton of bricks. The malt profile of the lager was like none other that I had ever tasted. The extra effort of decoction brewing produced a flavor that could not be reproduced with infusion brewing. It was that extra 1-2% of effort that made the difference: the same effort that Victory made throughout their process.
Former Dock Street Brewer
My first visit to Victory was epic, but because of the weather, not the beer. I decided to visit this new place on January 18th, 1996, just about a month before they opened…and on the day when temperatures sky-rocketed into the 60s and about 3 inches of rain fell. Not that big a deal, except that it all happened after a week and a half of some of the heaviest snowfall the area had ever seen—”The Blizzard of ’96.” When I left my home in Bucks County that morning, there was about 38 inches of snow on the ground; it was all gone when I got home. I drove out to Collegeville to some place I can’t even recall (not New Road; too early), then headed south, and by the time I hit the railroad underpass on the north side of Phoenixville, I had to drive through almost two feet of water. (Yeah, I know: stupid.)
I made it to Downingtown, and the fire company blocked off the route Bill had given me: water on the road. Can’t give up, so I drove east, turned down by Bishop Shanahan High School and came into the industrial park the back way—the route I still use every time I visit Victory. I drove through a foot of moving, muddy water to get back to the high ground by the brewery, and finally met Bill and Ron. Turns out they had a weather story too; they’d brewed their first batch of beer—Fest—during the blizzard, and decided to just stay there and do a double brew. We talked, I heard the “how Bill and Ron met” story, and I remember being very impressed by that 25-barrel brewhouse, it looked so much more professional than most others in the area. I made two more stops: Ugly Dog Brewing in West Chester (gone and unlamented), and a homebrew club meeting in Delaware, a long drive home. I’ve never regretted going out in that mad weather to visit Victory.
That was January, the brewery opened in February, and in December, I was at Copa, Too! for Tom Peters’ annual Christmas beer dinner. After the dinner was over—and I’ll never forget this—a bunch of us were standing in the front of the downstairs bar, right by the window: John Hansell, the late Andy Musser, Tom, Jim Anderson, and me. Someone asked, what are the best breweries in the country? Andy naturally said Anchor, and others came up: Sierra Nevada, Deschutes, Great Divide, Goose Island. Then I said, “You know, they aren’t there quite yet. But in two years, when we have this conversation again, I think we’re all going to be including Victory in that list.” Glasses clinked in agreement.
And we were right. Like Anchor, like Deschutes, like Sierra Nevada and Great Divide, and yes, even like Goose Island, Victory has made its substantial mark on the beer world by creating beers without gimmicks, thoughtful and well-made, by putting their tweak on classic styles and by combining classic styles. It’s been that way since the brewery started, in the Blizzard of ’96, with a double batch of clean, malty festbier.
Who gives a fuck about the first time I met Baby Face & Beardio? What really matters is the last time I had their beer, which was two days ago in the Scottish Highlands, and what I tasted was freshness, determination, attention to detail and Old World brewing sporting a New World smirk. That’s how you reach your 20s in this business, people.
Publisher of the late Beer Philadelphia (the original Philly beer magazine) and current owner of The Anderson in Scotland
Back in about 1994, I was Head Brewer at Dock Street Brewing Company in Philadelphia. We were planning the second location in Washington, D.C. and were starting to select equipment. I planned to visit all the breweries in the area and talk to their brewers about what they liked and would prefer to improve on their current breweries. There weren’t that many breweries, so it was a fairly simple task. One of the first visits on the list was Baltimore Brewing. My wife and I made the trip down and had lunch and tried the beers, with which we were most impressed. We asked if we could speak with the brewer and Bill came out to chat with us. He gave us all the time we wanted and was more helpful and knowledgeable than anyone could expect. He told us of his plans to open his own place. We went over to Downingtown not long after to take a look at the location and couldn’t believe the size of the place. It seemed highly optimistic to be able to fill even a small part of that facility, but even then we had a sense that Bill might do it. We are thrilled that his and Ron’s vision and tenacity have brought their great beers to such a wide audience. It is wonderful to see what skill, passion and hard work have brought for Victory.
Former brewer at Dock Street
I first heard about a new startup in Chester Co. that was trying to call itself Independence Brewing, but we where already a startup in Philadelphia a couple months ahead of them.
We had our legal team request for them to cease and desist, as it turns out, it was Ron and Bill’s startup, two guys with German brewing backgrounds. After opening in Downingtown as Victory, a great hidden treasure was established.
I enjoyed the early years of great lager-style brews coming out of there, then came HopDevil, and the local beer market was changing for the better at last. Prost!
Brewer at Lancaster Brewing Co.