Our “Brewer’s Spotlight” is a series of conversations with innovative brewers across the country. Recently we sat down with Bill Covaleski, brewmaster and co-founder of Victory Brewing Company in Pennsylvania. John I. Haas is honored to be a trusted supplier of quality hops for Victory—and Bill and his business partner Ron Barchet are currently featured in our “Here’s to the Moments” ad campaign. This month, we discussed a love of whole-cone hops, American ingenuity, and bringing creativity to the craft of brewing—while always staying true to quality.
Q: Is there a core philosophy you have when it comes to brewing?
Bill: There’s actually a tagline that we’ve used over the years…that Victory Brewing really represents “European quality and American ingenuity.” From our European training, Ron and I brought with us a great understanding and respect for certain materials and traditions from European brewing. Yet we felt very liberated when we returned to America where beer styles were not so restrained, and we could be much more expressive with our knowledge and our ingredient selections for an American audience.
This really goes both ways. We opened Victory in 1996 when the craft brewing landscape was dramatically different. Our hoppy IPA, HopDevil, for instance, was something that we created to make ourselves happy—but we realized consumers might not immediately respond to it. But things have evolved very positively for full flavored beers since then. Then, on the other hand, I was talking to our team in Denver about the New England IPA style. It’s exciting that there is a new style that represents new ideas and new thinking. But, at the same time, leaving the beer so heavily laden with yeast, the durability and shelf life is compromised. That’s kind of how we see the world. There’s right and there’s wrong, to some extent. While we can certainly appreciate the creativity behind a new style and the passion behind it—but if it’s technically flawed, it’s a problem when the beer has to be shipped.
Q: How do you go about innovating, whether it’s seasonal beers or just something new you want to try?
Bill: The process has definitely changed over the last 20 years. So much of the decisions and creativity were dependent upon Ron and me in the early days. Now that we have fostered and nurtured a really talented team around us, we’re much more open to having ideas generated from the brewer level on up.
Today, it involves two different flight paths. One is where Ron and I, and a small interdepartment team, sit down and look at what’s possible in terms of market appeal, market trends and our capabilities, and then we put a couple of loose targets on the wall. For instance, let’s drive toward something around 5% that uses American hops and yet is a lager. So those are three parameters we give, and then we let the creative brewing team go at it.
The separate flight path takes advantage of our four different brewing setups. We have a 50-barrel Rolec brewhouse in Downingtown, a 200-barrel Rolec brewhouse in Parkesburg, a seven barrel setup in our Kennett Square brew pub and, our newest creation, a half-barrel setup in Parkesburg. With the half-barrel and seven barrel, we give these guys loose creative direction and equipment that allows them to experiment almost endlessly. They can test the ideas we’ve sketched out as a team, or ones that are completely random and just itching for expression.
Q: Can you talk about the Blackboard Series, and how that started?
Bill: The Blackboard Series has been in development for a long time. It came from an idea we had many years ago about engaging culinary talent in our brewery—almost like guest chefs—to do something like a premier bottle offering, a 750ml kind of thing, with a certain level of exclusivity and scarcity. Over time—through conversations with our brewing staff, and running three restaurants where we see the culinary freedom that our chefs have to work with market-fresh and seasonally available ingredients—we realized it was something we could incorporate in the brewing process. Our first Blackboard Series beer began with a grapefruit juice infused IPA with agave syrup. When that hit the market in January of this year, it was right in line with seasonally fresh grapefruit and had a very fresh flavor for the deeper winter months.
When you operate ventures that, by the numbers, have more culinary/hospitality talent than brewery talent, in terms of sheer numbers, you try to do things that represent both sides of your business equally. The Blackboard Series gives brewers a chance to play the same way they see the chefs playing with things. It’s a great creative platform for us.
Q: Victory is well known for brewing with whole-cone hops—what drives that?
Bill: Whole-cones are a path we started to walk down many years ago, and we’re really dedicated to it because the less processing that you put on these delicate botanicals yields more flavor into the final brew. Now we’ve built entire breweries around this philosophy, specifically to use whole-cone hops. We’re 100% behind it for the flavor.
Q: What are you seeing in the market, especially the explosive growth of craft lately?
Bill: It’s a fascinating question, and one people are certainly talking a lot about. With so many entrants into the market, we know that retailers and wholesalers are struggling to figure out how to put the right beer into the right places in a timely manner. I think everyone needs to come to grips with this…and not to say that they should slow down on the innovation, because innovation drives people forward. But you have to be realistic and breweries like Victory are looking at our portfolio of beers geographically—trying to understand where local innovation is capturing more consumer interest, and how can we best respond to that. So we’re working with distributors to figure out where the focus should be. But it’s definitely an interesting time because there is incredible vitality…and people are no longer happy to settle for an industrial light lager. There seems to be a very tight bottleneck between failure and success.