Interview
Victory Brewing Co.'s Bill Covaleski and Ron Barchet
© 1997 Jim Anderson of Beer Philadelphia

We caught up to Bill Covaleski and Ron Barchet at the Beer Philadelphia global headquarters, high atop the pines of Fairmount Park. Over a bottle of Whitbread 1985 Barleywine and a couple of Westmalle Tripels, we talked about Style Nazis, gateway beers, and the hypocrisies of adulthood. We found the boys to be witty and intelligent, obviously the products of the higher education that no longer overqulaifies one to be a professional brewer. They were nearly of one mind, often completing each other's thought. And, both bearded, you could easily mistake them for brothers.

BP: I woke up this morning with a bit of a hangover, after having a couple of bottles of Victory Old Horizontal last night after work. Was it as successful a product for you as it was for me?

BC: We didn't do a whole lot, but it sold out immediately.

RB: We did 440 cases on December 12 and we were all sold out by the end of the month.

BP: That's quite good, considering you've only been in business for about a year.

BC: I think we made a lucky guess at the right amount of volume, because most retailers want their holiday beers gone after the holidays.

RB: Those are a lot of strong beers, and those are the ones people go out of their way for, so we wanted to make a barleywine. Why not make it for Christmas? A lot of people bring out the doppelbock around Christmas, but we do that more traditionally. During Lent, essentially. It left open Christmas, what do we do for Christmas? And we thought about imperial stout and we decided to do that for draft only and go right into barleywine.

BP: Well, it was lovely. I really heard a lot of people comparing it to Anchor Old Foghorn, with its precision hop attack right in the beginning. But it's got about 3% on Foghorn.

BC: Does it really have 3% on Foghorn?

RB: That's believable, because it [Foghorn] really is quite syrupy and sweet. So I think there's a little bit more unfermented sugars in it.

BC: And part of our whole background and focus on this brewery is that we don't believe that you have to buy beers from California -- although I'll always continue to buy [Anchor] Liberty Ale and the things I love -- but part of it is that we can recreate those beers. The same, better, different, but locally.

RB: Let's face it, the same thing that applies to us when the craft brewers talk about 'why buy beer that has to go across the ocean 5000 miles', well, frankly, in the middle of summer, going across this country 3000 miles is probably just as bad. Generally, Europeans have better equipment to lower oxygen [in the bottle] than your average micro, to make it a more stable beer.

BP: Effectively, West Coast beer is imported beer. And a big part of the Beer Revolution is to be able to buy all sorts of high quality beer from your local breweries.

BC: Well, we're gettin' there.

BP: Victory beer is available only in Pennsylvania, right?

BC: Actually, in the end of November we shipped some beer to New Jersey. So we have a wholesaler for Central and North Jersey. But it wasn't a huge order, and it went to some very specific draft accounts, like Kelmer's in Hoboken and...

BP: ...Old Bay?...

BC: ...yeah. Chris Demitri at Old Bay was really the impetus of the whole thing. 'I gotta get your beers, I gotta get your beers', so we got some to him.

RB: And probably by March or so we'll be selling beer in Maryland.

BP: Back to your roots?

BC: Well, that's part of the reason. We still have a lot of ties down there...

BP: Is this for revenge?

BOTH: [Laughing] No, no...

RB: The poor population of Baltimore has no 12oz. bottled pilsener to drink. And they know what a good one is from the Baltimore Brewing Company.

BP: Now, you guys both cut your teeth down in Maryland, that's no secret. Who was where and when?

BC: Ron was the original brewer at Baltimore Brewing Co. when they opened the doors. Theo hired him to set up and apprentice and do all the grunt labor that Theo didn't fell like doing. The brewmaster doesn't do that stuff.

RB: Well, he's also running the project, so there's a lot of stuff to handle, like paperwork, too. Simple physical labor -- which a lot of the chores of brewing are.

BC: So you hung with them for about ten months or so? [Ed.: Who's doing the interview here, anyway?]

RB: I was there a year. And basically, as I was leaving, they didn't have somebody to come back in. Bill and I had been homebrewing, and had already been good friends for already decades at that point...

BP: Didn't you guys grow up together in Doylestown?

RB: In Collegeville.

BP: So not so strange that you should end up in Downingtown.

RB: No. Just one county south of where we grew up together. So, anyway, we were looking for somebody to replace me, and Bill and I had been out to the West Coast drinking microbrews before there were micros on the East Coast, so we already liked this kind of thing. And when I got into it, we were already talking like, 'well, maybe some day we'll start a brewery'.

BC: Sort of serious, but no pith to the idea yet.

RB: And he [Bill] was not that happy with what he was doing, and one day we were drinking in Baltimore -- I guess it was at Duda's Tavern or something -- we were drinking Hacker-Pschorr or something -- and I said, 'Why don't you think about taking this job when I leave?' And Bill sort of looked at me -- I remember his look, the wheels turning -- and he's going, 'Why not?'. He didn't say yes right then, but the idea was born. And we thought about it a little bit more, and Theo was certainly up for the idea because it would be a smooth transition: Bill and I knew each other, I could vouch for Bill being a good worker and being careful. So, it worked out.

BC: Theo is really of the mentality that you apprentice. That whole apprenticeship/ guild type of atmosphere. Even now, the guy who took over my position when I was leaving was from a homebrewer background and spent four months working with me. Theo has this wealth of knowledge. He's a five-year graduate of Weihenstephan [brewing school in Bavaria], so he got the Brewing Engineering degree. So he's very much into helping people grow into the position. And he always gets a good deal, because no one comes in with a degree of his own.

RB: The main thing that he wanted, too, is by having people that he teaches, he doesn't have conflicts in philosophy. The problems is that whenever you put two brewers who are equal in their own right into the same brewery, it's gonna be a nightmare, because there's different philosphies. And this way, he could basically mold us.

BP: So he doesn't get people coming in with bad habits.

RB: That, and he knew Bill and I were not the type to go, 'Well, you really need to put more hops in your Festbeer' or something. He knew that we respected his knowledge. That he knew what he was doing..

BC: It's probably interesting to note that the whole reason Ron and I first started drinking quality beers was when we were in high school together, in Ron's senior year his father took a job out on California, so he [Ron] and his folks moved out there. And that gave us the opportunity to have our brief vacations out there, and we would drink stuff like Henry Weinhard's, Steinlager,...

BP: ...cutting edge stuff back then. What year was this?

RB: 1980, '81.

BC: Weinhard's was a very substantial beer coming down from the Blitz-Weinhard Brewery, and it wasn't seen anywhere else.

RB: And then, of course, you went and studied back in California in "84, and when your were there, I know that we were hip already to all the Paulaners. In the half-litre bottles.

BC: So, out in California, that was our entree to good beers. Mind you, we did go through our share of Molson Golden and Genee Cream Ale.

RB: When you're a student in high school, you get whatever beer you can. You're not always concerned about what type. Although my father always had Stegmaier longnecks in the garage, because he knew that would be the one beer that he could have while I was in high school that I wouldn't touch.

BC: Yeah, my dad had Carling Black Label, which has got to be one of the harshest beers ever created.

BP: That's rough stuff. What was your guys' first beer that made you wake up and say, 'Oh, God, this isn't Steg'?

RB: In 1984, I went to Germany as part of a work exchange program. Upon arrival in Frankfurt I shuttled to the train station to take a ride to my destination near Basil, Germany. During the hour or so layover, I managed to down 4 or 5 Henninger Pils served gravity from a wood keg. That's when I truly discovered fresh, good lager, and then weissebier, etc. I remember a day trip up to Weihenstephan, which was sort of ironic. I climbed the hill, drank a few litres, trained back. Six years later I found myself sitting in the same beer garden. Of course I had no idea when I was there in 1984 that this would occur-- I was just discovering beer. I don't think I even knew there was a school there.

BP: How about you, Bill?

BC: The first real revelation beer -- it sounds sort of simple-- but I remember we found a pub in Santa Monica that served all draft Sierra Nevada, [Anchor] Liberty, Grant's Imperial Stout, The Grapevine Brewery, Timberline Ale from the Portland Brewery.. It was a cascade of everything at once. And this was a biker bar with peanut shells and sawdust on the floor, and they just wanted to have good beer, so did we.

BP: Looks like we all share a common trait that beers serve as landmarks to the segments of our lives. 'I remember my first child...I was drinking a Salvator'...

RB: It was a Brugges Tripel for me! [All laugh]

BP: Okay, honey, you push, and I'll pull! [All laugh, but with the naughty glee of three sensitive guys who would never, ever sell the opportunity to share the wonderful experience of childbirth for a bottle of beer.] So, you guys are brewing for real down in Maryland. Clearly, you were able to learn from some mistakes you made down there, effectively at someone else's expense, probably saving yourselves a lot of those type of experiences at your own brewery. What were some of those specific experiences at Baltimore Brewing?

BC: Mostly equipment. We were much more astute as to what equipment to purchase and how it would function for us. The equipment limitations were the biggest thing that I learned. Lack of a hot liquor tank for cleanings, always relying on your kettle as your boiling source for cleaning...

RB: ...plus, sometimes when you're with a brewhouse, you're looking at 30 valves, and they all have to be in the right position for each step. Basically understanding the whole plumbing thing. You can make mistakes at first, and you realize 'Oh, I've done that and that means the beer goes down the drain instead of in another tank...[All laugh] There's always the boilovers, which we still haven't learned. I still have boilovers occasionally, some monumental boilovers...

BP: That's what you get for using hops in your beer, fellas. [All laugh]

BC: Shame on us! I know we learned recipe formulation there. I can't say that at Baltimore we really created any clunkers. There were really no beers that anyone found unpalatable. I'm sure that same was true at Dominion [where Ron also brewed]. You guys didn't produce a lame beer. We didn't learn recipes by accident.

RB: At Dominion we had a lot of seasonal beers that we did over the course of the three or four years that I was there, so each year we'd tweak the recipes a little and see how it made a difference. I'm glad I tried a lot of those things for Dominion and not for Victory. You really learn some tricks of the trade for making certain types of beers -- you don't want to use this type of malt that might seem natural until you try it and find out how it will work.

BP: And you guys haven't made any clunkers at Victory, either. It's interesting to see you guys enter the local brewing scene running, with good, sucessful beers right off the bat, bypassing some of the growing pains that you see other startup breweries go through.

RB: That's very simple. You have a bunch of people who have all the money and they decide, three months before the place is to open, 'We need a brewer'. And then they go around and talk to brewers, and in this day and age when there's more people needing brewers than there are brewers, there's basically slim pickins unless you're willing to pay a little bit more than market average. And what you often see is a lot of inexperience being turned on to a brewery the size of Victory. If we hadn't made our mistakes at other places, they'd be happening now.

BC: One of the things that also occurs is that they find their brewer, and they put him in a brewhouse that's not of his design, and he claims he can't do things because of the equipment.

BP: Lately, fruit and flavored beers are getting a reputation as 'training wheel' beers. You guys don't strike me as the sort to brew them.

BC: We haven't for two reasons. We don't really have a passion for them. The other thing is that the audience flavored beer addresses used to be the wine cooler crowd or maybe was the Zima crowd. And there's not a whole lot of purpose in chasing these people down, because they'll be on to another trend, maybe a liquor trend, a year or two down the road.

BP: Don't you think introducing people to these beers keeps them in the beer fold?

RB: No. I think that's flawed. I think they will always be a fruit beer drinkers. I don't think you go from fruit beer to Festbier to HopDevil. I think you go from one fruit beer to another to a new fruit beer. So you can get a bigger audience by brewing a fruit beer, but I don't think we should fool ourselves into thinking they're training wheels into real beer. It's a separate market. Which is not to say that we wouldn't want to get into that. Bill and I have always said that we'll make a fruit beer if it becomes necessary from a business standpoint. In other words, if we need the sales, and the sales are guaranteed, and we really are desperate for it, we would do it. The goal being to support the brewery so we can make real beer.

BP: Many of your beers are plays on traditional European styles. Where do you think a style ends and a designation indicating what flavors to expect begins?

BC: For example, our HopDevil is broadly an IPA, but we use German malts and American hops, which doesn't have much to do with the tradition. It's very perplexing. Even when you look at the stylistic guidelines for the Great American Beer Festival, there are some flaws and problems in their guidelines. But they're considered the gospel. So there you go.

BP: But whose gospel?

RB: Whoever writes them

BC: That's why you haven't seen us at the GABF yet.

RB: I guess I see a style designation on a label to guide them in terms of what to expect. In other words, [Victory] Brandywine Export is in the export style. Well, that means it's going to be fairly golden, it's going to be a pale lager, it's going to be roughly 5-5.5% [ABV]. And from within those parameters, I think there's a lot of play.

BP: As there is among any group of beers brewed in the same broad style. The guys who wrote down those guidelines froze a moment that was part of a general evolution. Like the guy who first wrote down Beowulf took a living, changing poem in the oral tradition and froze it for eternity. Then the academics get a hold of it and say, 'this is what the whole thing means' when the version they got may have been completely improvisational, or maybe even a "bad" version of the poem at the time. Pigeonholing a beer style can stunt that style's natural evolution. You guys have a brewpub, and you must get jerks in there saying, 'I've had IPAs and this is not to style'.

RB: Like with the Old Horizontal. 'This is not sweet enough for a barleywine.'

BC: But the Style Police do have a role. At least someone's focusing on what that stylistic touchstone should be. But a great beer is a great beer. So, falling outside the parameters is fine. As long as you're generating a product that everyone likes.

RB: When it really gets bad is when you get people who are Style Nazis, and they don't even know what they're talking about. We have a guy who says our Festbier is nice, but not caramelly enough. Well, if you really want to know how a marzen is brewed, you don't use any caramel malt! It's supposed to be nutty or toasty. A caramel flavor is easy. You just add caramel malt.

BC: And that's what he'd been drinking from other micros, I guess. So that clouded his palate. So here we are, trying to play second fiddle to some other brewery's folly. If they can come to appreciate the beer and not just hate it because it doesn't fit their guidelines, then we're all happy.

RB: A lot of them do. They say, 'I love this beer, but it's not a real fest beer'. The Festbier is the one we hear that the most on. And the Old Horizontal.

BP: I can't understand that one.

RB: Because in England, barleywines are mostly maltier and more winelike. But when I think of a good barleywine that I want to drink, I think of a [Anchor Old] Foghorn or [Sierra Nevada] Bigfoot.

BP: Which brinkgs us back to the opening of the interview. I wouldn't have a hangover from four Old Horizontals if they weren't good drinking beers. If I wanted simply to get drunk, I'd be reaching for the Bacardi 151. So there's a lot to be said for the elusive quality of 'drinkability' in a barleywine.

BC: That says a lot to us. With the selection of beer at your disposal, if you would choose one beer four times in a row, that beer's doing something for you.

BP: Back to the brewery. What superstitions do you guys harbor?

RB: I never take a alcohol reading on a high-gravity beer until it's pretty much done fermenting.

BC: At the pub we sit around and predict terrible evenings Fridays and Saturdays so we'll have great ones.

BP: Clearly you got into this venture through your love for beer. But now you run a restaurant, too. Running a restaurant is much different than running a brewery.

BC: The reason we did it was that we like to interface with our audience. They tell us how they can help us. Reason number two is that they bring money to the place, which is sometimes hard to come by in a micro [without a brewpub].

RB: So in a micro with a brewpub you have instant success in the first couple of months, which is when you need the money most, since you haven't gotten enough accounts to sell your beer. I don't know what we'd do without a restaurant. On the other hand, if we didn't have a restaurant we would have hired a sales staff and we'd have a whole different overhead structure. But we looked at it both ways before we got into it. And we just couldn't make it work with realistic sales targets without a restaurant. Unless we got used equipment. But Bill and I had always worked on good equipment -- at Baltimore it's topnotch, and at Dominion it's one notch below topnotch. We have a Century system which is topnotch for its size. So, unless we were willing to start on a shoestring -- and we didn't want to do that -- we had to look at money coming in right away.

BC: And the brewpub is a good test ground for us, too. We made the Milltown Mild which we like, and others liked it, but it says, 'mild', and you just don't get those core drinkers with the name. So we learned something. That's why you don't see Milltown Mild in 12oz. bottles. There are those who like it, but there's just not that big an audience for it.

BP: Many of the folks out there looking for new beer experiences would shy away from a mild simply because they don't think they're looking for a mild experience. The same way that someone may say they don't like sweet beers, yet are attracted to something with "honey" in the name.

BC: It's all in the seduction. [All laugh]

RB: I see that as an indication that the industry's come full circle. That it started off with a very small core of people who didn't care about marketing, who didn't care about image, and then the Big Suits got into it, and all the money, instead of the homebrewers and the people who just want to make great beer and make a living while they're doing it. All the money coming into it created so much supply that everyone's got to wedge the market wider to sell all this beer. So, now the thing's come around to doing what the big boys are doing. Marketing is becoming as important as brewing. The most successful craft brewery is Samuel Adams. They don't make any beer.

BP: They're about to.

RB: Boy, will that change their life forever. No longer just an office. They'll have to run a factory.

BP: I remember when you were going to self-distribute your beer.

RB: Well, we still do in Chester and Montgomery Counties. We have one beer distributor in West Chester who sells more bottled Victory than in the entire county of Philadelphia.

BC: And that's good for the future. We don't want to downplay Philadelphia's importance in our future, but we built a suburban brewery because we're well aware of the demographic trends and we really expect to be strong in our home territory. And our home territory is Chester County, not Philadelphia County.

BP: Do you feel there's enough business in your home territory that you won't have to ship beer outside a small radius?

BC: Our goal was to stick to a 50-mile radius around the brewery. We felt that, in terms of product integrity, and as far as logistics and headaches, that would be best for us. What we're finding is that right now, whether it's through dilution from too many brands, or lack of consumer knowledge, we're not finding enough drinkers -- maybe it's lack of our own marketing budget -- within that territory to keep us going at a great pace. So that's why we go a little further afar now. We're addressing needs. If there's a need, let's answer it. Don't leave it unanswered. We have a big brewery.

RB: If people want our beer in Baltimore, we can get it to them.

BP: Recently, Jim Bell said something that stunned me by making sense. He said that among microbrew drinkers there's very little brand loyalty.

RB: That's for sure.

BP: I'd agree with that with one qualification. There are people who won't drink whatever Victory may be available, but who might drink a HopDevil every time they see it.

RB: That's an indication of how distinguished the beer is. I don't think that our Brandywine Export Lager -- which is a delicious export lager -- when you put it up against similar brands in another market is going to get the loyalty that you get when you come out with something that's got some balls on it. The [Prima] Pils or HopDevil are going to attract a more loyal audience, because the people drinking the other ones are still in an experimental stage.

BC: I think you're right, though. There are people who have their favorites among categories, and they'll continually come back to them.

RB: I always come back to Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale or [Anchor] Liberty Ale, and now, HopDevil. I like extreme beers. I don't like limp beers. I've had micros that made me wonder why I'm paying $7.00 a six pack.

BP: As I've said before, the top of the bell curve will rear its ugly head as more people get into the game. My theory of Guaranteed Mediocrity hinges upon a public who gravitates toward safe, unspectacular experiences rather than those that might wind up being less than mediocre. Which, of course insulates them from any truly great experience, too.

BC: It's funny you should say that, because we're starting to have a lot of chain restaurants move into our area, and I want to just touch our consumers one last time and say, 'This is coming. Remember quality, remember people making things with their hands'. The whole thing starts with a couple of brands disappearing. What happens to them? Mergers, acquisitions, consumer apathy. Guaranteed Mediocrity. Honey Brown survives on that.

BP: A lot of brewpubs survive on that, too.

RB: But they have great food, right?

BP: Frankly, I go to brewpubs for beer, but I'm a sucker for your wood-burning oven.

BC: We actually had a pretty heavy hand in the design of the menu, because we built the kitchen, then found the guy who was going to run it...

RB: ...just like we said we shouldn't do with the brewery... [All laugh]

BP: And isn't that the great thing about becoming an adult: you become what you hate.

RB: Isn't that the truth. It's hard to be a good parent without being a hypocrite. Eventually, I'll be telling my kids they have to be in by 10:00. And I'll be right.

BP: Where do you guys think you'd be if you weren't brewing?

BC: If it weren't for brewing, we probably would have gone our separate way, in separate careers. Brewing is what's kept us together...

RB: We thought a brewpub is a good way to make money, because there's not a lot of money to spend up front -- you don't have to have a 25-barrel brewery and a bottling line -- but there's only a need for one brewer. So, one of gets to brew while the other person is a restaurant manager? That's something none of us wanted to do.

BC: I guess there was no other option for us, this was destiny.