ill Covaleski and Ron Barchet are the founders and brewmasters at VictoryBrewing Company, a brewery with three beers in the top 10 of RateBeer’s Top American Beers list* and recently named Malt Advocate’s Brewery Of The Year.Bill took some time in busy schedule to talk to us at RateBeer.
RateBeer: First off, thanks for sending a batch of Old Horizontal to California! Can we expect more Victory brew across the States?
Bill Covaleski: With our Brewery Of The Year honors the calls are pouring in. We are in 11 states as it is largely because it pains us to deny folks our beer. They call, and we respond to their thirst as best we can. We’ll be adding the Chicago area and Oregon for certain this year but production can’t allow much more than that.
Good to hear. So it sounds like contract brewing to meet demand is not something you’re planning…
We have no vision of our beers being brewed in another facility out of our control.
I’m sure this is something fans of your brew can understand. "Vision" - I like that term. You guys have a great ’American Dream’ story...
Our operation is a bit like a treehouse you’d have made as a kid. All of our closest friends pitched in. Rather than nails, scrap wood and paint, we sourced ambition and effort from our friends and initial investors. No one had a ton of money to lie on the table but together we focused on what was important and got the doors open at an insanely low cost and great value.
It was the passion…
Part of what also drove us to open a business was our experiences in European brewing schools. There only the elite group that came from family owned breweries had the opportunity to dream of following their own muse and inspiration one day. Most others never even felt that the option to own and run their own brewery was a remote possibility. I guess that economic/class structures make it so.
I love that about America too. But despite that dream being possible here, it doesn’t always come easy. What was Victory’s greatest victory?
Survival itself. I look back at the days before we opened six years ago and marvel that the thing really flew and has even thrived. As trite as it may sound, this is a great country if you have ambition and are naively unaware of peril.
He he… How true. So, what’s next? What’s on the horizon for you?
To continue to have fun at what we are doing. Growth is as stressful as survival and is also another form of survival. To keep the fun we continue to challenge ourselves with our on-going series of varietal, single-hop pilsners and we have our new bottling line arriving with the capability to fill and cork 750ml bottles. That way we can stretch out into some more unique bottle conditioned offerings.
Right on! That’s good to hear. Wow, a giant Hop Devil! Okay, how about this… You’re two smart, enthusiastic guys with college degrees. Did you get any grief from parents or friends for choosing this very atypical career path?
You would expect that we’d have gotten more than we did. Then again, who’d talk a family member out of becoming a brewer? If the experiment works you all have beer!
Seriously, I know from my standpoint that my parents have always offered us kids latitude to make our choices and make them work. That builds confidence in the child I guess in an oblique way. Confidence goes a long way toward realizing ambitions.
Bill, Your first career was in advertising. Have you noticed that this background has shaped your business approach?
I spend next to nothing on advertising, that’s how! Really, my few years in that industry allowed me to see what works and what does not to promote brands and the sales of them. We’ve embraced our limited marketing budget and worked hard to reveal the ’personality’ of our beers and our brewery. That is how we tell our story amidst all of the shouting.
I was an art director so my background has permitted me to design and execute all graphics and packages. There is real value in that capability that we have utilized to not only express our true thoughts but to also save a ton of money.
I like the labels a lot. I especially like Hop Devil’s label though Golden Monkey is a close second and probably my favorite Victory beer. What’s your favorite Victory brew?
I can never be to far from a Prima Pils. Also Storm King Stout rocks my world. They are like children though, you gotta love them all to some degree.
What do you drink when you’re at home?
At the moment it is our draft Scottish Ale. But I have a Westvleteren 12 on the shelf begging for my attention.
That’s the big fave at RateBeer right now. It was certainly a different kind of beer for me as well. What were the original beers that opened your eyes to great beer?
Here is the list of the very first few that got our attention. Read in to it anything you might because it is now too long ago for me to make sense of: Molson Golden, Henry Weinhard’s, Franziskaner, Spaten Gold, Asahi and Steinlager.
I won’t read anything into that. That’s an eclectic list. What are your current favorite brews?
We are kind of in a weird situation as we brew to keep about 12 selections on draft at our place at all times. So, we really do brew to make ourselves happy. That said, we don’t drink nearly as much of the other great beers out there that we should. One from our area that I have been seeking out is Perkuno’s Hammer from Heavyweight Brewing of New Jersey.
This has gotten wildly high and low marks at RateBeer. I wonder what gives? Could be a fragile beer. Hmmm...
You and Ron both spent time in Germany learning the art of brewing. Any great stories from your days in Deutschland?
Too many to type really. My favorite was talking to my German age-peer group about attending Oktoberfest. The non-brewers thought that it was for old people and why should I bother with that? I explained that it was a celebration of the brewer and his art and in America there is no such outpouring of sentiment and appreciation like that. I told them that I needed to bask in that glow for a moment. Brewers have given us so much of our greatest social moments and have contributed greatly to our culture.
The Bavarians really do that well. All those Australians present for Oktoberfest also seems fitting… One thing there in Germany that made me realize how much drinking heavily was a part of the culture was being shown what a Pabst is. It isn’t a yellow fizzy beer but a place to disgorge yourself so you can keep worshipping Bacchus!
How was learning under Theo De Groen?
RC: That was a great opportunity and I’m ever grateful that both he and I were wise enough to fully capitalize on what each other offered. Theo was a real engineer, something I am not. He made me think in terms of brewery process as he was constantly re-engineering his.
Do you miss anything about Germany? Have you gone back?
Germany has so much to offer the brewer. Beer is still loved there by many, many people. We have gone back to get infused with that spirit and also to buy German technology in the form of brewing equipment.
You have the words of another Theo, Theodore Roosevelt, emblazoned across the top of your bar. <blockquote>"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered with failure, than to take rank with those poor souls that neither enjoy much nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows not VICTORY nor defeat"</blockquote> Tell us about this...
The Victory name was not on our first draft of our business plan. There was another name that, amazingly, another brewery near to us incorporated under before we could. This was no small setback and after a series of a few regarding location and financing we realized what a ’victory’ it would be to make our dreams happen.
I discovered Roosevelt’s quote during this dark period and it was inspiring to us.Only an idiot would put a quote about ambition over the bar where you want your patrons to never leave or even think about doing something else but we did it!
Well, I don’t think beer was ever accused of causing amotivational syndrome! There are a lot of Raters at RateBeer who want your beer. Can you recommend ways for interested individuals or bars to get your brews in bottles or kegs?
We do our best to keep our <a href=http://www.victorybeer.com>website up to date so I’d encourage folks to look up retailers and taverns there, organized by state. I’d do more than encourage. I challenge folks to speak up to retailers and bar managers to serve the quality beers that the discerning public wants to drink. Don’t settle for less than you deserve, whether it’s Victory or another hard-working, American craft brewery!
See what I mean about beer and ambition... <smiley> Is the three tier system of having brewers, distributors and retailers as separated entities hurting or helping you?
The three tier system is reality and small business owners have enough boulders to push up mountains than to tackle that one as well. That said, the three tier system will only exist within the confines of America’s anti-trust regulations as long as globalizing wholesalers keep their greed and egos in check. In other words, it looks to be vulnerable as mega-wholesalers cannot contain their greed. Checks and balances may at some point reward all of us who are ’the little guy’ whether that’s defined by our business or our tastse for finer beverages.
Any parting words for your beers’ fans and/or young brewers?
Don’t compromise your vision. It’s what you have that no one else may have to offer and therefore it is valuable beyond words.
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my few years in that industry allowed me to see what works and what does not to promote brands and the sales of them. We’ve embraced our limited marketing budget and worked hard to reveal the ’personality’ of our beers and our brewery.