Victory Brewing Company: Two Decades of Community and Creativity

From the Source by | Feb 2016 | Issue #109

“There were an amazing amount of closures in 1997,” says Victory co-founder Bill Covaleski. “I’m glad that we’re still standing. We were struggling for relevance.”

In today’s brewing landscape, where new breweries continue to open at an unprecedented rate, Covaleski’s statement serves as a sobering reminder that businesses fail. Good ones, sometimes. It also isn’t the sort of thing you’d expect to hear from the 35th largest beer company in the US. Nonetheless, it’s on the president’s mind as he looks back on 20 years in the industry. “The name Victory is a reflection of the adversity we faced,” he explains.

Victory Brewing Company officially opened its doors in February 1996, but the story begins when Bill Covaleski met fellow fifth-grader Ron Barchet on the bus to school in 1973. They quickly became friends and, shortly after graduating from college, began to explore the possibilities of homebrewing. Over time, and as they became more proficient with mash temperatures and hopping rates, the two young men began to view their shared hobby in terms of its career potential. They both acquired their first professional experience at the Baltimore Brewing Company in Baltimore, Md., later relocating to Germany to study brewing at the Technical University of Munich (Barchet) and the Doemens Institute (Covaleski).

Starting with Tradition
Finally ready to strike out on their own, Covaleski and Barchet drafted a business plan and secured a former Pepperidge Farm factory in Downingtown, Pa., for their future brewery. Then, armed with the knowledge they gained in Germany and at Baltimore Brewing making Bock, Pilsner, Weissbier and Märzen, the partners introduced themselves to the world with a pair of lagers and an American IPA called HopDevil. As it turned out, it was the latter that caught the attention of beer drinkers.

“At the time, in the late ’90s, there weren’t many hoppy beers,” says Don Russell, a veteran beer columnist and the creator of Philly Beer Week. “The hoppiest beer around was Celebration.”

Brewed with German malts and whole flower American hops, HopDevil was inspired in part by the citrusy, piney character of Sierra Nevada’s winter seasonal. Barchet and Covaleski wanted to make an expressive beer that would grab drinkers by the taste buds, just as Celebration had done with them. It was this bold IPA that, to a certain extent, foreshadowed the way forward for the fledgling company—and the industry at large. HopDevil remains part of Victory’s year-round lineup today, joined by a diverse range of ales and lagers that draw on a variety of traditions.

“I knew it would work when we tried HopDevil out of the tank,” CEO Barchet remembers. “We did not have deep pockets by any means, but I thought: we’ve got the beer, now we just have to get the business right.”

From the beginning, part of the business involved a no-frills pub with a 70-foot-long bar, a simple food menu and, crucially, beer samples. They made Victory a destination. Covaleski and Barchet weren’t restaurant people, and had little interest in managing a commercial kitchen. They wanted to spend what money they had on better equipment for their brewhouse. But for an unknown brewing company that had already invested in costly ingredients and fermentation space, adding an inviting public area—or a taproom, as we’d call it today—was a necessity.

“Originally it started as a way to cover our bills and market our beer,” says Covaleski. “But the pub became an absolutely essential component. It gave us the ability to get our brands in front of people at a reasonable price.”

Community and Creativity
The partners still operate their “brewpub” in Downingtown, except today it seats 300 and cranks out about 80 times more beer than it did in its first year. In 2012, after struggling to keep up with the dual production demands of innovative, small-batch products and bread and butter flagship brands, Victory announced a major expansion, unveiling plans for a state-of-the-art facility in nearby Parkesburg, Pa., with more than twice the square footage of the original location. A 348-seat restaurant was added in late 2015. Seven months before adding food service at Parkesburg though, the company opened Victory at Magnolia, its second brewpub in Kennett Square, Pa.

“I never really imagined they’d be as big as they’ve gotten,” says Russell. “But they’ve grown steadily. It’s hard to remember that these guys were very small at one time—that they were homebrewers.”

Along the way, Covaleski and Barchet have remained true to their founding principles. When it came time to expand, they did it locally, adding a second production facility in Pennsylvania even as their distribution has grown to include 37 states and nearly a dozen countries. They continue to brew award-winning classic styles using whole cone hops, but also regularly introduce specialty beers and collaborations like a sour, salty and smoky Lichtenhainer made with Friegeist, and the popular Saison du BUFF, a beer launched in 2010 with Dogfish Head Brewery and Stone Brewing. Victory’s 20th anniversary has them thinking about more than just beer, however.

“It’s amazing to see the talent we’ve been able to attract,” says Barchet. “It’s all about the people. We can’t make all the beer ourselves.”

Covaleski, meanwhile, is also proud of the charitable contributions the company has made. In particular, he likes to call attention to the Headwaters Grant, a fund named after Victory’s Headwaters Pale Ale (whose name is itself a reference to Brandywine Creek, the source of the brewery’s water) that has already raised more than $41,000 for local water advocacy groups. Good beer, after all, starts with good, clean water.

“Our organization was the first recipient of the Headwaters Grant,” says Tish Molloy, president of The Guardians of the Brandywine, an all-volunteer organization dedicated to watershed protection. “With our Headwaters funds we have purchased stream monitoring equipment and have established a stream monitoring program. … We have funded tree plantings to restore riparian cover along the Upper East Branch and have established an annual scholarship for college students studying within our watershed. When you consider that none of these projects would have happened without support from Victory, you understand the immeasurable difference their support has made to our organization.”

It’s this level of commitment, not just to quality, but to community and Pennsylvania, that helps to set Victory apart. And now, two decades after landing their first draft account, Barchet and Covaleski hardly seem to be struggling for relevance anymore.

Parkesburg Brewhouse
200 barrel Rolec brewhouse
20 1000-barrel fermentors
2 200-barrel fermentors
2 500-barrel bright tanks
2 1,000-barrel bright tanks

Downingtown Brewhouse
50 barrel Rolec brewhouse
12 400-barrel fermentors
12 200-barrel fermentors
26 50-barrel fermentors
3 100-barrel bright tanks
2 50-barrel bright tanks

Kennett Square Brewhouse
7 barrel brewhouse
3 7-barrel fermentors
3 7-barrel serving tanks

On Tap
Prima Pils: Bitter, bright and dry, this Pilsner also won back-to-back medals at the Great American Beer Festival. 5.3% ABV

Golden Monkey: Strong and somewhat sweet, this Tripel was first brewed to celebrate the birth of Barchet’s third child. 9.5% ABV

HopDevil: A spicy, aromatic, hop-forward IPA that has been part of Victory’s core lineup since the beginning. 6.7% ABV

Sour Monkey: Brettanomyces adds a tart twist and some funky complexity to the award-winning Golden Monkey. 9.5% ABV

Agave IPA: The first release in the brewery’s new Blackboard Series is defined by its prominent grapefruit flavor and a citric bite. 7.0% ABV

Helles Lager: A crisp, smooth and indisputably drinkable beer with a subtle suggestion of Tettnanger Mittelfrueh hops. 4.8% ABV