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2/15/06: Bill Covaleski, on the occasion of Victory Brewing's 10th Anniversary: 

Lew: This is the actual day, right?

Bill: This is the actual day of our anniversary.

I was here 10 years, actually 10 years and a month ago. I wasn’t here on the opening day. I was here a month early, and we drank coffee, as I recall, because you didn’t have any beer! That was after a big snowstorm too.

That was after a very big snowstorm. That was a snowy winter.

I remember you told me you had stayed all night during the storm and brewed a double batch of Festbier.

It was a Saturday afternoon, and all our contractors, in the height of the construction, at about 1:00, waltzed through and waved, see ya! We were, like, well, where are you going? They were all like, hey, big snowstorm! We had no choice. We brewed till 2 in the morning, then didn’t see the brewery for another 24 hours.

I remember when I came through four days later, it was the big thaw, and the parking lot out here was under a foot and a half of water… I’m drinking 10 Years Alt [see my tasting notes here]. Talk to me about the beer.

Well, trying to find the common ground between an altbier – very dry, refreshing beer – and a doppelbock – a very rich, malty thing – is a tough challenge. There is no common ground. So it gave us a fair amount of latitude to create that. We wanted to accentuate the malts, for sure, show off a nice malty character to it, which would hide the 8.5% alcohol. Yet at the same time, it gave us free reign to play up the European hops to a very high level, which is seldom done.

What is in there?

It’s a combination of a number of hops, but there’s a ton of German-grown Tettnang in it…

Which has always been one of your favorites.

Yeah, for sure.

Why this particular beer? Was the alt/old thing the real reason you chose it?

No, no, the name didn’t drive the choice! It came up in the early summer about what to do for our 10th anniversary beer. The first logical thought is that you do something in a large bottle. At the same time, we thought, well, 750s don’t necessarily distribute well. They travel, they hold up well, but if we really wanted to share this experience with a lot of people, it needed to be a 12 oz. product. Then already we’re talking about somethbing that’s not necessarily a standard high-gravity ale, meaning Belgian. That opened up a lot more possibilities. We certainly wanted to highlight our German training and European background as well. We thought this hybrid beer gave us the opportunity to again, like we do with so many beers, start with what is already available to us, and run with it, make it something totally our own.

How hybrid is it?

There’s a little bit of debate going on right now. Is this the first [doppelsticke alt], were others the first? Our friends up at Long Trail have their Double Bag Ale, which they consider a doppelalt, or a sticke alt. The fact that it’s just above 7% by volume still gives us the opportunity to call this a true doppel-alt…

A doppelstickealt?

Yeah, a doppelstickealtbier. We’re tripping over the word.

That’s German for you.

But we didn’t develop the idea because it was tricky, and it was a concept, and it was sensational. We wanted to develop a great beer, but we had to have some stylistic parameters to do so.

The innovative stuff you have done – this, the addition of a bit of smoked malt to a doppelbock, or HopDevil, a German malt pale ale with American hops – why did you feel the need to innovate, rather than just do English styles, or German styles, as they’re done. Why did you feel that need to innovate?

I think part of it has to do with our age. More so now you’re starting to see breweries entering and just doing their version of English, or German, or American styles. 10 years ago, I think it was more important to put a signature on things, perhaps. Do you agree or disagree?

Ten years ago? You’re right.

We’re following what we established then. Haven’t really veered in any direction.

What would you say is your most traditional beer? I have my vote, but what’s yours?

I want to know your vote! I guess the one that sticks closest to conventions might be the Golden Monkey, realistically. Of course, we’re talking – Belgian tripels have a lot of latitude, so that’s a soft spot right there. I would like to say the Prima Pils, but there are so many Europeans who would argue that one, because it’s just so hoppy.

Yeah, you’re on the edge of the spectrum on that one.

Maybe on the far side of that edge, even.

I’d pick the Sunrise Weiss, or even the Lager, which are both beautiful examples of the type they are.

Yeah, yeah, I think you picked better examples than I, quite honestly. The Lager, especially, we’re not stepping out on a limb.

I was really pissed when you changed the Lager [from an Export type to a helles], I told you that. But about halfway through the second glass I was completely over that.

So it worked, then?

Yeah, worked fine! I’ve been trying to think of questions other people wouldn’t ask: where do you see yourself in the next ten years, what would you do differently… There was one that’s maybe a little different: is there anything you wouldn’t have done?

V-10, ha ha ha.

I didn’t want to bring that up, but… what happened with V-10? A yeast problem?

It was really a flaw in the beer itself. We have good sanitation here, we had a great track record for that.

I could probably count your sanitation problems on one hand – that I know about.

Yeah, and that’s probably all of them. We’ve come clean on everything, there’s been no mysteries. But the problem with V-10 is the fact that even when it’s fully fermented, there’s so much dextrinous unfermentable sugars to it that it’s just a smorgasbord for any… It just takes one cell, one stray microbe, and boom, it’s a picnic.

That’s an effect of the malts you put in.

Right. We developed a recipe that would leave a lot of residuals, so it would be big in the mouth, and it would be sweet, and it would be chewy, and unfortunately, all those big sweet things are like throwing a caramel bar on the floor: you’ve got an ant colony.

In terms of where we see the next 10 years, and by no means should this sound altruistic, but we really want to give as many people who want it, an experience of better beer. When you look at what imports sell, and what craft beers seel, and what major domestics sell…I hope this doesn’t sound too self-congratulatory, but I think crafts have such a great opportunity to give people a quality beer experience that they’ve never had or expected before. That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to maintain the quality and expose it to a number of people – not through billboards, not through bus shelter ads, but just through sampling events and opportunities.

Question, then. You’ve got High Falls suddenly deciding that craft is the way to go, you’ve got The Lion all of a sudden making a decision that craft is the way to go, 7% growth for the segment in 2004, 9% in 2005: are we looking at a tipping point?

Yes, we are hitting the tipping point, but it isn’t going to be a rapid change.

No! But I think it’s accelerating.

Yes. Here are my benchmarks. Find a supermarket that doesn’t have a bakery in it. Go back 15 years ago, and how many did? Same story for coffee. 20 years ago we bought our coffee in 2-pound cans and it was already ground and said things like Chock Full O’ Nuts on it. Now that portion of the shelf is minimal. I think beer and other food products are affordable luxuries in a world that is starting to learn better.

The other side of that, though, is the question of why the light beer segment of the beer market continues to grow. It’s about 50% of beer sold in America now.

That, to me is not a bad sign. I think the middle ground is falling out. There are people who view beer as a commodity, and the lighter and cheaper it is, the better. That’s okay. It’s refreshment with a little bit of alcohol. When Coors Light first came out with that "Won’t slow you down" campaign, they really said a mouthful there. They were telling people "You can hang out, you can be sociable, you can be cool because you’re drinking beer, but, you know, if you find yourself in a bedroom with the cute girl across the room, you’re gonna be alright!"

So yeah, the middle ground is disappearing. It doesn’t worry me that light beer is gaining momentum. It’s heavily, heavily marketed, and it appeals to people who don’t know better. But there’s the other group of people who not only know better, but who are also learning. That’s who we’re reaching.

Thanks, Bill. Happy anniversary.

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