In 1996 longtime friends Ron Barchet and Bill Covaleski fulfilled a lifelong dream and converted an old Pepperidge Farm bakery in Downingtown, PA into the Victory Brewing Company. Each brought years of experience in a microbrewing industry still in its infancy, as well as formal training from top German brewmasters. From 1,700 production barrels in ‘96 to almost 60,000 barrels in 2010 the brewery now sports a lineup stacked with critical and commercial successes: a lager that reimagined the style (Prima Pils), a hoppy and aggressive flagship IPA (HopDevil Ale), a complex and hard-hitting Imperial Stout (Storm King Stout), and many more. In anticipation of Victory’s 15th anniversary celebration, Ron and Bill announced the release of a beer to commemorate the occasion- and what sort of uber-extreme, one-off, barrel-aged prestige brew to show off VBC’s brewing muscle did they select? An American Pale Ale, specifically the Victory Headwaters Pale Ale.
There’s been much discussion among Aleheads recently regarding the merits of extreme beers that dominate the best beer lists on BeerAdvocate and RateBeer. Like it or not, the easiest way to get attention for your beer and brewery is to produce a great Imperial Stout or Imperial IPA with a cool name and label, and then make it absolutely impossible to find. Victory has chosen a different tack here- an Anniversary beer that everyone can get their hands on. The American Pale Ale is a ubiquitous style that is difficult to do well. Every brewery of note in the US has produced a Pale Ale, yet only the 3 Floyds Alpha King holds the grade of “A” on BeerAdvocate. Dr. Rip Van Drinkale posted his Top 10 Pale Ales with Alpha King at the top spot and Oskar Blues’ Dale’s Pale Ale coming in second. Though Dale’s Pale Ale is a favorite at our humble blog, and perhaps the most often cited reply to Beerford’s Conundra, Dale’s receives little love on BeerAdvocate, with a B+ from over 1,200 reviews. Personally, I find it difficult to imagine how one could make a production level Pale Ale much better than Dale’s, so clearly the Victory Headwaters is not gunning for the top of the best beer lists… as of this writing among 25 reviews it’s sporting a Dale’s-like B+.
So what is the goal here? To sell beer of course. And lots of it.
Even if Dale’s Pale Ale does little to pander to extremophiles in the blogosphere, it was named one of Advertising Age’s hottest brands last year; I can identify a can of Dale’s at a backyard barbecue from 200 yards; it’s the brew that’s fueling the manifest destiny that is Oskar Blues’ march to rule America. And Victory wants some of that.
Headwaters is not just an anniversary beer- Victory has been calling it their “flagship” since the release date was announced last fall. But wait a minute… doesn’t Victory already have a flagship beer? Of course they do- the HopDevil IPA accounts for over 60% of VBC’s sales volume. But Victory understands that a beer called HopDevil has inherent obstacles to becoming a truly mainstream beer- the most prominent of which is that most people in this country don’t like, or think they don’t like the bitter flavor of hops.
I can relate to this sentiment- I’ve been an Alehead for a long time but can still remember the first IPA I ever sampled, the Smuttynose IPA (the old school version, with the seals on the label). I was not impressed- too biting, too bracing, but most of all a bitter hoppy finish that didn’t dissipate nearly fast enough for my weak palate. I ran back in tears to my porters and chocolate stouts, and it would be many years before I understood the error of my ways.
Though the APA is a hoppy style, hops are portrayed in the most inviting way possible on the Headwaters’ label- as green rolling mountains with sun peeking from behind, the swift rivers of the Chesapeake Watershed running beneath. The insinuation is clear- hops are your friend. Hops are natural. They do not exist to club your tastebuds into submission, but to give your ale complex and inviting flavors. In short- the Victory Headwaters Pale Ale is not for Aleheads, or at least not just for Aleheads… it’s for everyone. It’s for your girlfriend who thinks she hates hops. It’s for your uncle who drinks Miller High Life and wouldn’t know a craft beer if a can of Dale’s hit him in the nuts.
The decision to make a complex but accessible brew appealing to everyone while still maintaining integrity of flavor is the commercial El Dorado for the craft beer movement. Is it even possible? Victory seems to think so. Do they succeed? I compared their newest offering head-to-head with Dale’s Pale Ale to see if this beer has what it takes to become America’s Pale Ale:
The race to be America’s Pale Ale is really fucking close. Which is better? Hard to say. If I were to drink one or two, I’d probably still pick Dale’s. But 4 or 5? Give me the Headwaters. The real distinction is in the mouthfeel and finish. The Headwaters is lighter and more refreshing, but not in a watered-down way. Head-to-head, Dale’s come across as a little cloying. The hop profile is more bitter, while the Headwaters is more floral, with a distinctively dry finish that begs you to take another sip. In short, both are great beers- alike in many ways, yet fundamentally different.
The Victory Headwaters Pale Ale isn’t an extreme beer, but it is an extremely ambitious and important milestone in the craft beer movement, and another shot across the bow of Big Beer. I think it may be our next great session beer. Go out and get some and let me know if you agree. For its drinkability, balance, and moxie, I hereby award the Victory Headwaters…