AMERICA’S PALE ALE: VICTORY HEADWATERS VS. OSKAR BLUES’ DALE’S

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…

4 hops

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17 comments

  1. Thank you for this article i like my share of double IPA’s and Stouts but i don’t want to drink more then a bomber of a 100+ IBU beer. Lucky for me i live in Chicago and have access to Three Floyds and Half Acre who make Daisy Cutter which can go toe to toe with Alpha King. I am still dying to try Oskar Blues and i think i need to get off my ass and cross over to Wisconsin and stock pile Oskar and New Glarus.

  2. The Aleheads showing my hometown brewery some love! Victory is great, but I too was wary of their big new gamble until I read this review… I’m living in Virginia now and haven’t seen it here yet, but I can wait to get my hands on a sixer of Headwaters!

  3. Goo: Consider yourself lucky with access to Alpha King and Daisy Cutter, I haven’t had a chance to try either. Oskar Blues won’t disappoint your expectations.

    Sky: I’m sure you’ll run into it shortly in Virginia… let me know if you agree after you’ve tried it.

  4. I’m going to be honest–if I could only have one on a desert island, it would be the Daisy Cutter. Yeah, I said it.

    It’s the kind of APA that maybe shouldn’t even be called an APA. Plenty of breweries, if they made that beer, would just call it their IPA and be done with it. There’s much you can do in the world of beer better than a 16 oz can of Half Acre.

  5. So I just got back from a brewery (cavalry brewery) where they make exclusively English style IPAs – we’re talking 35 IBUS, extremely high drinkability. I’ll post on it soon, but I think there’s something to be said for Kid Carboy’s position.

  6. I wouldn’t argue his point- haven’t had a chance to try the Daisy Cutter (not distributed in Western PA) but I’ve heard great things. The Headwaters doesn’t aim to knock you over with hops or pretend it’s an IPA- it’d be perfect to bring to an event with non-Aleheads to introduce them to our sweet science, but still be able to enjoy it yourself. I’m setting the over/under of these I consume this summer at 200… leaning towards taking the over.

  7. Obviously, the “punch you in the face” or “introduce non-Aleheads to craft beer” APAs are completely different beasts. Probably can’t really weigh them against each other at all.

  8. […] have extolled the virtues of the terrific Victory Brewing Company on more than a few occasions here at Aleheads, so it was with great enthusiasm that my loyal local beermonger set me aside a bottle […]

  9. Kid Carboy Jr. · · Reply

    I’m drinking my first Victory Headwaters right now at home, and it’s darn tasty. This is like the perfect session APA. I really like the bready, biscuity thing going on. Delish.

  10. I’m looking forward to bringing sixers of the Headwaters to summer barbecues and whatnot… still dying to try the Daisy Cutter though.

  11. Since moving from NYC to North Dakota, I’ve been unable to snag any Victory. Can’t wait to try out the Headwaters, but in the meantime I’ve been working through a case of Dale’s that I bought at a recent excursion to Wisconsin. Great stuff, and strangely, I like it from the can even more than in a glass. Must be a mental thing…

  12. I fully support drinking Dale’s out of a can…

  13. I’m a Bells fan and wanting to try something new. Purchased a sixer of the Victory headwaters on recommendation of store clerk. Hoppy yet drinkable. Five stars.

  14. It’s pretty damn good, right? This is the beer I’ll be bringing this summer to parties, cookouts, etc.

  15. hmmm… and then two days later I find myself down at the local pub and try a pint of the New Belgium Ranger IPA. Suprisingly similar to Headwaters. Are we seeing a new trend emerge among “American” pale ales?

  16. I’ve been saying for awhile that this summer will be the year when the American Pale Ale goes mainstream. Let’s make it so!

  17. Stan Stoots · · Reply

    Hop Devil is a fine IPA ; this from a true hothead. Love Bells Twp Hearted, Smutty Nose, Stones Ruination, & Ballast Point Sculpin IPA, but this one is worthy of consideration into your beer rotation.

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