It would be a massive understatement to say that the beer menu has changed quite a bit since 1996.
That’s the year Downingtown, Pennsylvania–based Victory Brewing Company first opened its doors, at the tail end of craft brewing’s initial boom. The average consumer wasn’t talking about styles—a relatively tiny subculture had even heard of an IPA—much less how well those styles fared at the dinner table. Twenty years and a beer-and-food revolution later, Victory is celebrating its two-decade milestone with the launch of its Blackboard Series, designed to partner especially well with chefs’ creations at the brewery’s three Pennsylvania brewpubs.
“All of us in the restaurant and beer industries have been given the opportunity to innovate over the past 20 years,” says Bill Covaleski, co-founder and brewmaster of Victory. “Consumers have been asked to broaden their horizons and have done so enthusiastically, in terms of preparation and ingredients.”
The new series’ name is a nod to the spirit of experimentation, and references the seven to 12 special dishes that show up on the pubs’ blackboards for a day or two and that emphasize fresh, seasonal ingredients.
“We found that putting this number of blackboard menu additions has really been great for our regular customers who visit our pubs multiple times a week,” reveals Matt Krueger, Victory’s vice president of retail operations. “[The brewers] took that and they wanted to use ingredients in these Blackboard Series beers that would be fantastic foils to pair with from a culinary standpoint. So the brewery is sort of stealing the concept of blackboard menu additions and applying that to their liquids.”
The seasonal series kicked off at the beginning of 2016 with Agave IPA, brewed with the nectar of the agave plant and grapefruit. During its January to March availability window, the kitchens whipped up multiple gastronomic companions for the brew—like seared scallops over a grapefruit chili reduction and topped with a citrus slaw. “There’s a brightness that comes up with the sort of neutral palate of the scallop, and you’ve got this really bold and mouth-puckering grapefruit,” Krueger says. “And it’s tempered with a bit of savory-ness with the chili.”
Krueger also suggests matching Agave IPA with dishes like Thai-style curry, whose fresh ginger and lemongrass elements stand up well against the sweetness of the agave and the acidity of the grapefruit.
Victory’s April to June offering is Dry-Hopped Brett Pils, a classic pilsner with a couple of flavor-forward twists that are trumpeted right in its name: dry hopping, the addition of hops post-fermentation for aromatic enhancement, and brettanomyces, a wild yeast popularized in funky Belgian brews like lambics, Flanders brown ales, and other sours. Earthy and barnyard are terms that frequently come to mind with brett beers. Such strong aromas and flavors require equally bold culinary matches, both complementary and contrasting. The Victory chefs lean toward rich, umami-intensive dishes.
“I think it challenges the palate for a lot of people,” Covaleski notes. “It’s the perfect setup for some sharp, tart salads and smoked fishes.”
And speaking of tart, summer brings Victory’s refreshing interpretation of a classic German Berliner Weisse, a wheat-based style known for its mild sourness. To complement those sour notes, the brewery team added elderflower to the recipe, giving the brew a floral dimension. “A tart Berliner Weisse would stand up very well to oily fish or, even as a complement, with a key lime pie or other dessert that’s got a distinct acidity to it,” Krueger says. “But it doesn’t have to be complementary, like with a key lime pie or lemon square; it could also be something like chocolate where you’ve got this richness in the chocolate that envelops the palate. The sourness of the Berliner Weisse is going to lift the richness off of the palate.”
To close out the year, the October to December timeframe brings the finale of the Blackboard beers: Oatmeal Porter with Hazelnut.
Victory has, so far, released two of the four Blackboard beers, to which brewpub guests have responded favorably. Sales have been especially robust for the direct beer-and-food pairings. And weather has played a fairly critical role in that—particularly during the winter months.
“When you offer people bright flavors and citrus, and it’s cold outside but warm inside, they’re ready to pretend they’re in the Caribbean for a moment,” Covaleski explains.
Daydreamed vacations aside, the key to really making the pairings work is that it’s as important for the beers to be tied to seasonally available ingredients as it is for the food. Many might not think of tropical fruit as winter ingredients, but February, Covaleski points out, is one of the most popular months for grapefruit consumption.
If there has been any indication of how much dining and beer drinking have become inextricably linked in recent years, it’s that two of Victory’s three pubs opened just last year—Kennett Square opened in April 2015 and the Parkesburg location opened about seven months later.
Despite the fact that Americans have become much more adventurous eaters and drinkers, Covaleski advises that one of the most important ingredients brewpubs and restaurants should use is restraint. “Head toward comfort,” he says. “Don’t necessarily create a high-wire act.”
For instance, horseradish may be widely available in the spring, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to pair well with wheat beers and fruity flavors. And, while brewers and culinary pros often strive for flavor complexity, there is such a concept as “too much of a good thing.”
“You really want to make one or two ingredients stand out,” adds Kruger, “so [guests] can really make that quick connection as to why this beer is going to go so well with this dish.”
How well the beers and dishes complement or contrast each other always should be top of mind. But, Krueger and Covaleski caution: Don’t overthink it. “At the end of the day,” Covaleski says, “people are looking to leave the restaurant having enjoyed a comfortable food experience.”
A Toast to Positioning for the Next 20
The biggest change Victory Brewing has experienced in its two-decade-long history occurred in its 20th anniversary year. In February, the brewery announced it is combining with Upstate New York’s Southern Tier Brewing Company under a single holding company.
“I’ve kept using the term independent company merger, which refers to the fact that, on a legal level, the ownership of Victory Brewing is being rolled into a new company,” Victory co-founder and brewmaster Bill Covaleski explains. “So, now there’s this holding company that owns two independent brewers. Essentially we’re stronger with two rafts strapped together.”
The deal comes on the heels of a wave mergers-and-acquisitions activity involving macro beer producers and marketers buying craft brewers—including Anheuser-Busch InBev’s recent acquisitions of Seattle’s Elysian Brewing, Los Angeles–based Golden Road, and Scottsdale, Arizona’s Four Peaks. Additionally, Constellation Brands made a $1 billion purchase of San Diego’s Ballast Point, and Heineken made an investment in Lagunitas that gives the Dutch giant a 50 percent stake in that Petaluma, California–based operation.
“[The Southern Tier deal] is a great way to become a bigger fish that’s harder for the biggest fish to swallow,” Covaleski says.