Bill Covaleski on East vs West, NZ hops, and the future of craft beer

By BeertownNZ Fri, 17 Jul 2015 National

Bill Covaleski and Ron Barchet founded Victory Brewing in 1996 in Downington, Pennsylvania. 

Combining 'European Tradition, American Innovation’, Victory has a German-influenced, Old World take on US craft beer. With a staff of 60 and annual production of 15 million litres, it is one of the top 30 craft brewers in the USA.

Beertown.NZ met brewmaster and company president Bill Covaleski when he was in the Craft Beer Capital collaborating with Fork & Brewer’s Kelly Ryan.

Wellington NZ is a long way from Downington PA. How did you come to be brewing at the Fork & Brewer?

New Zealand has been on my 'to do' list for a long, long time. My Kiwi pal Leon Mickelson, brewmaster at The Brew in Shanghai, wrote me a massive itinerary of cool activities that would have taken weeks to complete. Without that kind of time to spare, I had to concentrate on my priority, beer.

Nelson and Wellington became the focal point for many good reasons – no offense meant to all those other great New Zealand brewers! Besides, I was coming off of GABS in Melbourne and I tried as many New Zealand beers there as I could. 

Leon connected me with his mate Kelly. The rest will be hoppy history soon.

The New Zealand craft beer scene is strongly influenced by the US West Coast scene. Is the craft beer scene on the East Coast distinct from the West?

The American craft beer scene has been constantly evolving for 30 years and began as a few isolated breweries following their muse and catering to local tastes where they started. So, some regionality does still exist in the US.

Painting with a very broad brush, I would note that we East Coast brewers might still respect the influence of Europe a bit more than the West, as there are more lagers to be found on the eastern half than the west. Lagers are a building trend across America. Great ones, though, full of flavor and character but also artfully balanced. 

As a visiting brewer, what was your impression of the New Zealand craft brewing industry?

My Kiwi friend Leon Mickelson sketched out a 'must do' list that probably ran 45 days to complete. I could only spare four so I figured I'd concentrate on the regions that probably have the biggest impact on New Zealand brewing, Nelson and Wellington.

Leon was a great help with contacts and it was through him that Kelly Ryan and I connected to brew the Devil's Fork. Nelson was well worth the visit as Doug Donelan proudly showed me around the NZ Hops processing plant before we visited Dr. Ron Beatson at The New Zealand Institute for Plant & Food Research where I got to do aroma analysis on 40 experimental hop varieties under development.

Back in Wellington, Kelly and I made the beery rounds of Wellington and enjoyed great hospitality at Garage Project. I have six bottles that made it back with me from Garage Project to blow my friends minds next weekend.

My four days in New Zealand confirmed what I expected, that I must return to enjoy more! 

And finally, what's your pick for the medium term future for craft brewing?

All indications are that industrial brewing is on the run. This squares with how our food systems have evolved as well. Fresh foods (beer is a food) of integrity are in demand and old, industrial food options are being rejected.

This puts craft beer in a great, but challenging spot. Great, because the consumer base continues to swell, organically. But success is often met with envy by the parties that are losing out. Here in the US Anhueser Busch Inbev's purchases of legitimate craft breweries has brought well-funded private equity and other companies looking to consolidate and lead. Though this investment is beneficial in the fact that it takes of lot of capital to grow manufacturing businesses, it could usher in a new era of competitive behavior.

So, in five years craft beer will 'grow up' in the US. I believe that this trend may occur around the globe. It remains up to the savvy consumer to determine what is tasty and sincere. 

By BeertownNZ Fri, 17 Jul 2015 National