Philly brewer wows Vienna with his own pale ale

ANTON DREHER’S cold, stiff hand has a hold on Bill Covaleski’s mortal soul.

Dreher, one of the 19th century’s great European brewers, has been dead and buried for 140 years.

Covaleski, the 40-something co-founder of Downingtown’s Victory Brewing, is a highly regarded member of America’s new generation of craftbrewers.

At first sip, it’s hard to see the connection.

Dreher is widely regarded as the father of modern lager; it was his recipe for Vienna lager that provided the DNA for the Spaten brewery’s first Oktoberfest beer in 1841. Yet the cynic could easily blame Dreher – and his European ideals of purity – for ultimately leading the brewing industry toward a strict adherence to established styles. Lager, at its worst, is all about conformity.

Covaleski, by contrast, is best known as an ale man. Like most microbrewers, he rejected many of the stale conventions of insipid, factory-made lager. As a fan of his bitter, aromatic HopDevil Ale, it was impossible for me to conceive of him paying his respects to Dreher.

And yet, as we stood in a snowstorm at Dreher’s mausoleum on the outskirts of Vienna recently, I could see Covaleski welcome the Austrian’s frosty grip.

“I guess this is where it all began,” Covaleski said, giving in to Dreher’s pull.

I reached out to wrestle him free but then let him go.

For, in just a few days of beer drinking in Austria, you understand why an American rebel strives for the perfection of European purity.

Covaleski’s visit last month was the second of two legs in a quirky beer exchange program between Philadelphia and Vienna. Last year, Victory hosted a group of 38 European brewers who traveled here to learn some of the 8-year-old brewery’s techniques. This year, Covaleski returned to Vienna’s 1516 Brewing Co. to cook up a batch of his famous HopDevil. I tagged along to see what kind of damage Philadelphia ale could do on the continent of lagers.

The deal was dreamed up by Austrian beer writer Conrad Seidl, known on his side of the Atlantic as the Bier Papst – the Beer Pope.

For Seidl, Covaleski’s visit was more than a chance to drain a fresh pint of ale spiced with Cascades hops. He was hoping the arrival of a classic American ale would serve as a kick in the lederhosen for all those Viennese beer drinkers whose idea of exotic beer is a sweetened Marzen.

“What I want is choice. Choice is the one thing every beer drinker needs,” said Seidl while draining a Helles at the city’s Fischer Brau.

Curiously, the delicate, lightly hopped lager in his hands was one of just two beers on tap at the brewpub; the other was a frothy Dunkels. No porters, no bocks, no stouts, no pale ales. But Covaleski didn’t seem to mind the small selection. His eye was on the thermometers beside each tap. “That shows me they really care that they’re serving their beer at the proper temperature,” he said.

We walked in the cold to a neighborhood bar called Arte Mayr and continued the conversation over an Ottakringer Zwickl – the beer Seidl believes is the closest his town has come to Dreher’s original Vienna lager.

“In Austria,” Seidl said, “you don’t find many brewers who dare to brew a different product. If a beer doesn’t adhere strictly to a recognized style, it’s rejected.”

Lack of experimentation is not a problem in America. Here, we’ve got brewers willing to dump most anything – coffee, berries, chocolate and copious amounts of hops – into their beers. The challenge is finding drinkers – brainwashed by a lifetime of Budweiser ads – willing to suck them down.

“In the U.S.,” said Covaleski, “the problem is that most bartenders are only interested in tips. So they’re reluctant to suggest or describe new styles for their customers. They just pour them whatever they’re used to.”

“That’s not surprising,” Seidl said. “When brewers create their own styles, it confuses the consumer.”

Indeed, that’s why many American micros give their beers catchy names. Victory, for example, avoids the debate over whether it’s brewing a Belgian-style trippel or a Belgian golden ale by simply naming its beer Golden Monkey.

Nonetheless, Victory’s strength is the homage it pays to classic beer styles. Both Covaleski and co-founder Ron Barchet were trained in Germany. Their Prima Pils and All Malt Lager, especially, are perfectly executed American interpretations of classic European styles.

But it is the pair’s HopDevil that best expresses the synergy of our visit to Austria.

This is an India Pale Ale, a style that is strictly British by birth. But like many American IPAs, HopDevil is made with Vienna malt, for its distinctive copper color, and is spiced largely with American Cascades hops. (The yeast, by the way, is thought to be the same strain as one of America’s classic, early IPAs: Ballantine.)

Covaleski and Horst Asanger, the brewer/owner at 1516 Brewing Co., cooked their batch on a cold Sunday morning. Brewing on a small pub system is a long, dull process interspersed with frequent moments of panic. While the two struggled with threatened boil-overs, they chatted about politics, Starbucks, pulled pork and Philadelphia’s Lex Street massacre.

Their biggest challenge was converting Covaleski’s familiar American measurements into metric weights. There was some doubt over the proper amount of hops to toss into the batch, but when the whole flowers hit the boiling wort, the bar filled with the familiar aroma of HopDevil.

“Don’t worry,” Asanger said. “Remember, it’s the spirit of the brewer that ends up in the beer.”

Later, the two spent an hour struggling to clean the soaking, spent hops from the dripping brew kettle. Rinsing the mess down the drain, Covaleski quipped, “The Blue Danube will run green tonight.”

River pollution was the least of their worries, though. Unspoken was the fear that Vienna would turn up its baroque nose at this American beer.

The city has seen other IPAs. We sucked down glasses of it at Siebensterm (Seven Stars) Brau, for example. But brewer Sprague Terplain, an American expatriate, complained how difficult it is to persuade Austrians to try something new.

“There’s a German expression,” he said, laughing. “What the farmer doesn’t know, he doesn’t eat.”

Covaleski, of course, couldn’t stick around the three weeks it would take for this batch to ferment and condition. On this occasion, he was a Johnny Barleycorn, spreading his hops and hoping they’d grow.

But last week, the reports came in via e-mail.

Asanger opened the faucets for a barroom that included a handful of city brewers hosted by Seidl.

“Straight away, the HopDevil is our second-best sold beer, beating our weissbier, who had that spot ever since we had it on tap,” Asanger wrote.

“It was very surprising for the brewers that Conrad invited, to see their clientele drinking a strong, very hoppy, ale, hopped with some strange hop from America.”

That satisfied Covaleski, but his story isn’t finished. After all, he makes delicious batches of HopDevil every week.

The taste of a perfectly made lager – maybe the one we enjoyed at the Schwechter brewery an hour after standing in the snow in front of the mausoleum – was still on his lips.

Drawing from the inspiration of his visit, along with a few bottles packed into our suitcases, Covaleski has just finished making his own version of Vienna lager. It’ll be on tap in May.

Anton Dreher is alive and well in Downingtown.

   Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a bottle of Steigl Alt. 


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