A SAD, NASTY bit of business erupted behind the Philadelphia beer-drinking scenes this week, and I wouldn’t bother interrupting your pint, only it could have some impact on the future of local craft brew.
Downingtown’s Victory Brewing has switched its main distributor in town, from the small, family-owned Edward I. Friedland Co. to Penn Distributors Inc., the Anheuser-Busch house.
Now, this won’t directly affect price or availability of one of the region’s biggest-selling micros.
But it does have a lot of insiders wondering where Victory is headed.
And the move has ruffled feathers in a community that, for the last 10 years, has been remarkably unified in its support for all locally made craft beer.
When brewers play nicely, it means good things for beer lovers. Competing breweries commonly share kegs and ingredients, they cooperate at beer festivals, and they swap employees monthly. The sharing – whether it’s in refining recipes or improving a balky bottling line – puts a fresher, better beer in your paws.
From a less-tangible perspective, this fellowship encourages the very growth of breweries, helping them take the giant step from mediocre start-up to imaginative risk-taker.
Victory, for example, might never have attempted to brew its powerful Golden Monkey Belgian-style ale if there wasn’t already a strong community of Belgian beer fans in Philadelphia willing to give a local version a chance.
The choice of a main (also known as import) distributor is no small matter for a brewery. The importer, which is not generally open for public sales, sells the brand to other retail distributors, restaurants, bars – even the sports stadiums.
Friedland is mainly known for its portfolio of high-end imports and craft beers. Its biggest domestic label is Sierra Nevada; it also carries Yards, Dogfish Head and Flying Fish, among others.
The tiny company was founded in 1933, right after Prohibition ended, and operates in a rundown neighborhood in the Hunting Park section of town. Its sales staff is small, and day-to-day operations are directed by Eddie Friedland, the well-liked grandson of its founder.
Penn Distributors is huge. Located in the shadow of Roxborough’s TV antennas, it has tens of thousands of square feet in inventory space, dozens of salesmen and an armada of tractor trailer trucks.
In some circles, Penn is regarded as the Evil Empire, thanks to its A-B distribution rights. More than a few bar owners have refused to do business with Penn (which helps explain why Yuengling outsells Bud in this town). It’s so bad, in fact, that some Penn salesmen have been known to print up special business cards that omit A-B’s familiar eagle logo.
So, you can understand that, when a local craft brewer (which made its mark producing distinctly nonindustrial beers) goes over to the “dark” side, there would be some bad feelings.
Victory president Bill Covaleski said his company made the switch because he believes it’ll grow faster with Penn. The company, which is ramping up production with a new brewhouse, is looking to grow by nearly 50 percent this year.
“It’s about protecting jobs we’ve created,” Covaleski said. Friedland, he said, “isn’t necessarily the best partner for growth.”
Nobody begrudges Victory for wanting to grow. But Friedland and his supporters believe Victory wouldn’t have gotten this far if it hadn’t been for Friedland’s efforts in the first place. To them, it’s like the wife who worked long hours to pay for her husband’s law school bills, only to watch him take off with a trophy bride after he makes partner.
“We weathered all the bad batches, all the out-of-stocks, and now they’re leaving us,” Friedland said.
Friedland said he considered fighting, but his lawyer told him there was a 50-50 chance he’d lose. He settled for an undisclosed payment.
“Did I get totally [screwed]? No. I got my financial compensation. But I don ‘t think I deserved to lose the brand.”
I’ve talked to a couple of bar owners who are longtime friends with Friedland, and they say they might stop carrying Victory. Don’t look for some grand boycott, though. Victory has too many supporters and, bottom line, its beer sells.
Nonetheless, Covaleski himself said he’s gotten grief from some of his accounts.
“One person attacked me on my integrity and said it was all about the money,” Covaleski said. “And, yes, in a lot of ways, it is about the money. We’ve got too much at stake for our employees, our families, our business.”
Covaleski also cautions that Penn is just a distributor – it isn’t St. Louis.
Which raises another question:
Why is a company that rakes in millions in sales from Bud Light, Michelob Ultra, Bacardi Silver and, of course, Budweiser, dabbling with a micro from Downingtown?
Earlier this year, Penn picked up distribution rights for Vermont’s Magic Hat (that’s why you’re seeing all those No. 9 tap handles around town). Victory is its first locally made beer.
John DeRenzi, a Penn sales director, said Penn had been looking for a way to get into the craftbrew market for years. “No doubt, this helps us get into places we couldn’t get into before,” DeRenzi said. “We always did some business in the better beer bars, but never a lot. This gives us an opportunity to hit more of the higher-end places.”
That doesn’t mean you’re suddenly going to find Ultra on tap at a funky beer stop like Johnny Brenda’s. But if we’re lucky, it’ll mean you’ll find a HopDevil on Bud-soaked Delaware Avenue.
On a happier note, I’m pleased to report that Covaleski’s experiment with Vienna Lager is a total success.
You might remember that Covaleski and I traveled to Vienna last winter to research the tradition of this nearly dead red-hued lager. (He also left behind a batch of HopDevil, brewed at the 1516 Brewing Co. in downtown Vienna.)
Last week, Victory tapped its version of the specialty: a rich, almost smoky, perfectly rounded brew. For aficionados of this style, he was shooting for something similar to richly frothy Ottakringer. Victory’s Vienna Lager is a bit beefier (6.6 percent alcohol), but you could down two or three with no problem.
It’s available at Victory’s brewpub (420 Acorn Lane, Downingtown) and, in coming weeks, at Abbaye (3rd and Fairmount, Northern Liberties) . . .
Though the Phillies’ new ballpark offers an excellent variety of local craft beers, they do tend to lean toward the lighter lager side. If you insist on something hoppier, here are some quick hints: Victory HopDevil IPA is available by bottle on Ashburn Alley. And the taps labeled Yards Philly Extra (Section 134 down the third-base line) are actually pouring the perfectly balanced Yards ESA . . . Speaking of Yards, give its Philadelphia Pale Ale another try. The recipe has changed, with a hops-heavy aroma you might’ve expected to find on the West Coast.
The July edition of Men’s Journal lists its 10 top American specialty beers. Victory Prima Pils finishes second, behind Oregon’s Deschutes Mirror Pond Pale Ale. Incredibly, the flat abdomen-obsessed fitness mag named the carb-laden Dogfish Head Worldwide Stout No. 6 . . .
June 19: Brew at the Zoo, a tasting at Elmwood Park Zoo in Norristown. Twenty local craft brewers with food, music and prizes. OK, drinking with the apes might not be anything new (see your average Eagles pre-game tailgater), but this time it’s for a good cause: Proceeds go to the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation. Maybe you’ll even get to see a real live dogfish. Taps open, 5:30-9:30 p.m., $35, 412-793-8077.
June 23: Beers, Blues & BBQ in the courtyard at Marathon Grill on Commerce Square (2001 Market St., Center City). Sponsored by Binge, a social-club for “amateur epicures,” the party features food, music and summer ales. Suds flow, 6-9 p.m., $30 ($35 at the door), 215-731-2000.
Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a glass of Bear Republic Hop Rod Rye.