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BIGGER BEER: Expansion at Victory, Philadelphia Brewing Company

PBC Commonwealth Ciders
PBC Commonwealth Ciders
Like any great brewery, Downingtown’s Victory Brewing Company is a community operation on a couple of levels: a community of drinkers, and a community of brewers. Hence the two-pronged answer Victory’s president Bill Covaleski, gives when asked about the company’s $50 million expansion into a new, 70,000-square-foot brewing and packaging facility in Parkesburg, Chester County.

“The impetus, of course, is that the craft beer marketplace is expanding at a great rate,” says Covaleski via phone. “We need to satisfy the thirst of our customers.”

On one hand, it’s an issue of supply and demand. But there’s a community component as well.

“We’ve got a great team of enthusiastic people working here, and it would be just devastating to those people if we were putting the brakes on, and not giving their careers the opportunity to expand,”continues Covaleski. “A lot of people have gotten on the bus and helped it roll along.”

It’s a shrewd supply-and-demand gambit in both the beer and labor markets. More demand for craft beer will bring more drinkers, yes, but also more breweries, and by increasing opportunities, Victory continues to position itself as a workplace that’s as enticing as its brews.

The new brew house—which will become Victory’s center of operations—will be on the same site as the company’s 70,000-square-foot distribution facility, which will cut down on transportation costs, as currently all beer is brewed and packaged at Victory’s brewpub. It will also cut down on congestion, both in the parking lot and in the brewing schedule. (The building this will be happening in is a 212,000-square-foot former Green Giant distribution center that Victory has a lease-to-purchase agreement on. The remaining 70,000 square feet is occupied by other businesses, and Victory will become their landlord once they’ve purchased the facility.)

“Our parking lot was getting ridiculously crowded with trucks picking up beer,”says Covaleski.

The Downingtown brewpub, which is capable of producing 110,000 barrels of beer per year, is just about at capacity. According to Covaleski, Victory produced 82,000 barrels of beer last year and is on pace to pump out 100,000 barrels of suds this year.

“It’s a very stressful situation,”says Covaleski. “There’s just very little room for error.”

The new facility is expected to have a capacity of 200,000 barrels per year. Covaleski says they expect their Rolec brewhouse to arrive sometime in January, and its fermenters in March, with plans to be fully operational in summer 2013.

While the promise of more award-winning local beer is good news indeed, perhaps even better is that the Downingtown brewing facility will not be mothballed. It will instead be used as limited-edition experimental brewery, in much the same way that Delaware’s Dogfish Head Brewery uses its flagship Rehoboth brewpub since the opening of its Milton, Del., brewery.

“I think the strangest thing we’re going to do is get more serious about a sour beer program,”says Covaleski. “You’re working with microbes and other practices that create sour beers, and these are typically slow-developing flavors. We were being practical in not wanting to experiment while we were doing our flagship beers [here]. So more in that direction. But the experiments are so random with us. It’s what just attracts us.”
 
Doing Johnny Appleseed Proud
Another local brewery making big investments in its future is Kensington’s Philadelphia Brewing Company, which earlier this year added nine new fermenters, a grain-out silo (for its spent grain) and a bright beer tank (a conditioning tank where beer is carbonated before it’s packaged). In June, PBC launched Commonwealth Ciders. That “s”on “Ciders” is significant, as the Traditional Dry that was released earlier this year is only the first of several to be released under the new Commonwealth Ciders brand.

“We wanted it to be dry and tart,”says PBC co-owner Nancy Barton over a pint of her product at Atlantis, the Lost Bar, the brewery’s de facto company bar. “Not sweet. A lot of ciders add that green apple flavoring. We didn’t want that.”

“I just wanted it to taste like cider,”adds Bill Barton, Nancy’s husband and fellow co-owner. “Not like a Jolly Rancher.”

The cider is crisp, tart and not even a little cloying. Mission accomplished.

Due to an historically poor regional apple crop this season that drove up prices for the fruit, the apple juice used in Traditional Dry comes from Oregon, though the sustainability-minded company is hoping prices will come down for local products next year.

“I’ve been talking about doing cider since 2001 when we moved into our building [at 2349 Amber St.],”says Nancy.

Philadelphia Brewing Company did a limited run of cider last year as something of a test balloon. It was so well-received that the company went all-in this year. Not only is Commonwealth Ciders its own brand; it’s actually its own company.
This is due in part because beer and cider are treated very differently under the law.

Bottled cider is required to have an FDA nutrition label, while it’s illegal for beer to have one. Cider that is above 5.5 percent alcohol by volume cannot be sold through a beer distributor and must instead be sold through the state store system (Traditional Dry is 5 percent ABV). And if the PA Liquor Control Board were to discover cider above 5.5 percent on the shelves, that brewery’s Pennsylvania operations and sales would be shut down. As PBC operates almost exclusively in Pennsylvania, a shut-down for any period of time would be catastrophic (PBC has a second distribution center in Pittsburgh where they do approximately 10 percent of their sales; 85 percent are in the Philadelphia region, with about 3 percent across the border in New Jersey).

Having the cider operation under a separate company makes a lot of practical sense.

But the Commonwealth Ciders brand has brought energy to the company that introducing a new beer variety doesn’t.
“Launching a new brand, doing a spin-off, it’s bringing me back to the days of launching PBC,”says Nancy. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s exciting because it’s bringing back all these feelings and emotions. It’s exhilarating. There’s all this new stuff: new business cards, new T-shirts, and in mid-October [when Traditional Dry should be available in bottles] there’ll be new labels.”

Among the Bartons’plans and ideas for Commonwealth Ciders is a seasonal ginger cider next year, and a mulled/spiced cider next fall.
 
To-Do List
Don’t just read about beer. Go drink some for free while checking out one of Philly’s neighborhoods on the move.

On Thu., Oct. 18 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., Brewerytown will host its 2012 Brewfest, an all-free Girard Avenue pub crawl-style event where revelers can stop by select shops to sample the wares of Saint Benjamin Brewing Company (Girard Supply Co.), Worst Brewing Company (at Color Wheel Bike Studio), Yards (at the Next American City storefront) and Iron Hill (at Urban Innovation), get homebrewing tips from Home Sweet Homebrew, and eat at the Sunflower Truck Stop and the Tamale Cart.

More info on the Facebook.

BRIAN HOWARD  is a South Philly-based journalist, cyclist, home-brewer and vermicomposter. He's the former editor in chief of City Paper and has been covering Philadelphia since his byline first appeared in the La SalleCollegian in 1993. Send feedback here.
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