This week is a send up to two local breweries. Well, sort-of local breweries… regional, we’ll say. I’ve written about Victory Brewing and Ithaca Beer Company before, but haven’t really given them the spotlight they deserve. Aside from being two of the Northeast’s best, they represent distinct approaches to the world of brewing: one traditional and one regional. Both, in their own way, showcase the versatility and character of American beer.
Victory takes their beer very seriously, and it shows. Nestled in the cozy, suburban haven of Downingtown, PA, the brewery definitely reps Philly pride. Still, if their heart is in Philly, their eyes are fixed on Germany. That’s where the two founders – Ron Barchet and Bill Covaleski – got their formal training. By 1996, with the Reheittsebot in their hearts and noble hops in their nostrils, they officially opened Victory’s doors. And while the brewery is by no means exclusively Germanic, the country’s influence shows in everything from their equipment (shipped straight from Deutchland) to the brewery’s flagship beer (a German Pilsner).
To me, Victory’s beers seem stylistically solid, polished, and refined. Very rarely do they break from tradition, choosing to perfect the standards rather than give them a new twist. This attention to detail has certainly paid off, earning the brewery awards and accolades for several of it’s beers (it’s Oktoberfest-style Festbier, Belgian Tripel Golden Monkey, and hellerbock St. Boisterous among the winners). Still, the beer that shines most of all – and is most indicative of the brewery’s style – is it’s Prima Pils.
The Prima Pils is easily one of the best beers I’ve ever had. Not because it’s groundbreaking, not because it’s unique – because it’s really good. With it, Victory takes the most popular style in the world – the pilsner – and just gets it right. It’s crisp, refreshing, and really flavorful. Generous hops balance the sweetness of the German malts, giving the beer a range of bright notes from concord grapes to fresh-cut grass. And true to the brewery’s dogged attention to detail, the Prima is impossibly clean. Operating room clean. No element runs rampant, nothing lingers longer than it should – the flavors open the moment it hits your tongue and cut off at a razor’s edge, leaving nothing but a dry memory in their wake. If you haven’t had it, try it. Prima Pils is one of the most delicious and accessible beers I’ve ever had.
If Victory is a course in beer history, Ithaca might as well be a trip to the farmer’s market. Its founder, Dan Mitchell, was inspired by the area’s wine culture and figured it was time for beer to share that same regional pride. After getting some hand-me-down equipment from Texas, he set up Ithaca Beer Company in 1997 (a year after Victory) to capture the “Spirit of the Fingerlakes”.
The beer that Mitchell ended up producing is definitely representative of the region. Instead of focusing on traditional styles of Europe, Ithaca thinks more locally, producing beers based on the seasons and agriculture of the region. Their Apricot Wheat and Partly Sunny (an “Ithaca-style” Wit bier) are examples of this freedom of expression. Still, possibly the best example – and the most impressive – is Ithaca’s CascaZilla.
Not only is it’s name derived from a local landmark (a gorge named Cascadilla), it showcases the cascade hop, the darling of American varietals. The red ale is really fantastic – aromatic and smooth. Its bouquet is both vibrant and surprisingly round, with notes from high-register grapefruit to warm vanilla. When I drank this beer, I didn’t get the feeling of refined perfection like I did with the Prima Pils. Instead, it tasted like a cross-section of American bounty. Organically rustic, the flavors worked the same way a spray of wild flowers can be just as beautiful as a manicured garden. Not to say this was a sloppy beer – it was absolutely delicious – but it came off as a reflection of the brewery’s link to nature.