When I stopped in at Victory Brewing’s Downingtown pub on my way home from Lancaster Tuesday night, I was figuring on a nice pint of Uncle Teddy's bitter for the trip. But then I looked at the draft board and saw first that Dark Lager, one of my favorite Victory beers, was available, which is always a fleeting thing; great beer, but way underappreciated, so they only make the one batch around this time of year, and it’s draft-only.
Then I looked again, and realized that it was pegged at 3.9% ABV! I had to have it, and man, was I glad I did. Delish as always, assertive, fresh...and 3.9%? Wow! I spread the word a bit on Twitter (@lewbryson, which is my tag for #sessionbeer posts too), but I decided to get hold of brewers/founders Bill Covaleski and Ron Barchet for a short interview and find out why Dark Lager was suddenly a session beer.
It turned out that, well…it was a mistake, but as Ron said, “Two wrongs sometimes do make a right. The brewhouse yielded a lower-than-expected gravity, and the fermentability was weaker than expected. Bingo: a nice, lower alcohol beer with some body. In my opinion, it stylistically resembles a Czech dark lager. Interestingly, this beer is and always has been a great example of what double decoction can do for darker beers; it’s made from 100% Munich malt. The decoction adds quite a bit of color.” Flavor too, I might add!
“It was always intended to be a Munich dark lager,” Bill confirmed when I asked about the beer’s origins, “but with this two-step Mother Nature intervention, it came out more like a Czech dark lager.” It was quite a change, too; Bill looked back in the brewing records while we were talking, and while Dark Lager was usually around 5%, back in 2009 it went up to 5.7%...which is more where I think Ron originally wanted the beer.
See, I actually was in on the beginnings of this one, peripherally. Way back, Ron and I were wandering around the brewery one day, just chatting, and he asked, what do you think we should do next? A dunkel, I said immediately, a nice Munich dunkel, thinking of how much I loved drinking Andechs’s dunkel. Yeah, he said, excited, a good dunkel, right around 12°, something with some body. I smiled, and nodded, and thought to myself, well, no, I was actually thinking right around 10° so we could drink liters of it — I guess I was hooked on session even then — but I didn’t say anything. And when Dark Lager came out, I loved it, and took visiting friends by to try it — I’m looking at you, Stephen Beaumont — and did what I could personally to keep the sales figures up.
However, as Bill notes, “The beer is not a runaway success in sales. We like it, though, and we find there are other people that enjoy it as well…just enough to bring it back on draft every year.” So if you screwed it up, does that mean it may not go as well this year?
“We’ll probably keep it as is,” he said, meaning the new lower alcohol. “It’s unique. It’s a new twist, so tweaking it, as long as it doesn’t go in a way Ron or I don’t like, could be a way to go. I think we’re moving in the right direction with this beer.” Me too!
That fits right in with Victory’s overall plans, which are to have some fun and offer beers for everyone. “I’ve made this joke all the time,” Bill said. “People ask me, ‘Why do you have so many beers here?’ Walk around Downingtown and try to find some other kind of fun! We brew a lot of beers because it’s fun!
“At the same time,” he said, “we want people to enjoy themselves but get home safely. Lower-alcohol options are in everyone’s best interest. We don’t stand on a soapbox about it, but there is the option.
“We also have the restaurant to think about,” Bill continued, and this is something he’s referred to in the past as their ‘secret plan’ for craft domination. “I can’t point them out to you, but I know there are some dads sitting in here drinking Donnybrook, or Dark Lager, and they had just put down their Miller Lite because Mom and the kids wanted pizza. We want them to have a good experience with full-flavored beers. We’re not pandering to anyone, we drink them ourselves, but we’re not turning anyone off, either. We’re very bullish about the future of craft beer. Why can’t we make beers with nice texture and good flavor that everyone can enjoy?” As I’ve often said, brewing a good kölsch or helles or blonde ale is no less “crafty” than brewing a double IPA, right?
He wrapped it up with a mention of how that kind of angle gives them confidence about going into the new Xfinity Live Complex, with a 400 seat beer hall in Philly. “We’re not intimidated [by mainstream crowds],” he said. “If some Coors Light drinker wanders in there, we’ll have something for them. And that’s good for everyone.”
In context, I’d remind everyone that your Coors Light drinker…is the natural target for conversion to craft session beer. He (or she) is already drinking a 4.2% lager; just get some more flavor and variety in there, and we’ve got a win.
Now…I gotta get on the road. As fate would have it, I’m taking my daughter up to Lancaster for an interview at Franklin & Marshall College (or as my wife and I call it, Alma Mater), and I think there’s a pint or two of Dark Lager waiting me on the return trip…