Prima Pils is a proven winner, having brought us glory at many competitions and through critical acclaim in the media. Such success attracts and secures appreciation for all the right reasons. The quality shines through, therefore, judges recognize this and reward the beer accordingly. The audience then takes note of the awards, leading them to find their own, personal appreciation in the quality and flavor.
Prima Pils has claimed the highest achievement, Grand Champion status, in the Pilsner category of the United States Beer Tasting Championships (USBTC) 7 times over history. No other beer has secured this top position at USBTC in the Pilsner category so frequently. It sits at the top of an impressive list of Victories from our Chester County breweries as our brands achieved another 8 Grand Champion rankings and 41 “Best Of” recognition within our Mid-Atlantic region.
With all this success, you may be curious about the USBTC. I am here to tell you more.
USBTC formed as a group of avid beer drinkers, many of whom with homebrewing skills and expertise, who set diligently toward their mission of quantifying America’s best commercially produced beers in 1999. Through a bi-annual, competition judging process this group has proven their dedication to quality and have provided consumer guidance as to where quality can be found on the crowded beer retail shelves.
I took some time this fall to engage in a conversation with one of USBTC’s founders, Jeff Glor, and the talk was so enjoyable that we switched it over to written form, for you to enjoy here. Consider it our gift to you.
Continue reading for an exclusive behind-the-scenes Q&A with Jeff Glor and Bill Covaleski.
Bill: When I think of USBTC the terms ‘independent,’ ‘grassroots,’ and ‘dedicated’ immediately come to mind. Why would you say that is so?
Jeff: Thanks for that description, Bill. I think it all goes back to the fact that we didn’t start the USBTC as a money-making venture. We just felt – and this was back in the 1990s – that there was value in helping brewers spread the word about really good beers they were making and helping beer drinkers identify the best ones. We still don’t charge entry fees and aren’t affiliated with any other industry organizations which keep us independent (and does a great job at squelching any effort at self-promotion) but we’ve been fortunate that we keep growing and getting new brewers to jump in. It takes a lot of work to pull it off each time but, let’s face it, it’s pretty enjoyable to work.
I’m curious. What adjectives do you feel best define Victory?
Bill: Jeff, a good question. ‘Determined,’ for sure in that when we set our sights on producing high-quality, flavorful beer in 1996 there was a huge amount of consumer indifference to overcome. Only a small bunch of us cared about delicious beer then, right? ‘Curious’ is another descriptor that fits us. We remain curious today to know the latitude our customers will offer us to push the boundaries of flavor in beer. Back at the start, we have the same curiosity for innovation, but we also wanted to discover how many people could be enticed to seek quality and flavor in beer. Through our efforts, the USBTC’s and many others, we have learned that there is a huge audience of folks who now demand quality and flavor in their beer selections!
I really appreciate your format, where fresh regional entries vie against one another and the top entry of each category has the chance to star as Grand Champion for the entire US. How did you arrive at this format decision?
Jeff: Um, brilliance? OK, that’s probably not it, but we do think that was one of our better ideas. It came from two related issues. We loved seeing the GABF results every year but were bummed when, say, the barleywine winner was from a brewpub in Alaska and we’d never get within 1,500 miles of it. And, at that time, fewer craft breweries were distributing their beers widely – most had local or regional availability. So we wanted to post results about beers that beer drinkers had a better shot at getting their hands on and, hopefully, motivate them to seek them out.
That actually leads to a thought I want to posit to you: It seems like the push to “drink local” has had some ebb and flow to it. Do you find that to be true and what is your thinking about that with regard to Victory?
Bill: The audience desire to select locally produced goods has not ebbed at all, in my experience. It remains a compelling consideration, especially in a product where freshness matters, such as beer. The ‘ebb’ you may be referring to, and I’m just guessing based on experiences I have witnessed, is that a good decision in which local is prioritized can still lead to a disappointing experience if the quality of the product is not as high as other brewers, near or far, are delivering. In this manner, there is a natural push and pull of priorities a consumer must consider in making their selections. In our experience here at Victory, we have witnessed in our outer markets how credible locals have challenged us for consumers who had discovered the quality within Victory beers many years ago. This is natural competition unfolding and I like to think that our early presence in those markets did something to establish a baseline expectation of quality that local brewers are meeting and exceeding at times.
In terms of your diverse base of judges, you once claimed: “we are your best customers” when discussing them with me. Can you explain that for our audience?
Jeff: It goes back to our goal of coming at things from the beer drinker’s perspective. Our judges have covered a range from certified beer judges, homebrewers, commercial brewers, to knowledgeable craft beer lovers. That includes a broader panel than most competitions – and I understand how that could be perceived as a negative, honestly – but we hope it helps us provide information to breweries about what a broad range of their customers will “judge” favorably.
Bill: I understand that judges of the USBTC judge the entries hedonically, versus judging based on “fit to style.” What unique dynamic does this add to your competition? Why did you choose this direction?
Jeff: First, I’m glad that some competitions approach it differently and judge more on a “fit to style” basis. I think it’s valuable to gauge how well beers stand up to certain standards. But we also recognize that craft breweries in the US are constantly pushing the boundaries of beer styles and we want to make sure that creativity – when it works in a beer – is rewarded. Plus we try to take the perspective of the craft beer drinker and we believe those drinkers care more about hedonics – which for us includes aroma, mouthfeel, balance, complexity, and flavor – than fit to a particular style.
When Victory is coming up with a new beer, how much of the thinking – if any – goes into matching it to a particular stylistic standard versus achieving a particular taste? I’d love to hear how you approach that process.
Bill: Beer styles, for us, have always served two purposes. From a recipe formulation standpoint, they serve as a bucket full of examples to inspire us or loathe as poor examples that we’d seek to avoid by a wide margin. The great examples in that ‘bucket’ inspire us to improve upon those offerings to realize something new and special in or near that style. The other purpose styles provide for us is context to measure our success against. Though we are very creative brewers here we don’t really buy into the notion that beer has no boundaries. More and more we encounter creations out there on the market that make us scratch our heads thinking just because you CAN, doesn’t mean you SHOULD…
I once heard you use the term “the obliteration of beer styles,” what was that in reference to?
Jeff: Ha, that was both a cheer and a lament, I suppose. On the one hand, it’s about that boundary-pushing creativity that gives us a delicious rhubarb-sage espresso-infused Brett saison. How the heck do you judge that versus others in the style? What style does it even belong in? And I love that we have ~10 different sub-styles of IPA and endless kinds of sours now. But I also feel like that has come at a cost. If that’s what most people seem to want, it can push aside great styles like Wee Heavy and Doppelbock – brewers and beer bars and beer stores just don’t have the capacity to do everything.
Bill: We at Victory have enjoyed a lot of success, historically, at the USBTC and we are very proud of this. How do we stack up in relation to other breweries?
Jeff: Yeah, when we scheduled this discussion, I went back and took a look. We have had a few breweries that have done very well over the years and Victory is certainly up there in the top of the pack. I counted up a total of 15 Grand Champions for Victory since you started entering.
What caught even me off guard was the Prima Pils. I knew it has enjoyed a lot of success but it has been named our Grand Champion Pilsner 7 times! And what might be most impressive is that has occurred over a period from 2002 to 2018. If it’s not our all-time most decorated beer, it’s got to be very close.
Bill: Since all entries are required to claim a style, what style have you seen change the most over time as entries pushed in new directions?
Jeff: Wow, what a good and tough question – there’s been so much change in so many different directions. I guess I’d answer by looking at styles where brewers are most-often adding ingredients or using techniques to impart unique flavors. So things like spice and fruit beers have moved all over the map. And barrel-aging, which includes so many things beyond whiskey now, has really changed what you get from imperial stouts and barleywines and different Belgian styles.
I’ll bet anything that you have a more comprehensive and sophisticated answer to this than what I’m coming up with. What do you think about that?
Bill: I find it fascinating that ‘IPA’ has just about become synonymous with ‘beer’ in that within the IPA style we have so many permutations being brewed and offered. We have IPA prefixes now such as juicy, brut, sour, grapefruit all of which are meaningful and thoughtful, calculated spins on what was once a singular style!
The USBTC has not added as many new styles as the GABF has and I appreciate that approach as it allows for better comparative analysis of past results, I feel. What kind of discussions goes on within USBTC regarding the formation of new styles?
Jeff: That also goes back to the “from the customer” perspective. In the 1990s, we didn’t think that the vast majority of beer drinkers were making a distinction between, say, a German and a Czech pilsner. And we didn’t even have categories for sours or coffee or even barrel-aged beers initially. But craft beer drinkers are definitely a lot more sophisticated now and there are a lot of new styles, so we’re always talking about adding new categories or splitting up existing ones. Plus we have separate “pull-out” categories each competition to recognize certain distinct classic styles that we usually lump together and also to capture the latest emerging styles, so that keeps things interesting and fun.
Bill: When the USBTC started out there were less than 500 breweries in the US. Now that we are at over 7,000, how well do you feel USBTC is representing this dynamic industry?
Jeff: Man, what a wonderful and ominous task, right? This is where you really have to tip your cap to the GABF. I just saw that they had 2,450 brewers from across the country enter in their 2018 event. That’s amazing! And yet it is only a little over a third of all US brewers. We’re not close to that but we’re always working to include more and include a diverse range of the smallest to the largest craft brewers. It’s a constant challenge and my heart has some angst about it, but I suppose my liver has some gratitude.