Twenty years ago, while driving past an old factory complex in Downingtown, a large whitewashed boulder on the side of the road caught my eye – again. I had noticed it before when driving down Chestnut Street, and I found this strange white lump intriguing. Who would take the time to paint a giant rock on the sidewalk? Was this some random glacial deposit? Was it historical? Who died here? Who was born here? One explanation is that there is a lot of history in this part of the country. Another is that maybe Chester County residents are compelled, for some reason, to identify everything almost anyone considers significant. Regardless, road markers seemed to sprout like mushrooms – signaling our great yesterday – from the original 18th century stone markers planted by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, to the exact spot where some weighty Quaker had a deep thought. The rock seemed to be a signpost for a side road. I decided to investigate. Turning cautiously, I drove right and right again, drawn into an ever tightening spiral as if entering a giant nautilus shell. Me and my small family of recently transplanted Texans had, in fact, arrived at the entrance of Victory Brewing Company in Downingtown, Pennsylvania.
I realized years later that the rock, this painted boulder, had mojo – a signal hinting that the industrial rock pile looming behind might be more than it seemed. This building, was erected, I assume, in the early 1940’s of locally quarried grey stone. The antiquated structure was a kind of maze that suggested the rectilinear severity and soul crushing chill of an old prison. Coming from Texas, where nothing is old but the Alamo, we gaped at this retro rock pile as if it were some incongruous industrial Brigadoon. Our previous hometown, Fort Worth, (where the West begins) tended, every ten years or so, to relentlessly strip itself down to the dirt. A major high-end antique dealer in Dallas (an insignificant suburb of Fort Worth) once told me, “We clean the original finish off and re-upholster all the furniture because nobody here wants to buy used furniture.” On the other hand, Pennsylvania, particularly Chester County, values its hard earned crust, which to me is a good reason to live here and my first experience of the Victory Brewing Company was in the most calculated and exhilarating way, crusty.
For example, Victory’s original signage and entrance was decidedly retro – a particularly potent retro to baby boomers. It harkened back to their parents’ generation, the generation that got all misty-eyed when recounting stories of the great depression and the big war. Upon entering Victory, the munitions factory decor and the “WE CAN DO IT!” posters of Rosie the Riveter only re-enforced my first impression. As a kid, at tribal family gatherings in D.C. after the scotch had made a few rounds and the melting ice had ceased tinkling in their glasses, I often asked my older relatives and acquaintances what was so special about that time. Their answer was always more or less the same; never had their lives been more intense or more meaningful….(“I could tell you stories”). All these forgotten sensations returned as I walked up the entryway steps to Victory. I began to anticipate Beer!
Beer, when I was growing up tasted like beer. There were three channels on television, lettuce was iceberg, apples were red and beer was a pale, yellow fluid preferably served teeth-crackingly cold. The only reason to drink it was to get a buzz on. Cutty Sark with coke was preferable and faster, but more expensive and harder to get when underage. Then, by chance and opportunity, I traveled to England pursuing a graduate degree at St. Martin’s School of Art in London. There I had many adventures, but when I returned to the states the thing I missed most on a daily basis was great beer – English, Irish, Scotch and German beer – that murky dark or light stuff that might have a head and might take five minutes to coax from a freshly tapped barrel into a pint mug.
Walking into this cavernous maw of Victory for the first time 20 years ago, the smell of yeast was encouraging. Was superb beer actual possibility here in Downingtown?! Leah, my 4 year old son and I started wandering around and bumped into a genial young man who offered to give us a tour of the brewery. Bill Covaleski was gracious, enthusiastic and had accomplished, to my way of thinking, the impossible – starting, with a childhood friend, a craft Brewery. I knew very well the near legendary feat of political lobbying by the Anheuser Busch Brewing Company. To get around the laws barring them from retailing their own product, they laid legal/political siege to Houston, Texas, got some friendly laws passed and built a Busch Gardens there (which eventually closed). Bill, who I later got to know better as a fellow member of Downingtown Main Street Association, did it a great deal cheaper with savvy, vision and the guts my parents’ generation would recognize. Now, the DMSA is working on another vision – the Downingtown Fine Arts Festival. What could be more unlikely in Downingtown than becoming home to the finest craft brewery in the country? Making Downingtown “The art heartbeat of Chester County!”
My son Sebastian is now in his senior year at Bucknell University and when he’s home we enjoy walking down the block and having a pint at Victory together. He still remembers the excitement of his first visits as a four year old, and getting all wound up over the pool table. His mother, who was something of a pool shark, showed Seb a few wicked shots. I got all excited about the endless space, the enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff but most of all about the beer. It tasted like Victory.