Good Beer Hunting


Domesticating a Niche — How Golden Monkey Broke Out of its Cage

Stylistically speaking, there’s nothing terribly exciting about a Belgian Tripel. There’s no fruit, no coffee or chocolate, and definitely no double dry hopping. It’s plainness is its elegance, a kind of beer that can let a brewer’s skills shine in trying to create a Holy Trinity of malt, hops, and yeast.

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For modern beer enthusiasts, a plain, old Tripel doesn’t create the same kind of religious experience a mixed fermentation Saison or a five-pound-of-hops-per-barrel New England IPA might induce, but the delicate balance, when done just right, sings hymnal.

Victory Brewing Co.’s Golden Monkey lives in this world, arguably the finest American representation of a style fittingly perfected in the abbeys of Belgium. It may not earn the kind of social media praise heaped on beers doused with lupulin, but at the right moment, with the right people, it’s a special experience for card-carrying beer geeks and self-described novices alike.

“It’s an outlier,” says Ron Barchet, co-founder of Victory and mastermind behind Golden Monkey, which was first released commercially in March 1997. “I don’t see a huge chance of Tripel being the next IPA or anything along those lines, but it’s a niche. I think that’s why it stays.”

Golden Monkey may not have—and, frankly, doesn’t need—a laundry list of adjuncts to make it unique. Its simplicity in ingredients doesn’t reflect the years of fine tuning or the depth of flavor Barchet’s delicate touch created. Breweries aren’t supposed to lead their lineup with a high-ABV Belgian style obscure to the average drinker. But here we are, with a brewery located in America’s Northeast, surrounded by Germanic drinking tradition partially of its own making, setting the bar for what a Belgian beer-drinking experience can be.

Victory’s flagship beer was supposed to be a Märzen, an outcome of “our limited knowledge of the much smaller ‘microbrew’ market we were entering at the time,” says Victory co-founder Bill Covaleski. It didn’t take off as expected when the brewery opened in 1996. Instead, HopDevil IPA was the surprise success, leading the charge for the Downingtown, Pennsylvania-based business.

“I recall at early samplings with the uninitiated I would proclaim HopDevil as ‘Bass Ale, with balls’ just to get them in the range and expecting European quality, but more, much more, character,” Covaleski recalls. The East Coast India Pale Ale—more focused on a malt-based balance than hop bombing taste buds—held the flagship title for the better part of a decade.

It’s an outlier. I don’t see a huge chance of Tripel being the next IPA or anything, but it’s a niche. I think that’s why it stays.
— Ron Barchet, Victory Brewing Co.

Between 2013 and 2014, Golden Monkey took over more than half of the brewery’s dollar sales. In 2017, the Belgian Tripel accounted for almost two-thirds of Victory’s off-premise sales in IRI universe channels (grocery, convenience, etc.).

Happy accidents are not new in beer. Brands like Ballast Point Sculpin IPA, Leinenkugel Summer Shandy, and Wild Heaven Emergency Drinking Beer have essentially helped businesses fall upward, coming across a game-changing beer by luck or unexpected happenstance. Golden Monkey wasn’t supposed to be a defining beer for Victory, but it’s become a celebratory drink whose party is yet to stop.

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Barchet had come to know Belgian beers, like so many other beer lovers of the 1980s and ‘90s, through famed writer Michael Jackson. He first traveled to the country in 1991 while studying at the Technical University of Munich School of Life Sciences Weihenstephan, and in Bruges, discovered a love for Saisons and Dubbels and Tripels made at Trappist breweries.

Descriptions from Jackson’s book jumped off the page into real-life application on his taste buds. Barchet wanted to share the experience with his fiancee. A year later, he returned with her during their honeymoon, and before they left the city, he tried to arrange a tour at a local brewery, De Gouden Boom, but was told only larger groups were allowed, not a pair. Barchet had been smitten by Gouden Boom’s Wit and plead his case, sharing stories of studying at Weihenstephan and a burgeoning craft scene in America. An assumed 30-minute visit turned into hours, and owner Paul Vanneste sent Barchet home with two magnums of the brewery’s Tripel.

It was that gift—a simple, innocuous act common among brewers the world over—that set a path for Golden Monkey.

The rest of Golden Monkey’s origins is a well-told story by Barchet and others. After drinking one of the De Gouden Boom magnums to celebrate their honeymoon, the second was saved until October 1994, when Alissa, Ron and Linda’s first child, was born. When son Reinhold was born in December 1995, Ron found a bottle of De Gouden Boom at a local liquor store and the celebration was repeated. The tradition was set to happen again in 1996 for the couple’s third child, Gordon, but the Tripel was no longer available locally. Having recently opened Victory, Ron took the cause into his own hands. This time, the beer would be for him and Linda, but he wanted to share it, too.

“We knew the basic specs needed to be 8.5 or 9%, it should be pale, it should be fermented with yeast to give it good character, medium hop bitterness and dry,” Barchet says.

But then, it came down to what might actually sell a Belgian-style beer in the U.S. in the late ‘90s.

“Those numbers you can work around, but getting the taste down is the hard part,” Barchet adds. “We wanted to put a little coriander in it, which is typical in some Tripels, but we thought there would be interest to consumers to be able to say ‘it has spices in it.’”

At early samplings with the uninitiated I would proclaim HopDevil as ‘Bass Ale, with balls’ just to get them expecting European quality, but more—much more—character.
— Bill Covaleski, Victory Brewing Co.

The marketing certainly helped. “Golden Monkey” had originally been offered up as the name for a hop-forward Maibock from Victory, but a connection to a beer that would have a hint of banana was too good to pass up. Jim Busch, an original investor in the business who met Barchet and co-founder Bill Covaleski at a local homebrew club, helped supply the yeast that would give it that character. Busch was traveling in Belgium while recipe formulation was going on back in Pennsylvania, and brought back beer from Brasserie de Silenrieux, from which the original Golden Monkey strain was propagated.

It was all well and good, but Barchet didn’t think Golden Monkey was ready yet. In fact, he wanted to do a wholesale revamp of the recipe in 2000. The beer wasn’t dry enough and lacked something to really make it pop, though even today, Barchet can’t quite put his finger on what that was at the time. His next trip to Belgium would be the difference maker. He’d go a little Mission: Impossible to pull off a time-sensitive swap for Golden Monkey’s new yeast.

He acquired a fresh bottle of table beer from Westmalle Brewery the day he was set to travel to Munich, Germany for an industry trade show. With the bottle in tow, he met Victory’s lab director at their hotel room that same day, where they extracted yeast from the bottle and stored in a slant for safe keeping and a trip back to the U.S.

Back home, the Westmalle strain became the basis for a new propagation as Barchet and Victory’s brewers played with varying levels of temperature, pressure, and oxygenation. The yeast was used for commercial production of Golden Monkey at the beginning of the aughts, but it wasn’t until 2008 that the final process was dialed in. Victory was getting consistent fermentation, and its brewers were happy with the balance between the coriander and banana flavor derived from the yeast.

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Golden Monkey was ready for the spotlight.

“I think what has occurred here is that Golden Monkey is the beer that nobody ever breaks up with,” Covaleski said on a 2017 episode of the GBH podcast. “A lot of people get acclimated to it at an early age because they see its [high ABV] and it’s not that expensive and it’s got a cool name.”

To be fair, it’s also “delicious,” Covaleski added.

Herein lies the allure of Golden Monkey, which is not lost on Barchet, Covaleski, or others who talk about the award-winning beer. It’s a rare brand that connects with beer lovers seeking a flavorful, to-style representation of a classic beer, but it also resonates with plenty of other drinkers, catching attention for bold flavor paired with an amped-up ABV. It exists in a circle. Whether former or latter, both reasons eventually end up at the same place: it’s a beer that tastes as good as it’ll make you feel.

“It sort of checks all the boxes for a young consumer, and then they carry it with them throughout life,” Covaleski said on the podcast.

Entries into Victory’s 2017 “Respect the Monkey” contest are littered with these kinds of lasting impressions, speaking truth to Covaleski’s observations through brief anecdotes shared online by fans of the beer:

“I always enjoy Golden Monkey with caution even though it's delicious,” shares Amanda Knight, recalling a long night fueled by the Tripel and DirtWolf Double IPA.

“Golden Monkey is one of the better tasting Belgian Tripels out there, so they went down very easily,” recalled Erik Bond. “Unfortunately for me, however, they all hit at once. And by all, I mean six.”

It’s the kind of youthful exuberance you might expect from drinkers first discovering what beer can be when pushed beyond adjunct American Lager. But as Victory’s founders point out, the beer’s alcohol content might reel a consumer in, but it’s the experience of flavor—not a potential hangover—that makes them return.

When I buy a Golden Monkey, it probably means something exciting happened in my life.
— Clara Guo

“My first time drinking Golden Monkey was my junior year of college,” says Clara Guo, who gave the beer a prominent namecheck in a senior year newspaper column while attending Dartmouth College. “I flew to Chicago for a neuroscience conference and was hanging out with some friends after a long day when they introduced me to Golden Monkey. The first thing they said to me was it was 9.5%, so it was going to be one of those ‘effective’ beers, but it tasted really good.”

Guo is quick to admit she is no beer connoisseur, and the delicate nuances of Golden Monkey or any other beer aren’t what draw her in. She’s just looking for something subjectively good. That first Golden Monkey wasn’t too hoppy, and it didn’t taste like a Stout, either, two things Guo knew she didn’t care for.

“I remembered it, but it wasn’t too memorable,” she tells GBH. “In college you just drink Keystone Light, and when you move into the outside world and adulthood, those beers tend to have stronger flavor.”

It was a Goldilocks Effect: Golden Monkey wasn’t too bland and wasn’t too intimidating. It was just right. And it kept that place as the Right Beer for the Right Time. Exactly what Barchet and Covaleski have talked about.

Guo now works for Clarion Healthcare in Boston, where staff hold “Beer Fridays” to encourage camaraderie among employees. The company picks up a tab, and Golden Monkey is a reoccurring choice for Guo when celebrating the end of the week. Or celebrating anything, really.

“For me, it may have less to do with the beer itself and associating it with what it brings to mind,” Guo says. “It reminds me of Chicago and the conference and enjoying time with others. When I buy a Golden Monkey, it probably means something exciting happened in my life.”

This is the sweet spot that any brand, let a lone a beer with thousands of competing options, hopes to obtain. Consumer loyalty is fickle, but when a product breaks through to create a repeat customer, it makes a tremendous difference. For many, seeking out new flavors is a natural part of the gastronomic experience, but it’s always comforting to have a point of return.

“It definitely has its devotees,” says William Reed co-owner of Philadelphia's Johnny Brenda’s and Standard Tap gastropubs. He’s been carrying Victory Beers since 1999. “We actually had to change the glassware we carried for the Golden Monkey tap because people would occasionally buy too many. We went out and found 11.5-ounce goblets for them.”

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Other iconic Philadelphia breweries have long held taplines at Reed’s establishments—Yards and Stoudts among them—and Victory’s “outlier” of a beer caught the attention of Reed and others in the early days of his business. Golden Monkey doesn’t have a permanent tap like it once did (“People are just rushing to the next new beer all the time,” Reed notes.), but it still has a consistent rotation among his taps because “it will always have its hardcore fans.”

The beer has even left a literal mark at the Standard Tap, too. Approach the building from the south along Philadelphia's Poplar Street at North 2nd, and it's impossible to miss: a painting of a ghostly, disembodied hand hoisting a chalice. It’s not marked as such, but the glass is filled with Golden Monkey, an homage to the glassware Reed once bought to not over serve customers.

“That beer represents a funny thing about Victory,” Reed says. “They’re known for their German stuff, but made something special with this domestic Tripel.”

Golden Monkey has been such a success for Victory, the brewery spun off the brand full-time in 2017, launching Sour Monkey year-round in 12-ounce bottles and cans. It previously saw limited and seasonal releases in 2015 and 2016, respectively. The twist on the original version includes additional fermentation from a blend of Brettanomyces and Lactobacillus. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the beer debuted as the #2 brand in IRI MULC stores for the company, almost doubling in dollar sales Victory’s DirtWolf Double IPA.

After seeing the reaction from drinkers to 2016’s release, it made sense to expand the Monkey brand, says James Gentile, director of brewery operations for Victory. It was such a big brand, the company decided to slightly modify its then-new 200,000-barrel Parkesburg production facility to accommodate the need to acidify Sour Monkey better and faster.

“I liken it to getting a Mercedes Benz fresh off the factory floor, then making alterations right away,” Gentile says. “We spent millions on this brewhouse, and then we added a heat exchanger and other pieces of equipment so we could essentially cut the production time in half.”

Gentile points out that building new beers off of Golden Monkey was never an initial plan, but was too good of an opportunity to pass up, especially as America’s sour beer market evolves. Given the “Monkey” name recognition, it all just made sense.

Golden Monkey and its Sour sister brand are such a powerhouse combo that in IRI MULC stores (which doesn’t include sales from Pennsylvania due to the state’s quirky liquor laws), they made more than twice as much in dollar sales as all other Victory brands tracked by IRI. Meanwhile, Golden Monkey currently accounts for about 25% of Victory’s production volume, with Sour Monkey at 10%. The combined total might not sound business-altering, but anecdotally, it adds up.

In a survey of about 5,500 consumers from the top-15 states in the U.S. by Brewers Association-defined craft beer volume produced, Pennsylvania residents polled five points higher (20% vs. 15%) than the average among other states in showing preference for "Belgian"-style beers. Compiled by DataQuencher, a consumer insights company focused on the beer industry, the survey didn't explicitly ask why as a follow-up, but looking across the state and its signature beers, it might be fair to assume that Golden Monkey, with "Belgian-Style Tripel" splashed across its label, may have something to do with it.

“I think we have a lot of diversity in what we sell, but to have a flagship brand that is carrying a lot of the weight is a dream come true,” Gentile says. “I think it really has its own place among drinkers.”

That place, as obscure as it might be, is more or less owning the category of Tripel. It’s not an easy feat, considering that other breweries have accomplished the difficult task of dominating one kind of beer by defining the style (Sierra Nevada Pale Ale) or reinvigorating consumer interest (Leinenkugel Summer Shandy). Golden Monkey managed a middle ground, providing Americans an introduction to an Old World style that has continuously captured interest.

“When you think of something like Belgian White, Allagash carved out its own lane,” Gentile says. “For no deliberate reason for us, Golden Monkey turned into that for Belgian Tripel. It’s one of those really approachable beers, consistently good in taste and price point.”

All of this for a beer that was created, more or less, for one couple to celebrate their growing family. This year’s birthday celebration will be another reminder for Barchet, who still likes to pop a cork on a 750-mL bottle of Golden Monkey to honor special occasions. It’s not just his preferred beer for such an opportunity, but also his favorite format—a secret he’ll mention if probed enough on the intricacies of his Tripel. Because the glass of the large bottle can handle more CO2, it’s carbonated with almost twice as much pressure as 12-ounce bottles or cans, which can’t structurally handle those levels. Because it’s closer to a traditional style of Tripel drinkers might find in Belgium, it’s the truest version of Golden Monkey, Barchet notes, an important distinction that brings back memories of how it came to be in the first place.


“It’s amazing what that extra CO2 does for the beer, adding more aroma, making it a little lighter and crisper on the tongue,” he says. “People really into Monkey owe it to themselves to try it that way.”

Increasingly, there are more people that will do such a thing. Contrary to what message boards and enthusiasts may see as reality, the vast majority of drinkers aren’t seeking badges and check-ins through beer. They’re seeking experiences. Something to build on aspects of happiness in their lives. Barchet, through an unbeknownst act of communal selfishness—he was making a beer he wanted to drink that wound up a massive hit—has created that portal.

“It’s such a personal thing,” he says. “I look at my son who turned 21 in April, and I think of Golden Monkey growing as he did. My kids remind me of all the things that have happened along with the brewery, how it’s all evolved and matured along the way.”