IT'S JUST A WAFFLE, but Brian and Andrea Polizzi's newest product is the next step in the maturation of American small brewing.
The couple's 13-month-old, West-Chester-based company, Waffatopia, last month unveiled Sweet & Stormy, a ready-to-heat waffle flavored with Victory Storm King Imperial Stout.
The waffle is sweet and chocolaty and, even if it doesn't contain a trace of alcohol, it's probably not on my breakfast diet. But that's not the point.
What catches my eye is the waffle package's familiar, blue-and-red V-for-Victory logo - a sign that, after successfully carving a niche in the beer biz over the past 18 years, the Downingtown brewery's brand is strong enough to carry more than sixpacks.
And it's not just Victory who's stepping out of the brewhouse.
_ Both Boulevard Brewing, of Kansas, and Gordon Biersch, of Tennessee, have lent their logos to sausages made with their popular beers.
_ Troegs Brewing, of Hershey, shares its brand with nearby Keswick Creamery for several beer-washed cheeses.
_ California's Firestone Walker sells mustard made with its popular Double Barrel Ale.
_ And you can find Dogfish Head's logo on an entire menu of bratwurst, chowder and pickles.
Yes, it's just waffles. But it's unmistakable evidence that craft brewing - an industry sector that barely existed 20 years ago - is such a recognizable part of the consumer landscape, it can sell more than just suds.
Or, as Julia Herz, craft beer program director for the Colorado-based Brewers Association that represents small breweries, observed: "The beer that we're enjoying today is not just something we purchase and forget about. It's part of our lifestyle."
Indeed, co-branding is largely about playing off the reputation and image of one brand to boost the image of another. Think Taco Bell's promotion of Doritos Cheesy Gordita Crunch. It's a way to snag consumer attention with a highly recognized logo that implies bold flavor.
The same goes for the use of Storm King.
While the rich, espresso-like character of the stout adds to the waffle's flavor, it's primarily Victory's branding that brought it so much attention.
"We wanted to use one of Victory's beers that was available year-round and popular, for customer recognition," said Brian Polizzi. "When we launched the product, we immediately saw the excitement. The focus was very much on the beer. Victory is a national name, so we got a lot of attention from the beer community. They were very excited that someone had made a beer-flavored waffle."
Beyond the admittedly glorious achievement of fusing hops with maple syrup, the collaboration marks an important development in the small-brewing industry. In the past, most of craft beer's co-branding efforts have gone the other way: An established nonalcohol company lent its brand to a brewery.
Thus, we saw the likes of Broadcaster Brown Ale, a one-off that Philadelphia Brewing branded with WXPN's World Cafe Live. More recently, Rogue teamed with California's Huy Fong to brew Sriracha Hot Stout Beer, and New Holland collaborated with Michigan's Carhartt work-clothing manufacturer to make Carhartt Woodsman barrel-aged pale ale.
This time, a craft brewer is lending its credibility to a fledgling company.
Victory co-founder Bill Covaleski said the step toward food is a natural progression.
"We've been in the flavor and hospitality business for our entire existence," Covaleski said, "so when we start packaging collaborative food products and taking them to a larger retail setting, it's just an extension of what we've always done."
While other breweries have long dabbled in gimmicky beer-infused products, like lip balm and air fresheners, Victory is making a serious stab at expanding its foodie footprint. It hired a merchandise coordinator to develop and oversee partnerships. In addition to waffles, its food branding has included ice cream, pasta, beef jerky, pickles, chocolates, hot sauce and cheese spread.
The effort underscores craft beer's growing relationship with good food, a key element of the industry's growth.
Covaleski pointed to his brewery's partnership with Home Sweet Homegrown, a Kutztown vegan hot-sauce maker. Together they make Punch Drunk Chocolate Ghost Pepper Hot Sauce with Storm King.
"It takes a lot of planning and work to find the right partnership," Covaleski said. "There has to be some synergy. . . . In this case, there are people who love hot sauce and people who love beer. Both companies gain."
So, what's next?
"I have a hard time speculating where this can go," Covaleski said. "There might be some obvious foods, but that doesn't mean it's going to be another great idea."
Today, Storm King waffles - tomorrow . . . HopDeviled Eggs?