Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Drank, drink, will drink: the revival of Buffalo’s beer industry

The Queen City currently has five breweries that provide beer for local enjoyment, and each is successfully expanding in a growing market of interested craft beer drinkers. But there was a time when Buffalo not only drank more, but produced more beer as well. 

There was also a time when Buffalo didn't produce any beer at all.

The golden age

From the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, Buffalo was one of the largest beer brewing cities in the country. The Gerhard Lang Brewery, the largest brewery Buffalo ever had, had a capacity of 300,000 barrels per year (at 31 gallons per barrel, that is approximately 9.3 million gallons of beer annually). This, combined with Buffalo’s other top breweries at the time, such as the German American Brewing Co. and the William Simon Brewery, led to Buffalo producing a combined total of more than 31 million gallons of beer in 1908. According to Stephen Powell, author of “Rushing the Growler: A History of Brewing in Buffalo,” all of that beer would have taken two minutes to flow over the Niagara Falls.
The Phoenix Brewing Co. located on Washington & Virginia,
photo courtesy of the Buffalo Historical Society
“It was the height of beer culture in both drinking and manufacturing. The breweries were at their largest capacity in that time frame,” said Powell.
What’s even more significant is that the majority, about 98 percent, was consumed locally, Powell said. With a population of over 400,000 in 1908, that would mean a per-person beer consumption of 77.5 gallons for every man, woman and child living in the city.

So how did Buffalo become the powerhouse of a brewing center that it was during this time? Powell attributes the rise to two main reasons:
  1. Buffalo was one of the 10 largest cities in the country prior to the turn of the century. With a population of over 350,000, the thirst for beer was high.
  2. Buffalo also had an enormous immigrant population of predominantly Germans. When they came in the mid-1800s, they also brought their beer and their beer culture with them.
These two key characteristics led to the establishment of more than 32 breweries in Buffalo by 1919; second in the country only to Brooklyn, N.Y., which had 35. At the time, it seemed that Buffalo’s brewing culture was well on its way to becoming one of the best and brightest in the world.

Then Prohibition went into effect in 1920.
“Prohibition was the most significant and devastating event in the history of the American brewing industry,” Powell wrote in “Rushing the Growler.”
Although the dry spell that the 18th Amendment caused was ultimately repealed in 1933, Buffalo never overcome the damage that was created. As the smaller, pre-Prohibition era breweries attempted to rejoin the beer brewing market, they were met with larger, multi-plant breweries that were more competitive and could serve a larger geographic area. These breweries made distribution less difficult and cheaper, which led to less expensive beer cost that Buffalo’s smaller breweries couldn’t match. By 1972, Buffalo’s William Simon Brewery closed its doors, ending a 161-year history of hometown breweries.

Buffalo Brewery Timeline:

  • 1937 – Iroquois Beverage Corp. closes
  • 1949 – Gerhard Lang Brewery closes
  • 1951 – Schreiber brewery goes bankrupt and closes
  • 1959 – The Phoenix Brewery Co. shuts down and transfers to Iroquois
  • 1971 – Iroquois Brewery closes
  • 1972 – The William Simon Brewery closes

When bisons fly

With the William Simon brewery closed, the Queen City experienced a beer brewing drought unlike any other. For almost 30 years, Buffalo’s only choices at bars and pubs were the light and pale lagers of the larger brewers that drove the local breweries out of business.

It wasn’t until 1995 that Tim Herzog and Phil Internicola decided that Buffalo should once again become the major brewing center it once was. At the dawn of the new millennium, their vision became a reality.

Inside the Flying Bison Brewery, photo courtesy of Brandon Waz
The Flying Bison Brewing Co., established in 2000, became the first stand-alone brewery to operate since 1972, effectively ending Buffalo’s 28-year dependence on imported beers. Along with Herzog and Internicola, many others were hopeful in Buffalo’s brewing future.
“It was a group of private share-holders that [Herzog] brought together. Close to 40 people bought into this business,” said Ryan Coleman, a brewer at Flying Bison.
After Bison, other companies including the Pan-American brewery, Community Beer works, and the Pearl Street Grill and Brewery caught on to the idea. Buffalo is now ushering in a second era of beer brewing, boasting five breweries that continue to expand and work together today.
“We get along,” said Coleman. “Buffalo has become more aware of what’s going on. It’s helped that there are good beer bars that feature things that you used to not see three or four years ago.”

Buffalo Brewery District

With Buffalo’s brewing culture quickly gaining traction and sales of craft beers on the rise, it seems certain that Buffalo’s brewing culture is once again secured.
“I think it’s going to continue to expand for the next five to 10 years based on the emerging social culture of younger people, where you’re interested in the craft as much as the benefits of drinking alcohol,” said Powell.
Breweries, like Pearl Street, are already laying the foundations for future expansion by uniting together and creating what has been coined, “The Buffalo Brewery District.”
“We purchased the domain name a few years ago and pitched the idea of this inclusive district,” said Josh Ketry, the director of front house operations at Pearl Street. “We have recently just begun developing the Brewery District brand and look forward to seeing where it will lead. Hopefully it can create a synergy between all brewers in the area.”
Together, along with the Pan American Brewery and many craft brewers around the area, Pearl Streets hopes to attract beer lovers from Toronto, New York, Rochester, and Cleveland to visit Buffalo and experience the growth and success of our new local breweries.
“We want to be inclusive with the other breweries that are either starting up or already existing in our area, as well as create an umbrella brand for our locations,” said Ketry.
It was only a few decades ago that Buffalo went dry and an entire golden-age of Buffalo brewing went pale. But with recent start-ups like the Flying Bison Brewery and Pearl Street’s future plans for a unified beer brewing community, local beer brewers and enthusiast alike are more excited than ever that Buffalo can regain what it once was: a proud, beer brewing city with an enthusiastic beer drinking population.
“We are a centrally located waterfront city rich with history and brewing history, and if the brewing community embraces our reality and works together there is plenty of room for success for all who are involved,” said Ketry. “The future of our entire brewing community looks very bright!”

Buffalo Beer Goddesses: a hymn to beer enjoyment

The Buffalo Beer Goddesses, photo courtesy of Sara Rosenberry
Middle-aged men with facial hair: that’s how many would describe Buffalo’s beer community. Whether it’s the casual consumption or celebration of brewing techniques, beer clubs locally and throughout the nation tend to feature only men as the beer-lovers and brewers. But one Western New York group plans to change that.
“Beer events can be really male-dominated, and it’s not on purpose,” said Sara Rosenberry, a Buffalo Beer Goddesses’ member.
The Buffalo Beer Goddesses were formed locally by Julia Burke, and associate editor of “Buffalo Spree,” and have since grown to over 170 women who meet regularly to enjoy and discuss beer. Their mission since conception has been to reclaim women’s lost place in the beer world.
“Women were the original brewers,” said Beer Goddess member Parrish Gibbons. “It was a very domestic chore if you think about it and made sense.”
Beginning at least since the 5th millennium BC, beer was brewed by women and recorded in the written histories of Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. The first recorded beer recipe was a poem titled, “A hymn to Ninkasi,” which described a Sumerian process of combining bread with malted grains and fermenting the resulting liquid. Ninkasi was significant for being the ancient Sumerian goddess of beer, and she’s also the source of the Buffalo Beer Goddesses’ name.
“[Beer brewing] happened at home; it happened with cooking and was invented before bread,” said Gibbons.
The Beer Goddesses’ members range from casual beer drinkers to veteran brewers, with taste as unique as the women that drink them.
“We have really serious hop-heads that love serious IPA’s,” said Rosenberry. “But other people that are getting more into it start on the lighter side, like fruit flavored beers.”
Although the Goddesses are primarily a women’s only group, they do allow men to many of the social events. Planning meetings and some special events are the only times the Goddess’ maintain their spirit and remain only for women.
“We had an event at Nickel City Cheese, a fondue tasting,” Rosenberry said. “It was just for women and our boyfriends and husbands were really upset. They were really jealous.”
If you’re interested in supporting the Buffalo Beer Goddesses, joining is an easy process. Just join their Facebook group or follow them on twitter and start showing up to posted events. Any women with a love for beer or home brewing experience are welcome.
“Come and meet us,” said Rosenberry. “We’re really welcoming!”