When Scott Shuler left Florida last year to become head brewer at 12 Gates Brewing Co. in Williamsville, the Tampa Bay region was home to more than 40 breweries, with more in the works.
The Buffalo area doesn’t have quite that many, but it is supporting a growing number of hop havens. In fact, Buffalo and Western New York now boast more than two dozen breweries — roughly the number it had a century ago, and a significant improvement from 1995 when Flying Bison was the lone Buffalo brewery.
Needless to say, the region is producing quality craft beer once again, and with the vigor of an aggressive fermentation. This boom, which has coincided with Buffalo’s resurgence, is creating new jobs, sparking historic building renovation, and giving tourists plenty of options to quench their thirst—and more reason to consider sticking around long after last call.
Whether visiting the Roycroft Campus in East Aurora, where visitors can sip on a crisp kolsch at nearby 42 North Brewing Company, or enjoying a sunset along Lake Ontario while devouring a wood-fired pizza and a pint at Woodcock Brothers Brewery in Wilson—and all points in between—the region’s breweries beckon for tourists and locals alike.
“Buffalo’s brewery boom has played a crucial role in the city’s redevelopment and transformation. Breweries are destinations unto themselves, and the string of new breweries on Niagara Street, in Larkinville, and along and near the waterfront are drawing visitors into new areas of the city they weren’t previously exploring, as well as spurring additional nearby investment,” says Patrick Kaler, president and CEO of Visit Buffalo Niagara.
Within the city of Buffalo itself, breweries are breathing new life into historic buildings and neighborhoods. There’s Flying Bison, which opened its new digs in the Larkinville district in 2014. That same year, Resurgence Brewing Co. opened its doors in a former boat engine factory along an industrial stretch of Niagara Street that didn’t have much going for it.
Earlier this summer, Riverworks turned on the taps in the nation’s first fully functioning brewery retrofit into an existing grain silo. SATO Brewpub, located in the basement of the beautiful Dun Building on Pearl Street downtown, started pouring earlier this summer.
“All of these breweries are creating memorable, ‘only-in-Buffalo’ experiences for visitors, thanks to the extraordinary, unique spaces they operate from,” Kaler says.
“I do believe the brewing scene is having a positive impact on the city and individual neighborhoods,” Resurgence owner/president Jeff Ware said in a 2016 Chicago Tribune story on how craft breweries are helping to lead the city’s rebirth. “Buffalo is now a brew-tour city. You can easily plan a day or even weekend around visiting all the different breweries,” Ware said.
That Buffalo’s brewing scene is back is no surprise, says 12 Gates’ Shuler, a native of Southern Lancaster County, Pa., who ascended to the head brewer gig at Two Henrys after his predecessor, Clay Keel, was recruited to Western New York to head up brewing operations at 42 North.
“Buffalo has always had a love affair with beer. It was once a hub for commerce for the U.S. and with grains and materials flowing back and forth there was an inevitable growth in breweries and pubs,” Shuler said.
On the eve of Prohibition in 1920, Buffalo was home to 29 breweries and featured more than 8,000 drinking establishments, according to Visit Buffalo Niagara.
After Prohibition, breweries in cities across the country struggled to rebuild, and Buffalo was hit particularly hard. It took decades, but things finally began to change around 1995 when Tim Herzog incorporated Flying Bison Brewing Company in Buffalo. “Flying Bison Brewing led the charge and created the environment for all of us to start and grow,” Shuler says. Two years later, Pearl Street Grill & Brewery opened in downtown Buffalo. (Pearl Street is celebrating its 20th anniversary Oct. 28.)
Herzog had been a homebrewer for a number of years before deciding to open a Buffalo-based brewery in response to the bland national offerings that were the norm on area tavern taps and in stores. “Buffalo was certainly ready for it. There was nothing in the city and there hadn’t been since the last couple of regional breweries closed here in the early 70s,” Herzog said in a recent episode of the “Latitude” podcast hosted by the 43North business competition.
If Buffalo had the number of breweries then that it does now, Herzog said, “I would have found one or two that I really liked and drank their beer. I doubt that I would have [started the brewery].”
What many people might not realize is that breweries support the local economy in numerous ways, from purchasing huge quantities of ingredients from local farms and suppliers, to donating their spent grain to area farmers to supplement their livestock feed.
But breweries are also great at drawing foot traffic, and that often leads to additional businesses opening up nearby. Take, for instance, 12 Gates, which is located in a business park off of Wehrle Drive. “In our location, patron traffic has contributed to a 30 percent increase in new tenants in the complex,” says Shuler.
There’s also something to be said about the sense of pride a brewery can instill in a community. You might not think your local brewery has much in common with the Buffalo Bills, but, says Steve Matthews of Brickyard Brewing Company in Lewiston, it really does.
“Many people look to a brewery as something they can stand behind, much like a football team,” says Matthews, who, with his business partners from the immensely successful Brickyard Pub & BBQ, opened up BBC in June.
“The community around beer is quite different than most other restaurants we own,” Matthews adds. “The culture surrounding it is quite supportive and inquisitive. Most fans of the beer world will seek out new destinations that have a positive reputation and look to support them, visit, try the food, and purchase product and merchandise to take back with them.”
As the number of breweries continues to grow, the newbies will need specific strategies to stand out from their peers, Shuler says, adding that it’s entirely possible for Buffalo to reach the same number of breweries as Tampa had when he left.
“There will eventually be a saturation point,” he said. “It may be in five years or maybe 10 years before we hit that point, though.”
Fear not, seekers of the suds. Says Shuler, “As long as Buffalo needs beer there will be breweries and beer flowing.”
Note: Breweries across the region will celebrate Buffalo Beer Week today through Oct. 1 with all kinds of tastings, events and special releases. Visit http://www.buffalobeerweek.com for the full lineup of events, sponsored by the Buffalo Niagara Brewers Association.