“A Little Beer…” Buffalo News, 8 November 1991


The Buffalo News, November 8, 1991, by Dale Anderson/News Critic, City Edition, Page G22

NO MATTER how many times the Swedish Bikini Team materializes, the brewing industry has gone a little flat this year.

With one notable exception. While the large and middle-sized breweries are singing the blues, or at least whistling through the dark days of the recession, there were only happy faces at the 1991 Microbrewers & Pubbrewers Conference at the Hyatt Regency in September.

The ranks of the nation’s smallest breweries are swelling monthly, and those at the conference saw no end to the growth in sight through the mid-’90s.

As a result, there was a certain ebullience among exhibitors there — a builder from Florida who puts up brew-pubs, specialty glass and mug manufacturers from Germany, and a Hamilton, Ont., company that sets up centers where customers can go to brew their own batches of beer, thereby beating Canada’s onerous taxes on alcoholic beverages.

Though microbreweries (small operations producing less than 15,000 barrels per year) and brew-pubs (which brew for consumption in an attached restaurant or bar) account for less than 1 percent of American beer production, their output has been increasing dramatically in recent years — up 45 percent in 1990.

At the end of last year, there were 84 microbreweries and 123 brew-pubs operating across the United States (up from 64 and 107, respectively, in 1989), with another 21 microbreweries and 43 brew-pubs in Canada.

Two American breweries — Sierra Nevada in California and Red Hook in Washington — actually have outgrown the “micro” designation.

The biggest concentration of brew-pubs on the continent, meanwhile, is in nearby Ontario, where there are about two dozen in the Toronto area alone.

These small-scale operations have little effect on the big brewers — Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors, which produce three-quarters of all the beer quaffed in this country.

Instead, they have moved in on the imported specialty brands. In Seattle, for instance, Red Hook outsells all the imports.

Ironically, the imports paved the way for the microbreweries and brew-pubs. As American drinkers became more adventurous and sophisticated in the ’70s, their tastes shifted away from the mild, light-bodied, mass-produced brews to the more exotic and flavorful brands from abroad.

That, in turn, led beer fanciers to try brewing and selling their own versions of the imports.

What also helped was a change in laws that had been on the books since Prohibition lifted in the ’30s which discouraged establishment of small breweries.

Even today, there are 20 states that don’t allow pubs and restaurants to brew their own beer.

An inspiration to many fledgling brewers was Fritz Maytag (of the washing machine Maytags), who revived San Francisco’s venerable Anchor Steam Brewery after buying it in the ’60s just before it was about to close.

Their aim, generally, was to return brewing to its old European standards. As a rule, they followed the Reinheitsgebot, the German purity law dating from 1516 which specifies that beer must contain only four ingredients — barley, hops, yeast and water.

This distinguished them from the large-scale brewers, which commonly substituted lower-priced corn and rice for barley.

What further differentiated them was a preference for stronger, darker-colored, English-style ales, the type of brew that was commonplace in colonial and post-revolutionary America.

They could also claim an advantage over the imports on which they were modeled — freshness. Unlike wines, most beers do not improve with age. A beer from abroad spends more than a month getting here from the brewery. A beer made locally can be drunk while it’s still at its peak flavor.

One benefit of the boom in microbreweries and brew-pubs has been the return of brewing to cities where it had long been abandoned. Buffalo, for instance, had 35 breweries during the Civil War and 16 just before Prohibition.

Without a brewery since the William Simon Brewery closed in 1972, Buffalo now has two — the Buffalo Brewing Co. and Queen City Beer Co. Ltd. Both have been established during the past 18 months.

The man who brought brewing back to Buffalo is Buffalo Brewing Co.’s Kevin Townsell, who began with the Buffalo Brew Pub at Main Street and Transit Road in Williamsville in 1986. At the time, it was the eighth brew-pub in the country.

A large, amiably informal place with peanut shells on the floor and copper brewing tanks visible from the bar, it’s one of the most successful brew-pubs in the Northeast. Production totaled 750 barrels in 1990.

Townsell replicated this operation 70 miles down the Thruway in 1988 with the Rochester Brew Pub in suburban Henrietta, then set up a full-fledged microbrewery last year in a banquet facility on Abbott Road in Lackawanna formerly occupied by John’s Flaming Hearth Restaurant.

AFTER LINING up $1.25 million in financing for the brewery, Townsell’s next task was to decide what to brew.

“Beer is a European phenomenon,” Townsell said over a glass of his trademark brew, amber-colored Buffalo Lager. “That’s where the roots are and that’s where you go back to. It’s true with the big breweries, too. Budweiser’s recipe came from Czechoslovakia. Stroh brought his over from Germany.

“I sat down with my brewmaster, who I hired in Munich, and we went from brewery to brewery and restaurant to restaurant until I found the characteristics which I wanted in a beer and which I thought Buffalo would enjoy.

“As a purist, I originally wanted an unfiltered beer. But I found I was wrong. The public doesn’t like a cloudy beer, so we’ve gone to full filtration. They say that half the perception of beer is visible.”

Buffalo Lager has been so successful that it has out-stripped Townsell’s projections. Boosted by its acceptance by a major local beer distributor, the demand for it has exceeded the bottling capacity of Buffalo Brewing’s Abbott Square Brewery.

As a result, Buffalo Brewing is making its first venture into contract brewing. The latest batch of bottled Buffalo Lager is being made at the F.X. Matt Brewing Co. in Utica, which also does other custom brews by contract for Boston’s Samuel Adams, New York City’s New Amsterdam and Philadelphia’s Dock Street.

“On one hand, I’m happy and proud that it’s gotten too big for this building to handle,” Townsell said. “We’ve got distribution set up in Rochester, Syracuse, Albany and eventually down to New York City. We sent our brewmaster down to oversee it, but I also want it to be a beer brewed here. People like to drink a beer brewed in Buffalo.”

The Buffalo Lager on draft in bars and restaurants continues to be brewed here and Townsell eventually hopes to expand his operation so that all his beer can be made locally.

In the meantime, the move enables the Abbott Square facility to start bottling Buffalo Brewing’s other varieties — the Pils, the Bock, the Weissbier — which until now have been available only on draft.

TOWNSELL ALSO hopes to introduce other beers within the next year. An Irish ale is under consideration. There’s also thought of putting Buffalo Lager in cans, so that it can be sold in the stands at baseball games in Pilot Field.

Also outgrowing its early expectations is Buffalo’s other microbrewer, Queen City.

“We’ve got two months under our belts,” says Queen City’s president, Dan Smith, “and we’re five months ahead of ourselves in our sales plan. We go into the supermarkets Monday. We were going to wait until spring, but we felt we were ready now and, more importantly, the supermarkets felt we were ready.”

Queen City has a single brew — Queen City Lager — which is contract-brewed at the Lion Brewery in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., which makes Stegmaier and a number of specialty contract beers. One reason Queen City chose to brew at Lion is that it could put foil wrapping on the necks of the bottles and other breweries couldn’t.

“We sat back and said we didn’t want to run a microbrewery with a pub attached,” Smith says, “so we followed the path of Jim Kochwith Samuel Adams in Boston. The tough part is predicting four or five weeks ahead of time what we’re going to need.

“We order 300 or 400 barrels at a time, so we have to schedule mashing time; then, after lagering, we have to schedule a bottling date. Basically, we have to get in line.”

Beginning with the Nickel City Cafe, Queen City concentrated on upscale nightclubs and restaurants. For retail sales, it distributed to beverage stores, primarily in Erie County. It’s also served in Memorial Auditorium during hockey games, but only in the skyboxes.

At first, however, there was confusion between Queen City Lager and Buffalo Lager.

“We’re starting to define ourselves now,” Smith says. “Taste-wise, we’re at opposite ends of the world. We appeal to a very different palate.

“Our brewmaster spent a lot of time at the brewery where they make Pilsner Urquell and he talked me into it. We’re going to have to add another brand, but it’s a question of, do we go darker or do we go lighter?

“I’d prefer a darker or amber beer, but our customers would probably like us to add a light beer. Koch pulled it off with his Boston Lighthouse. But we’ll have to wait until we’re better-established before we decide.”

Copyright: Copyright (C) 1991, 2001, The Buffalo News