People go back to nature, back to basics, back to the good ‘ol days and back to the future, so a 31-year-old barkeeper has reached for all those elements and gone back to brewing. Kevin Townsell spurns glitzy advertising campaigns and brand identification in favor of beer made in carefully controlled batches on the premises. Naturally. Just four ingredients. Beer the way your grandfather drank it. Beer made the old-fashioned way, for trendsetters.
Townsell’s Buffalo Brew Pub is one of about two dozen tiny brewery pubs in the country, most of which are on the West Coast. But as the demand for quality beer grows, the number of brew pubs is increasing. “One hundred years ago, we had breweries in every city and town, with local delivery,” said Bud Lang, editor of Anaheim, Calif.-based “All About Beer” magazine. “Now we have a few huge breweries and 18-wheelers delivering beer nationwide.”
Townsell’s 1,500-gallon monthly production makes his the only brewery in a region that was once the nation’s fourth-largest beer producer. Between 1811 and 1972, 350 breweries opened, operated and closed around Buffalo. “Beer lovers, home brewers, any first-generation Europeans are attracted because what we say we’re going to offer is a fine, quality, full-bodied product, which is similar to an English or a German product than it is to any American mass-produced beer,” Townsell said.
Townsell graduated from Cornell University’s school of hotel management, worked for Hilton Hotels, returned to Cornell for an MBA and then opened an Irish pub in his father’s suburban Buffalo hotel. A friend told him about the opening of a brew pub in the Atlas Hotel in Welland, Ontario. So when prospects for an Irish pub in Orlando, Fla., dimmed, Townsell put $500,000 into renovating and converting a Prohibition-era coach house on the former Buffalo-New York City route. “I really wasn’t anything more than a beer drinker before this came along,” Townsell said.
The open, relaxed bar — complete with peanuts whose shells customers are encouraged to throw on the floor — opened last Oct. 31. Already, there are 450 regulars and 1,300 beer fans trying for status as regulars. Townsell marks growth through the “Mug Club” which awards a personal mug, retained behind the bar, for anyone who has tried 20 of Townsell’s home brews. “You want to be attracting the person who doesn’t know anything about beer. The guy who appreciates beer and knows about beer will be coming anyway,” said Jon Downing, the Atlas Hotel’s brewmaster.
So far, Townsell and his brewmaster Keith Morgan have produced five lagers, 30 ales and two oatmeal stouts. Beer is brewed fresh every six days, but the bar is pouring more home brew a week than the brewery produces. “We just kegged a batch yesterday you’re drinking today,” Townsell said, by way of offering a theme for his enterprise, which he plans to expand to another Buffalo-area spot and to Rochester.
Townsell’s beers, which are served cold, are considered smoother, more fragrant and fresher tasting than most bottled American beers. “We use four ingredients for our amber ale, for example. We use a malted barley, fresh hops; we use yeast and water. That’s all,” said Townsell. “In Germany up until just last month, you weren’t allowed to serve anything to the public that had anything more than those four ingredients.”
Townsell, whose warm personality would have eventually forced him to run a bar-restaurant if his instincts hadn’t already led him to it, spent about $70,000 for five copper-covered, 300-gallon vats which he and Morgan use for brewing. The vessels are visible from inside and out and patrons are free to watch Morgan, a former chef, work. “An equal number of dollars expended into a marketing campaign for a non-brew pub wouldn’t have the value of these kettles,” Townsell said. Townsell imports his malt from England via Canada, and gets hops, a fragrant vine that determines aroma and bitterness levels, from the Yakima Valley.
While hardly threatening the national breweries’ sales, locally brewed beer seems to be catching on.