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In-Depth: Buffalo beer boom

Local breweries contribute to $4.8 B economic impact of craft brewing in NYS
Posted at 8:59 PM, Jun 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-04 09:18:16-04

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — The craft beer scene in Western New York is hopping, literally.

From Lewiston to Lakewood, and Black Rock to Larkinville, new local craft breweries are popping up each and every year.

"One could have opened up while we were talking", joked Tim Herzog, the founder of Flying Bison Brewing Company on Seneca Street.

According to the Brewers Association, a total of 17 new craft breweries have opened in Erie County alone since 2016. The new additions have pushed the number of breweries in the Buffalo Niagara region to more than 40, according to Visit Buffalo Niagara.

And the Buffalo beer boom is pouring new life into our economy. Craft brewing in New York State had a $4.3 billion economic in 2019. The Brewers Association estimates the breweries in Erie County accounted for roughly $195 million.

"It's nice to see Buffalo growing and becoming more of a main player in the beer market", said local restauranteur Mike Shatzel, who owns Thin Man Brewery on Elmwood Avenue.

Thin Man Brewery
Production line at Thin Man Brewery cans Tropical Camouflage IPA

"It's big business on the tourism side of things", said Patrick Kahler, the President and CEO of Visit Buffalo Niagara.

According to a 2019 study conducted by Longwoods International 10% of overall visitation to the Buffalo Niagara region were traveling and experiencing our local craft beer. "That is four points higher than the national average.", said Kaler. "We rank very well with our craft beer tourism product overall."

Despite the recent growth, brewing in Buffalo is nothing new. In fact local brewing dates back close to 200 years with beer heavily linked to the regions industrial past.

"It goes back to before Buffalo was even a city", said Michael Rizzo, the co-author of Buffalo Beer: The history of brewing in the Nickel City. "By 1875 there were 38 breweries here in Buffalo", added Rizzo.

But the start of prohibition in 1920 all but shut down the brewing industry in Buffalo. Only big staples including Simon Pure and Iroquois remained before eventually fading away in the 1970's.

Buffalo Beer Book.jpg
Buffalo Beer: The History of Brewing in the Nickle City discusses the past, present and future of the beer industry in WNY

It wasn't until the end of the 20th century that brewing in the Queen City started to reestablish itself. Pearl Street Grill and Brewery and Flying Bison Brewing Company were among the first to pave the way.

"No one was building a brewery, a distributing brewery on the City of Buffalo", said Herzog who founded Flying Bison in 2020. "I just thought a city should have a brewery that distributed it's beer to that city. That's where it started."

Flying Bison
Flying Bison Brewing Company has expanded into a new brewery and tap room on Seneca Street in Larkinville

Flying Bison has come a long way over the last 21 years. Establishing itself as a local favorite with flagship brews like Rusty Chain and moving out of it's original location in Riverside to a new expanded brewery and tap room on Seneca Street in Larkinville.

"We are close to ten fold bigger than on Ontario Street. We are a lot more tired than we used to be" chuckled Herzog.

It didn't happen overnight but other breweries started popping up.

"Slowly after 2012, it was Community Beer Works, and Resurgence, Big Ditch and Old First Ward", added Rizzo.

Thin Man Brewery wasn't far behind.

"We've made in the five years probably around 300 beers" said Shatzel.

Thin Man Brewery opened it's first location on Elmwood Avenue in 2016. A second facility was later added on Chandler Street in Black Rock expanding production to keep up with demand.

And the numbers continue to grow.

Community Beer Works
Brewer Vandra Ruppel tests a batch of beer at Community Beer Works

Erie County breweries produced more than 45,000 barrels, or 1.4 million gallons of beer in 2020. That is enough beer to fill more than two Olympic sized swimming pools.

To keep up with all that production, you need good people.

"I love it. I really do", said Vandra Ruppel, a brewer at Community Beer Works.

Ruppel has been working as a commercial brewer for more than 8 years and was one of the estimated 650 professionals working in the brewing industry in Erie County in 2018.

"It's a really nice creative artistic outlet to me", said Ruppel. "I just feel like I'm never going to know everything, and to me that's exciting"

And in a growing industry, growing opportunity.

"I mean we have somewhere around 40 breweries now that are open and opening. There are spots. We need more people people. I say go for it."

And if you need any indication on the future of craft beer in just stroll down the endless aisles of options in any Wegmans beer section.

"They are not putting it in there if people aren't buying it", said Shatzel. "It's valuable floor space to be dedicating that much square footage to craft beer means they are selling a lot of craft beer."

And a lot of local craft beer. According to Wegmans the number one selling 6 pack of craft beer for all of the stores 106 locations is Hayburner IPA from Big Ditch Brewing. Minky Boodle from Thin Man is also in the top five.

"There is so much great beer being made across the spectrum of styles in Buffalo", said Rudy Watkins, the Brewmaster at Thin Man Brewery. "I think people in Buffalo don't necessarily recognize it. I think people from outside of Buffalo recognize it."

Froth Brewing Company
Froth Brewing Company on Military Road opened in 2018

And the new options keep coming. From Froth Brewing, to Hofbrauhaus Buffalo, to the new Southern Tier Brewing location coming to Canalside.

Add in the addition of the highly regarded Other Half Brewing to Seneca One, and the craft beer scene in Buffalo appears here to stay.

"Buffalo has always been a great beer city." said Herzog. "Over the past 21 years its become a great local beer city."

Explore Western New York's breweries with this map: