A tour through Buffalo's great brewing history
In an epic conclusion to the week of unbridled beer love known as Buffalo Beer Week, Buffalo Brewery Tours offered a comprehensive adventure into Buffalo’s brewing past, present and future with an all-day tour. Organized by local beer aficionado Willard Brooks and Buffalo Brewery Tours historian Peter Jablonski, the event was an amazing look at Buffalo’s rich beer culture.
The tour began with a venture to several downtown beer sites of old. “The brewing tradition in Buffalo really came with the influx of German immigrants,” explained Brooks. These immigrants brought their traditional beer methods and styles with them and fueled a beer renaissance in 19th century Buffalo, with several breweries and brewpubs serving as centers of community activity and idea exchange. Many brewers also went into business in brewing-related fields such as ice making and coopering. We got to see visit sites including Phoenix, Iroquois (originally named Jacob Roos Brewing), and Gerhard Lang (in its day, Buffalo’s largest brewery). As we bussed around the city, Brooks had the group in stitches with tapes of old beer advertisement jingles, many set to polka music.
Perhaps the most fascinating highlight of the historical segment was a visit to the William Simon brewery, founded in 1853 as the John Schusler Brewery and purchased by German brewer William Simon in 1896. The brewery, which produced well-known Simon Pure and Abbey Ale and was the second-largest in Buffalo (after Lang’s), closed in 1972 but is still standing. The blunt, affable William Simon IV himself gave us a tour of the building and was regaled us with stories from his childhood. As we entered the old hop storage room to find stacks of Simon Pure cases and advertisements, Simon explained that he is in the midst of fixing up the building and hopes to one day turn it into a brewery again, producing beers slightly different from what old William Simon might have recognized. “These mass-produced beers all taste basically the same, and there are a few huge companies doing that, so I would want to do microbrews,” he explained. This was a nice reminder that although it’s a shame that these old breweries have all shut down, the craft beer movement has seen a whole new generation of more creative and original beer.
At this point, Willard declared it "beer o’ clock", and we headed to lunch at Gene McCarthy’s in the Old First Ward. McCarthy’s is a homey and friendly pub with a long-standing commitment to craft beer, and we enjoyed a Weißwurstfrühstück (sausage, mustard and pretzel) lunch with three options of hefeweizen: the classic German examples Paulaner and Franziskaner, and a Custom Brewcrafters hefe made by tour attendee and CB brewmaster Bruce Lish that was deliciously light and crisp.
As we munched this delicious feast, Gene McCarthy’s owner Gerhard Yaskow and Great Lakes Brewing News founder Bill Metzger introduced the theme of the afternoon: the dawn of craft beer and Buffalo’s current craft beer culture. When homebrewing was legalized in 1978, the act of making beer at home inspired many beer lovers to open breweries, and the modern movement toward better beer was born. “Beer is a local product,” Metzger explained; “It’s about putting flavor and craft and ingenuity into beer when it was once an industrial product.” It was a fitting segue to the glimpse of the future that followed: a tasting of a prototype pale ale from Buffalo’s soon-to-be first nanobrewery, Community Beer Works. CBW President Ethan Cox explained that the pale ale, a lusty, tropical, crisp ale featuring the hot new Citra hop, would be CBW’s flagship once the nanobrewery opens (likely by the end of this year).
But before venturing into the heart of current Buffalo beer culture, it was time for one last nod to history: a stop at United German and French R.C. Cemetery to see the gravesites of some of Buffalo’s brewing icons. To the delight of the crowd, several stones depicted craft beer tributes—Gerhard Lang’s monument was topped with a crown of hop cones.
As Brooks joked, “There’s something nice about leaving a graveyard,” and with renewed beer appetites we headed to the suburbs for the hophead oasis known as Pizza Plant. There, we were able to sample through Sam Adams’s Latitude 48 single-hop IPA lineup as well as Pizza Plant’s supremely hoppy Beer Week tap lineup. From hoppy we went to funky and sour with a tasting of Belgian beers at the instant-legend gastropub Blue Monk, and the tour concluded with open happy hour back at Ulrich’s Tavern. Fabulous shwag including a free growler and fill at Consumer’s Beverage and coupons at several prestigious watering holes were the icing on the cake—or rather, the lacing on the beer—on this joyous day of suds.
Buffalo Brewery Tours will lead additional brewery tours on July 30 and August 27, and will offer two tours during the National Preservation Conference on October 21 and 22. Tickets and info are available at buffalobrewerytours.com. Brooks says the tour is slated to become an annual fixture during Buffalo Beer Week, and from the invaluable historical lessons to the delicious beer and great company, it is certainly one of Beer Week’s can’t-miss events.