Then and now: a local brewers’ roundtable
Photos by kc kratt
With a new brewery opening in Western New York seemingly every season, more local taps in bars and restaurants, and more local cans and bottles on shelves, many area beer enthusiasts and industry watchers have begun to wonder: is this market reaching its peak? How much craft beer will Western New Yorkers drink, and how many local makers of it can thrive here? Spree asked some industry leaders to weigh in on how far we’ve come, where we are now, and where they see us going. Also included: an up-and-coming young female brewery worker; so far, the majority of local breweries are led by men. (For more on women and beer, see the following story on Buffalo Beer Goddesses.)
How many local breweries can Western New York support?
Ethan Cox, president and cofounder, Community Beer Works
It’s not really about the number of breweries but the amount of beer. I think there’s a general consensus about how much craft beer Buffalo is consuming right now or could consume. But the amount of breweries really depends on breweries’ aspirations. In Denver, there are easily seventy-five local breweries, but most don’t distribute beer and sell it on the premises only. Buffalo could support many more small breweries that function mainly as neighborhood restaurants, but there is too much competition for shelf space and draft lines for the same to be true for distributing breweries.
Matt Kahn, president and cofounder, Big Ditch Brewing Company
It depends on the type of brewery/business model that every brewery has. I do believe there is room for many, many more smaller brewpubs all over Western New York that are making good beer on a small scale served with good food in a comfortable setting.
Jeff Ware, president, Resurgence Brewing Company
I think WNY has room to grow in the craft beer segment as a whole. The majority of drinkers still overwhelmingly drink macro beer. The future growth of local breweries is directly tied to how many macro drinkers convert to craft drinkers. If we can grow the share of craft up higher, we will need to support that with more volume—or more breweries!
Tim Herzog, owner, Flying Bison Brewing Company
It depends on the buying public. If they put down the "insert bulk beer name here" and pick up fresh, locally brewed beer, we’ll be fine. If they don’t, we’re already in trouble. Personally, I think we’re headed for fine.
Marina Christopher, Inaugural winner, Buffalo Beer Goddesses Cicerone Scholarship
I think that the market becoming saturated will start to happen. I don’t think it’s there yet, but it’s on the way there. Buffalo and other eastern cities are about ten years behind the West Coast still, so I think we still have a couple years on the upswing before things start to even out a little bit.
As the brewing industry has grown in WNY, what has happened that you would not have expected?
Cox: Growth is a little slower than I would have expected. Access to capital in Buffalo can be limited and that can slow expansion.
Ware: I did not expect so many breweries to open so quickly. In the past three years, we have seen over twenty new breweries open.
Kahn: When we first started working on this back in 2011, we had no idea there were others thinking about doing the same thing, and we certainly did not know there would be this many others! But this is a great thing, as there is a tremendous sense of pride among our breweries, and the collaborative spirit between them is probably among the best you will find anywhere. We like to say "we don’t compete, we collaborate"—we’re all collaborating to make Buffalo a great craft beer town.
Herzog: So many breweries and distilleries so quickly, with over thirty-five in Western New York, and there are at least three more in planning stages.
Christopher: One of the major things is the development of educational programs in the area that support the industry. ECC’s program is in its second year (I was part of the first year). And now there’s a new program starting up at Trocaire on brewing, distilling, and fermentation science. It’s pretty amazing to see that happening and now seeing my classmates from the program succeed in the local industry is pretty awesome.
What are the biggest challenges facing the industry right now and moving forward?
Cox: The biggest issue is access to capital—brewing requires expensive equipment that takes a long time to pay off, and local investors are frequently more interested in technology, which they see as having more potential for a quick and large payout.
Ware: I see differentiation becoming an issue as more and more breweries open. It is becoming increasingly difficult to make unique beers, branding, and events as more competition floods the market.
Kahn: The threat of "big beer," or macro breweries, continues to grow as they attempt to weaken the position of smaller, local craft breweries via a combination of acquisitions and aggressive marketing campaigns. Smaller craft breweries need to continue to innovate and produce beer at a quality they cannot match. I also think pricing could be a challenge moving forward, as larger breweries usually have economies of scale that smaller breweries don’t have, allowing them to sell their products for less. Again, as long as the smaller breweries produce a higher quality product, this will probably not be a huge issue, but pricing will continue to be an issue we need to be mindful of.
Herzog: Working capital will get tighter; tap and shelf space will also, and if we have a bad weather year for barley or hops, then prices could spike, which will close some breweries.
Christopher: The idea of these smaller places getting bigger isn’t going to happen that much. The neighborhood brewpub thing is what people are looking for—that sense of community.
What changes has the industry had to adapt to in the past several years?
Cox: The thing we most need to adapt to is that we can have a lot of small breweries that subsist on their tap room operations and don’t aspire to be a regional or national concern someday. That’s the key realization for these new brewery owners.
Kahn: I think for craft breweries, the challenge is becoming, "What else is there besides IPAs?" IPAs actually don’t have universal appeal, but there are many craft beer drinkers who only drink IPAs; this segment has driven the style to become the best-selling craft beer style on a national scale. We haven’t yet found another style that comes close to the excitement that IPAs provide. It would be nice to see more diversity in the selections that craft beer drinkers want, as the current demand has a lot of eggs in the IPA basket, so to speak.
Ware: A big change we have seen over the past several years is in consumer drinking preferences. Many of today’s craft drinkers are always looking for the next great beer. This means we need to be creating new beers much faster than we would have years ago. While it makes for fun experimentation and variety, it is certainly a challenge from a manufacturing perspective.
Herzog: Distributors picking up every player right away. Bar owners rotating most taps. New breweries having benefit of recent legislative changes, can be opened quickly. Rise of "gluten free" customers.
Christopher: The craft beer consumer is looking to be wowed, they’re looking for that personal touch. A lot of people are getting more knowledgeable in craft beers, and they want to go somewhere where the people who are working there can relate, can talk about the hops in the different beers, have more personalized conversations with consumers.
What future trends do you anticipate?
Cox: Right now it’s still the case that IPAs are the big thing everyone has to make tons of and sell tons of. They’re helping everybody staying in business. I’m looking forward to more lagers, whether of the lighter more traditional variety, or whether they are more dark and complex. Sour beers have proved more popular than expected, and we also expect growth in that market.
Ware: I think IPA will remain king for the foreseeable future. I do believe they will moderate in flavor and bitterness. Five years ago, it was all about how bitter you could make the beer, and, recently, it has been all about hop citrus, sweetness, and aroma. I think the near future will see those balance, which should make for some really tasty beer!
Kahn: I continue to see craft beer in Western New York grow; we believe that new craft beer drinkers are being minted every day; that is, they’ve had a craft beer they’ve liked or a craft beer experience and they have no intention of going back. I’d love to see some new styles proliferate; there is a general consensus that low alcohol beers with lots of flavor (or "session beers” as they’re commonly referred to) are the next trend, which is right in our wheelhouse of styles we like to make; but to this point, we haven’t seen that happen yet. Whatever happens, it will be interesting to watch craft beer mature in Western New York, for sure.
Herzog: A greater number of breweries opening will push the consumer to hyper-local I think. A fad will come along next year that will dent the "all IPA" mindset. What will it be? Stay tuned.
Christopher: Right now IPAs have been very big, but a lot of the next popular beers are sours.
[Christopher also notes she has in her career (she currently works at Swiftwater Brewing in Rochester) dealt with a lack of respect and assumptions that, as a woman, she must not be knowledgeable about beer, and that one future trend she hopes to see is more women in the industry.]
Jessica Keltz is a lawyer, reader, writer and sometimes beer drinker who lives in the city of Buffalo.