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Phoenix Rising: A Hoppy History

Iroquois Beer truck, c. 1940

Ialmost never fails. Sit at one of the Pearl Street Grill and Brewery’s bars long enough, and someone will come up and order a bunch of Bud Lights. After the bartender explains the concept of a microbrewery and points out its offerings are handcrafted on the premises, the incredulous patron pauses before asking, “So … do you have Coors Light?”

But the idea of exclusively drinking locally brewed beer is neither strange nor new—in fact, it was once the norm. “The original breweries in the frontier days of the United States were microbreweries,” says Stephen Powell, author of Rushing the Growler: A History of Brewing in Buffalo, the seminal work on the city’s sudsy history. “They made their own beer on-site in the taverns.”

As Buffalo rose to prominence in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, so too did its brewing industry. Local corporate stand-alone breweries, with their massive production facilities dominating entire city blocks, steadily replaced the mom-and-pop brew pubs. At the city’s iconic taverns, Buffalonians drank their favorite offerings from one of the many local breweries that gave the city a proud and storied brewing history full of immigrant entrepreneurs, local Davids battling out-of-town Goliaths, and the resilient comeback spirit that is a hallmark of Buffalo’s social history and sense of self.

Becoming a brewing leader

It began just north of the city in the village of Black Rock, where, in 1811, Joseph Webb opened the area’s first microbrewery. Smartly capitalizing on the growing sentiment against hard liquor and its severe effects, Webb advertised his beer as an acceptable alternative to “injurious” whiskey. Like the rest of Black Rock and Buffalo, his operation was shortly burned down by the British, but in a demonstration of truly Buffalo-style prioritization, the first business to be rebuilt from the ashes of the nascent city was a tavern, which was then appropriately renamed the Phoenix.

The idea of exclusively drinking locally brewed beer is neither stranger nor new—in fact, it was once the norm.

Rushing the Growler chronicles the boom Buffalo’s brewing industry experienced in the mid-nineteenth century, one that would last until Prohibition and produce several of the breweries that served Buffalonians for decades: Moffat’s, German-American, Star, Jacob Scheu, Mangus Beck, Gerhard Lang, Christian Weyand, Iroquois, William Simon, and many others originated during this period. In 1875, Buffalo boasted thirty-eight breweries, second in the state only to Brooklyn, and in 1908, Buffalo produced more than thirty-one million gallons of beer. Buffalo was a good place to brew because of its location along eastbound grain shipping routes, the composition of the local water, and the availability of Lake Erie ice that could be used in “beer caves” to keep the product cold year-round before refrigeration was widespread. And as author Dan Murphy details in Nickel City Drafts: A Drinking History of Buffalo, NY, the original western terminus of the Erie Canal in downtown Buffalo gave rise to the seedy Canal District, where there was strong demand for beer to serve the thirsty patrons of its many saloons, gambling houses, and other dens of iniquity.

But as we always say about Buffalo, it’s the people who really made the difference.

“Buffalo was one of the largest brewing centers in the country for a number of years, mainly because we were also the eighth largest city in the country,” says Powell. “With a big population came big beer consumption, and thus a big beer industry.” Critical components of that population were Buffalo’s large working class, which at the time typically drank throughout the work day and into the evening, as well as its large proportion of European immigrants, especially from Germany, for whom beer played an important cultural role.

Peter Jablonski, a teacher and collector of antique breweriana who lectures on local brewing history, agrees: “Each ethnic group brings something,” he says, “and the Germans left their mark with brewing.” It was German brewers who first introduced lager and stronger beer to the Buffalo market, and as Murphy points out in Nickel City Drafts, the core of the city’s nineteenth-century German community was also “the hub of Buffalo’s brewing scene.” Within just a few blocks’ radius of the intersection of Ellicott and Virginia there were five major breweries, including that of Albert Ziegele, whose operation experienced two fires in 1887 and renamed itself (you guessed it) Phoenix Brewery. Ziegele came to own the nearby saloon and hotel, as was common during the period of the “tied-house system,” in which breweries owned taverns outright in order to maintain exclusive pouring rights. When Michael Ulrich bought the place from Ziegele in 1910, he named the bar Michael Ulrich’s Sample Room to differentiate his tavern as one that served offerings from a variety of breweries.

Up Schlitz creek

Then came the Eighteenth Amendment. Beginning January 16, 1920, the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol was illegal.

“Prohibition was the most devastating event to Buffalo’s brewing history,” Jablonski says. According to Powell’s research, eighteen breweries closed or switched their operations to legal “near beer,” soda, or coffee production. Clandestine “alley beer” operations brought a slight resurgence of the microbrewery, but consistency and quality suffered greatly. Buffalo was a particularly “wet” city during Prohibition, and there were an estimated 8,000 speakeasies in Buffalo. Murphy’s Nickel City Drafts cites a 1922 New York Times article that described Buffalo as “flooded with beer.”

Buffalo’s brewing industry never really recovered from Prohibition. When alcohol became legal again in 1933, a handful of breweries reopened or went back to making beer, and the world they returned to had gotten far more challenging. Many technologies associated with brewing and distributing beer had advanced considerably; ingredients had gotten more expensive; and beer taxes, first introduced in 1862, skyrocketed. All this made it tougher for Buffalo breweries to fight off the onslaught of the out-of-town megabreweries, which courted Buffalonians with advertising and sold a cheaper product of more consistent quality. . notes Buffalo’s breweries had it particularly tough, as they were essentially hit from all sides. Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz, and other giants moved in from Milwaukee; Canadian breweries, which gained a foothold in Buffalo’s market during Prohibition-era smuggling, came down from the north; and Genesee, Utica Club, and others in the state attacked from the east. Some American cities, including Rochester, enacted laws to protect their markets from outsiders’ beer (likely the reason Genesee survived), but Buffalo took no such action.

Iroquois, Simon, and others held out as best they could, but in the end, they were no match for the forces of corporate homogenization that still choke the beer world today. Powell notes that by 1960, only two breweries remained here. Then Iroquois closed in 1971, and Simon met its end in 1972.

Buffalo’s once-overworked brewing kettles went cold and silent.

Rising again

Maybe the metaphor of the Phoenix, seemingly a favorite in Buffalo’s historic beer culture, is once again appropriate. There is a glow and a stirring among the ashes. Our brewing history is coming full circle—as Powell puts it, “There was a cycle of boom, and bust, and boom for the microbreweries.”

The craft beer movement that, in the 1980s and ’90s, started to wake America from the daze of ho-hum macros found its way to Buffalo. That period saw the opening of the Buffalo Brew Pub at Main and Transit along with the Pearl Street Grill and Brewery in the heart of the historic Canal District. Both make excellent beer and continue to enjoy success.

Some brew pub attempts, though, just didn’t take. Three microbreweries in the downtown Market Arcade complex failed in the 1990s and 2000s. The first of these provided perhaps our saddest moment since Prohibition: When the Breckenridge Brew Pub closed in August 1998, still owing about $1 million in taxes, the city dumped a staggering 12,000 gallons of leftover beer down the drain. (If you’re still wondering about that strange disturbance in the Force you felt that day, this was probably it.)

Things are looking up for Buffalo’s distributing brewery scene as well. Flying Bison Brewing Company launched in 2000, and after a successful 2010 sale to Utica-based Matt Brewing Company helped it clear the financial hurdles that forced it into temporary dormancy that year, it is now surging in popularity and gaining prime tap placement in area bars. And this year promises the emergence of Buffalo’s first two nanobreweries (think smaller than a microbrewery but bigger than your garage setup): Community Beer Works has purchased an old malting house on the West Side, and Cosmic Frog Handcrafted Ales is setting up shop in North Buffalo. Both are currently working on obtaining the necessary federal and state approvals and licensing to sell beer. Watch for these ultra-small-scale breweries to provide innovative and locally focused offerings before the end of 2011.

“Buffalo has a lot of potential to be a really good beer city,” says Dan Conley, one of Community Beer Works’ founders. He points to a number of recent developments, like the success of quality-beer-focused bars like the Blue Monk, the resurgence of Flying Bison, and the support his nanobrewery has received in just its infant stages. This is an exciting time to be in Buffalo.”


Jay Pawlowski writes about beer and other topics for Spree.

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