The Brewed: Two centuries of beer in Buffalo
William Hodge builds a home at Main and Ferry. Capitalizing on the natural spring that runs through the property, he opens what may be Buffalo’s first public drinking establishment, the Cold Spring Tavern, on the site. Bars serve as important community centers in the young city, and the Common Council holds its meetings in taverns as late as 1840.
Making use of some of the first wheat being grown in Erie County, Joseph Webb opens what is believed to be the first tavern-brewery in WNY, in the village of Black Rock. (Early breweries are typically connected to taverns and produce relatively small amounts of beer on an as-needed basis.) Webb’s tavern is destroyed by fire during the War of 1812.
The Erie Canal officially opens, swelling the population of Buffalo from 2,000 to over 42,000 over a thirty-year period and transforming the city into a major shipping center, with an accompanying rise in the number of taverns. In 1826, 305 tons of whiskey are shipped from Buffalo, and by 1831, more than 173,000 bushels of wheat (much of it intended for local brewers) pass through the port.
Rudolph Baer’s brewery produces the first home-brewed lager in Buffalo, nicknamed “strong beer” for its higher alcohol content than most American beers of the day.
Jacob Roos Brewing opens between Church and York streets (in a neighborhood then called Sandy Town), renamed the Iroquois Brewing Company when it is bought by Leonard Burgwerger and relocated to a building at Pratt Street and Broadway in 1893. In 1955, the company merges with Michigan’s Frankenmuth Brewing to form the International Breweries Company, which closes in 1971.
Tavern-breweries start to lose ground to stand-alone operations. Joseph Friedman founds what will become the Magnus Beck Brewery, in operation (not counting Prohibition) until 1956; in Strykersville, John Demongo founds a brewery which remains in operation until it is destroyed by fire in 1875, while the Downs Brewery opens in Lockport. Also in 1840, the Born Brewery, later renamed the Gerhard Lang Brewing Co., opens on a 34-acre plot at the junction of Best, Dodge, and Jefferson Streets. Lang also operates 80 taverns and beer gardens throughout the city. Lang’s is one of the first local breweries to reopen after Prohibition, only to close in 1949.
The German American Brewing Company opens at the corner of Main and High, in the heart of the emerging German immigrant community. Joseph L. Haberstroh, a former sheriff of Buffalo, purchases the company in 1859. Improvements to the building, including a new brewery and a rooftop beer garden, make it a center of German-American culture in WNY until it closes in 1934.
Albert Ziegele opens the Ziegele Brewing Company and tavern. In 1855 he builds a new building on Main near Virginia. The brewery burns to the ground in 1887, is rebuilt and burns again, then reemerges in a new building down the street at the corner of Washington and Virginia (next door to what is now Ulrich’s Tavern), renamed the Phoenix Brewery.
John Schusler Brewery opens; German brewmaster William Simon purchases the operation in 1896 and renames the company. Among the best-known products of the William Simon Brewery at 143 Emslie are Simon Pure Beer and Old Abbey Ale. Simon becomes the longest lasting of the Buffalo-based breweries, closing in 1972, after which its brands are sold to the Fred Koch Brewery in Dunkirk (which itself closes in 1980).
The United States Brewers’ Association holds its 8th annual convention in Buffalo at a time when the local brewers (and their peers around the country) are facing government regulation and the growing temperance movement.
Buffalo contains 2,152 saloons, 150 hotels, 129 stores, and 97 boarding houses where beer is sold.
New York state introduces the Raines Law, stipulating beer can only be served on Sundays in hotels that also serve food, giving rise to “Raines hotels” (bars with a small number of rooms for rent, often used for prostitution) serving “Raines sandwiches” (two slices of bread with nothing in between). The latter phenomenon evolves into a tradition of bars offering free meals as long as patrons continue drinking, which lasts until anti-German sentiment in World War I brings an end to it.
A booklet prepared for the 37th Annual Convention of the United States Brewers’ Association notes that “The breweries and malting-houses centered in Buffalo taken in the aggregate rank third in the city’s long list of industrial enterprizes [sic]. Not only in the aggregate of their output, but in the quality of their product have they established Buffalo as a successful rival of any city in the Union, both in home and export trade. This business was inaugurated synchronously with the incorporation of Buffalo as a city. ... Malting, bottling and kindred interests have kept even pace.”
Anthony Schreiber opens the Schreiber Brewing Company on Fillmore Avenue, hailed at the time as the most modern in the city.
The U.S. Brewmasters Association holds its twelfth annual convention in Buffalo, during which the organization votes to continue the exclusive use of German as the official language of the group.
Michael Ulrich purchases the tavern next to the Phoenix Brewery and renames it Michael Ulrich’s Sample Room (indicating that, unlike other taverns of the day, it offers “samples” of more than one brewery’s beers).
Buffalo boasts 29 functioning breweries (among approximately 1,400 around the country) on the eve of Prohibition. In January 1920, these are forced either to close or to shift toward the production of nonalcoholic beverages, while bootleggers begin producing “alley beer” illegally. In 1922, there are nonetheless 8,000 locations in the city where alcohol can be bought or consumed.
Brewmaster Francis Xavier Schwab, an outspoken opponent of Prohibition, is elected mayor of Buffalo.
Gangster John “Big Korney” Kwiatkowski, dubbed “the blond beer baron of Buffalo” by the local press, invests the money from a series of small-time bank jobs into an illegal brewery which supplies the beer for many of the town’s speakeasies before his empire is shaken by a highly publicized murder trial.
Prohibition is repealed on the federal level, although some states continue to enforce similar laws for decades. High taxes levied by the State Liquor Authority are reflected in higher prices, forcing some brewers to close and encouraging bootleggers to remain in business.
There are 750 breweries operating in the U.S. Milwaukee-based Pabst Brewing, the largest brewery in the country, introduces the metal beer can, revolutionizing the industry. Pabst and the other “megabrewers” launch major national ad campaigns, drawing consumers away from the smaller local operations. Over the next decade, labor disputes also contribute to the downfall of New York’s breweries, and by 1949 Wisconsin has surpassed the Empire State in terms of beer production.
Brewers from Rochester (Genesee), Utica (Utica Club), Canada, and points west begin to infiltrate the Buffalo market.
Lake Erie Distributing employee Ray Zembrycki introduces the concept of a refrigerated beer truck with built-in taps at the Erie County Fair.
The Iroquois and Simon Breweries close, bringing to an end the golden era of local brewing. By 1974, there are only 69 breweries left in the country.
In an interview with the Courier-Express, Eugene P. Vukelic of Buffalo-based Try-It Distributing reports that Schmidt’s and Genesee are tied as the most popular draft beers in Buffalo, that there are 2,000 taverns in Erie County (one for every 550 residents at the time), and that approximately 70% of the beer sold in the area is intended for home consumption (slightly higher than the national average). The article also notes that “Caught by the pinches of inflation, … Buffalo beer buyers are … picking up a six-pack or two a week of little-known, unadvertised beers, brands such as Koehler, Wiedemann, and Old German, brands which [sell for] $1.19, $1.09, and once in a while even 99 cents and 89 cents a six-pack.”
When the city is immobilized by one of the worst blizzards in its history, Mayor Jimmy Griffin memorably encourages citizens to “stay inside, grab a six-pack, and watch a good football game.”
Buffalo Brewpub opens at 6861 Main Street near Transit in Williamsville, becoming the first microbrewery in the area since the early 1970s (and by now the oldest operating in the state). A second location opens on Abbott Road in Lackawanna in 1990, and within 4 years the Buffalo Brewing Company is ranked one of the top 20 microbreweries in the country. In 1996, beer production shifts from the Lackawanna facility to Wilkes-Barre, Penn.
Mark Goldman opens the Calumet Arts Café at 52 West Chippewa, paving the way for the transformation of a once-derelict part of downtown into a thriving nightlife district.
Ellicottville Brewing Company opens in the skiing town south of Buffalo. Colorado-based Breckenridge Brewing Company opens on Main Street in the Theater District; when it closes in 1998 owing over $1 million in unpaid taxes, the city dumps its remaining 12,000 gallons of beer down the drain. The same site subsequently becomes Empire Brewing Co. and Ya-Ya Bayou Brewhouse before shutting its doors in 2005.
Pearl Street Grill & Brewery opens at 72-76 Pearl in the former home of Garcia’s Irish Pub, bringing microbrews back to downtown Buffalo.
After five years of navigating state and federal requirements, homebrewers Tim Herzog and Phil Internicola open Flying Bison Brewing Co. at 491 Ontario Street in Riverside.
The first annual Buffalo Brewfest takes place as a fundraiser for the Buffalo Hearing & Speech Center. By 2010, the event will feature more than 100 beers from more than 30 breweries, attracting 3,500 attendees.
A survey by Scarborough Research indicates that 50 percent of Buffalo residents interviewed have consumed a beer in the last 30 days, ranking the city fourth in the nation (tied with the greater Albany area) for per-capita beer consumption. The most popular choice locally is Labatt Blue (accounting for approximately one quarter of the beer sold in the area—the only U.S. city where a Canadian beer is most popular), followed by Coors Light and Molson.
Facing closure, Flying Bison is bought out by Utica-based F. X. Matt Brewing Co., makers of Saranac beer. “Nanobrewery” Community Beer Works purchases a space on the West Side and, in a front-page story in the Buffalo News, announces plans to begin selling beer in 2011.
Sources include: Steven R. Powell, Rushing the Growler: A History of Brewing in Buffalo; Dan Murphy, Nickel City Drafts: A Drinking History of Buffalo, NY; Lew Bryson, New York Breweries; One Hundred Years of Brewing: A Complete History of the Progress Made in the Art, Science, and Industry of Brewing in the World, Particularly during the Nineteenth Century; supplement to the Western Brewer, 1903; and miscellaneous resources in the Grosvenor Room of the Central Branch of the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library. Special thanks: Jay Pawlowski.