At the Tap: Phil Internicola
It wasn’t until he was already well into his career as a professional brewer that Phil Internicola found out beer was in his blood.
His grandmother, then in her nineties, mentioned as a passing afterthought that Internicola’s great-great-grandfather was the brewmaster at the Tonawanda Brewing Company in the late 1800s. The news came as a delightful surprise to him then, but considering Internicola’s current role as the brewmaster at downtown Buffalo’s Pearl Street Grill and Brewery, it makes sense that he’s directly connected to the region’s rich brewing history. After all, he’s now part of its future: PSGB opened in the historic Canal District in 1996, when the modern craft beer movement was really hitting its stride, and the brewpub’s arrival helped tap a resurgence in local beer culture that has grown slowly but steadily ever since.
“I think there’s a trend [among Buffalonians] toward being more open and more willing to experiment and try new and different things,” Internicola says. He’s sitting at the end of the main-floor bar, where the tap board above him relates the fourteen different styles of house-made beer available, and behind him the glass-enclosed brewing facility stands enshrined in the dining room. Kathryn Takats, his brewing assistant, is hard at work there. PSGB’s beer menu is anchored by ten tried-and-true regulars that span a range of styles to suit any mood or preference: There’s the fair-bodied Lighthouse Blond and the German-inspired Wild Ox Wheat; the heftier Lake Effect Pale Ale and the rich Trainwreck Amber; the hophead’s delight Saber’s Edge Double IPA and the dark, smooth, and roasty Street Brawler Oatmeal Stout. Four slots are kept open for rotating seasonal and specialty offerings—right now, you should find Pumpkin Ale and Oktoberfest on tap, plus there’s likely still some summery Lune d’Bleu Belgian Witbier to carry you through any remaining warm September nights. Internicola also notes he’s been playing around with bourbon-barrel aging techniques and says that while PSGB hasn’t ventured too far into experimental territory in the past, that doesn’t mean it won’t happen in the future.
“What we intend to do is to give the craft brew-appreciating public a variety to choose from,” he adds, “and that variety, I insist, has to be of high quality and has to be true to style.”
But what about beer novices—for example, the throngs of unsuspecting Sabres pregame partiers who have no idea beer comes in colors other than watery yellow? “It’s up to us to make it easy for them to learn a little something,” he says, noting that sampler trays are available, servers take a “consultative approach” to helping customers find a beer they’ll like. And if you’re not sure, ask for a taste of something to see if you’re ready to take the plunge into a pint—or perhaps a 100-ounce “widowmaker” tube, which looks like it could be sold at Terrapin Station.
Internicola is happy to guide groups on tours of the brewery or pop into a banquet room to provide samples and an educational speech, and he’s proud of the way PSGB is out there “disassembling some preconceived notions” about craft beer when manning the taps at local beer-tasting fundraisers.
So far, it’s been working—Buffalonians and downtown visitors are trying a lot of PSGB beer. Internicola says the brew-pub goes through an average of about 1,000 gallons of house beer each week (1,500 during the Sabres season) and there’s no sign of it slowing down. “All through this economic downturn that the country’s been having, we’ve actually continued to grow our beer sales and output at a double-digit rate,” he adds. Speaking of growth, PSGB is currently ramping its production capacity up twenty-five percent by upgrading two fifteen-barrel fermenters to thirty-barrel fermenters (one barrel equals thirty-one gallons), and the old fermenters will follow the brewpub into its forthcoming additional location in the old Lafayette Tap Room.
Despite the growth, Internicola and PSGB remain true to their roots. Like most commercial brewers, Internicola got his start as a homebrewer, and he makes the brewpub a hub for that community through events like the biannual Brewmaster’s Challenge, where the top homebrewer wins cash, the experience of scaling up and brewing his or her own recipe at PSGB, and a celebratory release party—plus the chance to break into the lineup of rotating seasonals, as the Belgian Witbier and Pumpkin Ale did.
For the beer geek crowd, newcomers and veterans alike, Internicola couldn’t be happier to pay it back. “I would not have become as accomplished a homebrewer as I was if there hadn’t been people doing for me what I’m doing for home brewers now,” he says. “To steal Cy Sym’s commercial, ‘An educated consumer is my best customer.’”
Pearl Street Grill and Brewery
76 Pearl St., Buffalo
Jay Pawlowski writes about beer and other topics for Spree. His blood type was recently discovered to be IPA.