"The handsomest and best appointed brewery in Buffalo is the one owned by the Iroquois Brewing Co." So proclaimed a pamphlet prepared by the Buffalo Brewers’ Association in 1897, when Buffalo played host to the thirty-seventh annual convention of the United States Brewers’ Association. Iroquois played a large role in bringing Buffalo to national prominence as a suds-producing city before Prohibition struck, and, in the decades following its repeal, Iroquois would become Buffalo’s biggest and most popular brewery.
The roots of Iroquois trace back to the very beginning of brewing in Buffalo. One of the city’s first brewers, Jacob Roos, opened his Roos Brewery in 1830 and in the early 1840s, moved the operation to Pratt Street between what is now Broadway and William. In 1892, Leonard Burgwerger bought the operation, razed it to build one of the most technologically advanced facilities in the country, and Iroquois was born. Portions of this massive complex remain standing today. As local historian and antiquer Peter Jablonski points out in his tours and lectures about Buffalo’s brewing history, one of the façades still boasts the Iroquois name in relief. (For tour information, visit antiquesbuffalony.com.)
Iroquois survived Prohibition by producing soda and near beer (and probably some real beer on the sly), and once alcohol became legal again, it never looked back. While local brewers fell one after another to the giants rising from the Midwest, Iroquois stood strong and gobbled up a number of Buffalo breweries. In 1955, it formed the conglomerate International Breweries Company with brewers in Michigan, Ohio, and Florida, and its distribution stretched across eight states.
Rushing the Growler, Stephen Powell’s history of brewing in Buffalo, notes that in the 1950s, Iroquois sold forty percent of all beer consumed in Buffalo and out-produced all its local competitors combined. Jablonski adds that in the fifties the brewery employed more than 500 people (free-flowing taps were one perk of working there), but its impact on Buffalo went beyond production and delivery of beer into the marketing and advertising campaigns that flooded the city with the Iroquois logo and slogans—it was on everything from boxes and bar signs to glassware and radio jingles. Iroquois even had its own polka (find it atforgottenbuffalo.com). "Iroquois is an icon for Buffalo when you think of the brewing industry," Jablonski says, noting that interest in Iroquois memorabilia today is immense.
Following the formation of International and through the fifties and sixties, Iroquois attempted to give the Pabsts and Schlitzes of the world a run for their money. But like most local breweries across the country, it could not withstand being outpriced by the megabrewers, and, in 1971, Iroquois ceased operation. Its legacy lives on, though, through the breweriana in bars and basements across town, such as the stunning stained glass window behind the bar at Ulrich’s—a proud testament to Buffalo’s greatest brewery and one of its most significant homegrown businesses.
Jay Pawlowski writes about beer and other topics for Spree.