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Introducing: Clearburner

Tired of those murky, chicken-broth-looking IPAs? Look no further, as Big Ditch has innovated an amazing technique to take American IPAs to the next level.

Introducing: Clearburner.

"This beer has all the powerful hop aroma and flavor you've come to expect from our IPAs, without the hop haze, or distracting orange color, or off putting head retention you'll find in a lesser IPA," stated head brewer Corey Catalano. "Not only will you want to enjoy this beer with dinner or while out with friends, we find this beer so refreshing that we think it works well during and after exercise, and even after you've just finished brushing your teeth!" Mr. Catalano exclaimed.

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The Bidwell Wild Experiment.

Over a year before we opened our brewery, we had a chance to perform a homebrew demo at the Elmwood-Bidwell Farmer’s Market, so that we might do a little promotion regarding our to-be-open brewery, as well as provide some education to market-goers about the brewing process.

We detailed the concept for the beer we brewed in a blog post called “Latest and Greatest” that was published on August 27, 2013.  My guess is that not many of you read it, since you had no idea who the heck we were at that time.  

Well, let’s just say the words written back then are a bit more relevant now.  

Here are the details:

“August 3.  I am really, really excited about this.  We did a brewing demo on a beautiful Saturday morning at the Elmwood-Bidwell Famer’s Market… we wanted to brew something simple.  Usually it takes 6-7 hours for us to brew a beer – the market is only open for 4-5.  Since we’re uber-specific about our setup, and we didn’t have access to everything we needed (for example – cold water to cool the wort), we decided to do a partial mash brew (some grains, some malt extract.)  And, if the beer didn’t turn out great, who cares right?  Well, we decided if we’re not gonna care - we’re really not gonna care.  So, instead of trying to bloop a single up the middle - we swung for the fences. 

We collected about 5-6 pounds of ripe, bruised fruit from the farmers that didn’t need it – then used it as a source of wild yeast to kickstart a fermentation.  Wild yeast (brettanomyces) typically lives on fruit, and plants, and naturally in our environment, and works similarly to brewer’s yeast (saccharomyces), but tends to yield a taste that is much different and more complex than typical flavors achieved from brewer’s yeast.  To be honest, I thought there would be equal chances the beer a) wouldn’t ferment or do anything b) would turn into a vinegary, diaper bomb or c) maybe be a bit drinkable after a long, long time. 

Well, after two days, we got a nice looking pellicle on top of the beer – which means that Western New York brettanomyces wild yeast has found its way into the beer!  After about a week, enough yeast had grown to start a furious fermentation.  I tasted the beer a week after that and it was tasting like a young red wine with a lot of funk taste thrown by the brett.  We’re gonna let it sit for a few more months (at least) and see what happens.  We’ll be back at EBFM on Sept. 21st to brew the same beer.  We hope to blend them down the road and serve it to the farmers that provided the fruit (and yeast!) next year… or three years down the road if it takes that long to mature.”

We wound up using nine different types of fruit (peaches, blueberries, blackberries, gooseberries, raspberries, pears, nectarines, plums, and grapes) in the beer.  Here is what the beer looked like after just a few days:

We tasted the two batches that were brewed about every 3 to 6 months.  It took about one year to complete primary fermentation.  At that time, the beer had a lot of character, quite fruity and funky, but still tasted sort of young, without a lot of depth.  More specifically, the first batch we brewed (on August 3rd) had very strong brett/funk character, while the second (On September 21st) was much more acidic/lactic in character.

After another year however, the lactobacillus went to work, adding quite a bit of acidity to the beer, and the beer became very close to what it is today: quite sour, very fruity, almost vinous, with a mild underlying funk.  

We aged it another 6 months in the fermenters to see if it changed (which it didn’t), then blended the two batches and bottled them, then bottle conditioned the beer for two more months.  

And, as of Saturday, April 9th at 12pm – an experiment that we never thought would work – the first beer sold (to our knowledge) with native yeast and bacteria purposefully collected from Western New York – will go on sale.  

The name is – of course! – Bidwell Wild.  WNY Wild Ale.

Photo via Kevin Wise

Photo via Kevin Wise

Photo via Kevin Wise

Photo via Kevin Wise

A few details about the beer.

1) This is a wild and sour ale.  For those that have not had one of these beers before, they are often characterized by the following terms: horsey, leathery, cheesy, acidity.  This beer is not an IPA.  It is certainly not a lager.  It is a very complex beer with a number of unique flavors.  It is much more like a wine than a beer.  If you come to our brewery to taste this beer, be ready for this.

2) This is an experiment.  We’re not going to sit here and say that this is the best wild ale that’s ever been brewed.  That being said, it’s an experiment gone right.  This is a complex and tasty beer, meant to be savored and sipped.  We think those of you who enjoy wild ales will enjoy this beer.

3) The biggest problem with this experiment is that we never thought it would actually work.  If we actually thought this beer might turn out good someday, we would have brewed more for sure.  But, alas, we did not.  We only brewed 8 gallons of it.

And, so, we have a very, very limited amount of this beer.  When it goes on sale on April 9th, we will have exactly 50 x 16 oz bottles for sale.  The bottles will sell for $16 each.  We will also crack open several additional bottles of this beer to serve 1 oz pours, so more can at least taste the experiment.  Expect there to be about 150 x 1 oz pours.  We’ll sell those for $1 each.  Of course, we don’t know for sure, but due to the limited availability and uniqueness of this beer, we expect the entire batch to go fast – so try to get here early on that Saturday if you want to taste or purchase one of these samples/bottles. 

We are very, very proud of this beer.  It has existed longer than the brewery has been open!  We hope you enjoy it.  Here’s to continued beer progress in Buffalo!  And thanks so much to the farmers at the Bidwell Market who donated the fruit (and microorganisms) that made this beer possible!

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What we learned from the New England beer scene (in 3 days)

The New England craft beer scene has become legendary and is leading the charge in redefining craft beer in America.  It seems like every year, a new brewery opens up in the New England area that resets all expectations about the possibilities and demand for craft beer, particularly hoppy beers.  In particular, Vermont and Maine (first and sixth respectively in the country in breweries per capita) have collected a number of breweries with almost legendary status.  The most notable of these breweries is The Alchemist in Waterbury, VT, who’s double IPA Heady Topper, which sells in a 16 oz can, was known as the best beer in the world for several years.  A close second is Hill Farmstead in Greensboro, VT, who was voted best brewery in the world by Ratebeer.com in 2015. 

Hill Farmstead brewery.  Do they make beer here, or much, much more?

Hill Farmstead brewery.  Do they just make beer here, or much, much, more?

These breweries and beers are known for impeccable quality; but also, the beers have been known to be extremely rare, with distribution limited to the brewers’ state, and in some cases only the brewery itself.  With that in mind, we wondered: what are these breweries doing to make themselves so successful?  Is the quality as great as others claim, or is this hype at least partially caused by rarity?  With these questions in mind, we (Corey and Matt) drove through Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont this past November to experience as many of these small and successful breweries as we could.

We had a fairly well organized plan when we left Buffalo of the places we wanted to go and the breweries we wanted to visit.  But we also kept it fairly flexible and took advice from friends, fellow beer lovers, and even Twitter on places to go.  So, occasionally we mixed things up and drove out of the way to reach someplace we were told we had to visit.

One thing to note about this trip.  While we did bring back as much beer as we could find (and afford), the primary purpose of this trip was not to “score” beers for share or trade.  We were here to try beers, meet and talk to people, and experience these breweries.  Therefore, we didn’t visit breweries like Alchemist, Lawson's, or Trillium, which have excellent beers, but don’t offer much in the way of tours or tasting rooms.  Luckily, we did get to try beers from at least the first two breweries, and we still had a lot of excellent beers, and experiences, along the way.  

The breweries we visited were:
Tree House
Jack’s Abby
Night Shift
Maine Beer
Bissell Brothers
Allagash (well, not really – they were closed)
Foundation
Austin Street
Oxbow
Hill Farmstead
Fiddlehead
Prohibition Pig (followed by dinner at Blackback Pub)
Zero Gravity

That’s 13 breweries, 1,500 miles, in 3 days, and I’m sure we could have seen more if we had more time.  So if you’re reading this, and you’re like “how come they didn’t go to my favorite brewery”?  We just did not have enough time, as much as we would have liked to.  Hey, we’ve got beer to brew over here!

Now, we’re not going to go into details about which breweries were doing what, and which beers we loved, and which beers we liked a bit less.  We consider all of these breweries to be colleagues of ours, and therefore we wish them all the best.  So, we’ll keep the learnings fairly general. 

First of all, we probably had about 70 different beers between all of these breweries, and had very little (maybe one or two at most) we’d consider to be bad, or just generally to our disliking.  That is to say, these breweries were all making good to world-class beer.  
Some highlights:

  • Jack’s Abby makes pretty much great everything, from fruited lagers, to rauchbiers, to hoppy IPLs, to sours.  They were extremely impressive.
  • Maine has a “Fresh Beer” sign that lights up outside their brewery.  How cool is that?
All the freshness

All the freshness

  • We thought that Hayburner and Another One by Maine are the same beer in many ways.  And, they are also totally different in others.
  • Bissell Brothers are rock stars.  We loved their beer, we loved their artwork, we loved their glasses, and we loved their bathroom wallpapered in old recipes and business plans.  They were selling cans out of their brewery as they were coming off of the canning line.  You could purchase beer that was literally minutes old.  How cool is that?
Man, this looks tasty.

Man, this looks tasty.

  • Allagash was closed for a private party!  We tweeted them that we would wash their dishes if they let us in for a few samples… they did not reply.
  • It was hard to find cans of anything, anywhere.  We would have brought more beer back if we had gone Tuesday or Wednesday.  Maybe next time? 
  • The staff at the Blackback Pub was super friendly.  And the can of Focal Banger that Corey had there was super good.  Although he did get a few stares when he asked for a glass with his can.

Perhaps the biggest learning was that we didn’t think that the beer being made in New England was mind-blowingly better than some (not all, but some) of the beer being made around our area.  We did think the beer culture was very evolved versus what it is in Buffalo though.  Everywhere we went, you could tell that people were enthralled with beer, loved discussing their favorites, loved discussing subtle flavors they could taste in the beer they were drinking, loved discussing breweries they thought were underrated, or overrated, or properly rated for that matter.  Remember though that New England has at least a 15 year craft beer head start over Buffalo.  But, you can also clearly see that Buffalo is doing a good job of catching up, and quick.

I strongly advise anyone reading this blog to make a trip like this to New England.  Yes, to immerse yourself in a world-class beer culture, and of course, to drink some fantastic beers.  But, even more so, to earn an even larger appreciation for the kind of beer culture being constructed right in your backyard.  We continue to be excited to be a part of it, here in Buffalo, NY.

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2015: Year in Review

Wow.  What a year.

Reading back through our annual review from last year, it’s strange, because in some ways, it doesn’t feel like it’s been all that long.  Time flies when you’re busy, er, having fun, and it’s been a super busy, incredibly fun year.  

When we began the year, we served beer out of here:

                                                                                                     

Snowy office tasting area (photo by Cody Osborne)

We promised you a place like this:

And this is what we delivered:

                                                                                                                                  

 Completed tap room (photo by Cody Osborne)

And frankly, our tap room has exceeded even our expectations.  

We hoped the beer would be good when we opened, and based on early reactions to our flagship IPA Hayburner, we felt like we were making solid beers.  But we were particularly impressed with the limited release beers we brewed specifically for our opening: Golden Shovel, our Belgian-style Golden Strong Ale, Lock Porter, our imperial smoked porter, and Galaxy Red, our India Red Ale which everyone seemed to adore.  When we made these beers, it was the first time we had brewed any of them, and were hoping at least one of them would be pretty good.  We were very happy with all three, and so were you from what we can tell.

Even more impressive than the beer, however, was the food.  Our initial idea was to prepare food that was good enough to keep you in your seats long enough to have another beer.  “The beer is the best thing on our menu,” I would walk around and confidently state.  Well, I was wrong.  The menu that our GM Jon initially developed, that Chef Mike later perfected, seemed to be right on par with the beer in terms of quality.  We honestly did not completely see that coming and were tickled pink when it did.

However, of all of the things we accomplished this year, hiring our staff was far and away the most exciting and rewarding.  Last year at this time, we had three employees: Matt, Corey and Jon.  The three of us did all the sales, brewing, planning, purchasing, etc. for the first 6-8 months.  We now have 74 employees.  This is a like-minded group of thoughtful, caring, attentive, intelligent, and well-organized people that care about Buffalo, and care about beer.  Back in the day, Corey and I used to talk about creating a business that had a great culture, and I’m proud to say that to this point, I think we’ve achieved that.  

We’ve done some other really cool stuff too this year.  We did samplings/tastings at over 70 different events this year, meeting a ton of really cool people along the way.  We created 25 new beers – that’s a new beer almost every two weeks!  In my opinion, the two most exciting new beers we’ve made this year could not be more diametrically opposed: Deep Cut, our 8.5% double IPA, which has received a tremendous response, and our 4.6% Jalapeno Cream Ale, which frankly I didn’t think anyone would like, but we had more people tell us they liked that pilot batch than any we made before.  We’ve put beer in cans in a one-off collaboration alongside our fellow brewers, and we created a beer in collaboration with some of our favorite local sports teams and our favorite local businesses.  We defeated New England! (in beer, if not in football.)  We certainly had no idea our tap room was going to be in such high demand for events, but we wound up booking a ton of events over the last several months, so much so that we put someone great in charge of organizing it all (thank you Raven!)

                                       

Our managers (Raven, Jon, and Jesse) with Mr. Wood on his charity night

As always, our yearly recap wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t mention some of the great beers we’ve had from other breweries this year.  Scrolling through the list, the following stuck out: Fair Maiden IIPA from Foley Brothers (thanks Jeff), Allagash Session Brett, Grunion Pale Ale from Ballast Point, Perennial Suburban Beverage (fruited gose), and Rainbow Dome from Grimm (fruited, oak aged wild ale).  I got to try a 2012 version of 120 Minute IPA from Dogfish Head randomly in the middle of a sales call that blew my mind (thanks Dan), and we got to try a Goose Island Bourbon County Rare from 2010 that did the same (thanks Mike).  We hit up BCTC this year and tried some impressive beers, particularly loving Ommegang’s pilot Funky Saison and Peekskill’s spontaneously fermented Lempbeek.  Our New England trip (expect a blog post soon on the learnings from this trip) presented us with some fantastic beers as well, particularly Kiwi Time from Jack’s Abby, Ever Weisse from Night Shift, Another One from Maine, everything from Bissell Brothers (we’ve become major fanboys) and Focal Banger from Alchemist.  

And it would not be a year-in-review-beer-list if we didn’t nod to some of our fellow local breweries.  Hamburg’s Farm to Pint smoked beer this year was pretty nice.  Newcomer 42 North made a pretty awesome Oatmeal Cookie Brown Ale that tasted of molasses and raisins, yum.  And, as always, CBW had another great year.  Their IPA “That IPA” is good, but some of the That IPA variants they made were even better: particularly a cask version they did at Goodbar in Feburary, Yuz Not That IPA (made with Yuzu), and their Simcoe Wet Hopped version.  

What’s to expect from Big Ditch in 2016?  Well, a lot actually: 

  • Expect some new menu items in early in January (can you say Duck Burger?)
  • Expect many new beers, including an expanded number of barrel aged and sour beers
  • And, finally, expect to find easier ways to bring our beer home with you…

Enough with the hints.  Have a great new year, Buffalo.

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The session: Are breweries your friends?

We were recently invited by our friend Dan of Community Beer Works to contribute to / consider a question that beer bloggers around the country are supposed to write about.  The program is called The Session, and the question is: Are breweries your friends?  Or, another way of saying it – do you enjoy breweries interacting with you via social media, popping up in your feeds, or answering your rhetorical questions to the internet universe?

                       Dan Conley - File Photo

                       Dan Conley - File Photo

I can only answer this from our own experiences via our social media presence.  We tend to be fairly active on a few different feeds: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Untappd, and Yelp primarily (see what we did there with those links!)  We put out a lot of information, mostly about us, but also about other Buffalo/beer news as well, if it happens to be relevant.  We also try our best to be responsive to any questions, comments, or issues you might have.  

I don’t think breweries are very different than other forms of business.  When a company launches a new product, or a restaurant prepares a new special, or a business has a big announcement, they usually like to tell people it, and that’s exactly what we do.  It’s not rocket science exactly.  Occasionally, we might also remind you that we’re open on a certain day, or that we have merchandise to sell, or some other slightly less exciting fact.

My guess is, you follow us because you want to know what we’re up to, or what we might have for sale, and we like telling you.  Does that make us friends?  Maybe more like casual acquaintances, but that’s okay too.  And if you don’t like getting updates about us, then I guess you don’t need to follow us.  But I think the very nature of following a business shows your interest in what they’re up to, so my guess is you follow us because you like getting this information (even if Facebook says you don’t).

The direct interaction between us and our “followers” (for lack of a better term) is a bit of a different story.  If you have a question, or compliment, or even a complaint, we feel obligated to respond, and again, don’t at all mind doing so.  A lot of craft beer in Buffalo is about education, and we want to provide you with knowledgeable answers about why our beer looks, smells, or tastes a certain way, or why we do things the way that we do them, etc.  

Finally, we’re a fairly small and very local company, and even though we may only be acquaintances, we’re also your neighbors.   More than that, we like living in this neighborhood, and heck, we like having you as neighbors.  As you (hopefully) would with your neighbors, we aim to treat our neighbors with dignity and respect at all times.

And so, I’m not exactly sure we’re your friends, but that’s okay.  We can still be a place you bring your friends to, and we’ll welcome you when you’re here, and I think that’s still pretty cool.

Does that answer your question, Dan?

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