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Year in review: 2016

A lot of folks are down on 2016 (for a few reasons, perhaps rightfully so, perhaps not?), but for us, we had a blast.

Let’s recap, shall we?

First – be aware that 2016 was the third year in a row where we undertook a massive construction project.  In 2014 we built our brewery and sold beer in draught via Try-It Distributing; in 2015 we built our tap room and began serving our beer in draught alongside delicious food at our brewery on Ellicott and Huron streets.

This year was all about expanding what we had already began the previous two years.  We tripled our brewing capacity, added on a grain silo, expanded our beer hall and added on a new bar, then expanded our warehouse, kitchen and tap room storage space.  We ran 360 private events this year, which is amazing!  We opened for lunch and added on a lot of new staff to support it.  Speaking of staff, our staff continued to be our most valuable asset in 2016.   They are both our greatest cheerleaders as well as our supreme ambassadors.  We are so proud of them and grateful to have them working for us.  

 

 

                                           Photo courtesy of The Beer Photo Project

                                           Photo courtesy of The Beer Photo Project

For the finale of our expansion, we added on a canning line.  It turns out that Hayburner in a can is a good idea!  We’re also excited to see how much Low Bridge people drink from the can this summer – Low Bridge is nearly our biggest seller in the tap room, and we find this beer super tasty and refreshing.  It’s a brewer’s beer – when the brewers are done with their shift, they’ll often turn to a Low Bridge for refreshment.  

We released some nice new beers this year.  Just a few of the more popular beers we released: Squeezer, our hoppy kettle sour; Orangeade, a pale ale with orange zest; and we also brewed a few pilot batches of Make Me Wanna Stout, a drinkable coffee stout with Revolution beans from Public Espresso – expect much more of this beer next year.  We also released a small batch of a pilsner we brewed for our shared anniversary with Toutant which we called Toutant Pils - expect more of that beer this year as well.  Remember Bidwell Wild, the beer we made in collaboration with the Elmwood Village Farmers Market? Well, there wasn’t much of it to go around last year, so maybe you missed it.   You’re in luck next time around though – we’ve got about 10x as much brewed this year, and from the taste of it, it may be ready sooner than you’d think.  It’s currently aging in wine barrels from Leonard Oakes Estate Winery.  Speaking of barrels, we released our first barrel aged beer this year in the form of Bourbon Barrel-Aged Towpath, our imperial stout.  We released the beer on an event we called Stoutsgiving, the day before Thanksgiving – I suspect we’ll do this event again next year.

 

The best new beers we brewed this year were, in fact, collaborations with other breweries.  Great Big Steve was a doppelbock-style beer we brewed with Great Lakes Brewing Company, which was quite the honor, as we consider their beer to be world class and extremely influential on us as we were starting up the brewery.  Expect us to collaborate with another big brewery in 2017.  

 

 

The collaboration with Resurgence Brewing Company, Community Beer Works, the Buffalo Bisons, and Consumers Beverages yielded another mixpack of cans, and this year’s collaboration yielded a collaboration beer: Short Stop Saison (name smartly chosen by Ethan Cox of CBW, truth be told) – which was a well-hopped saison, and super tasty at that.  

 

 

 

Still, all of these beers and projects paled in comparison to the most important beer we made this year, which came about due to incredibly sad consequences.  When we lost local beer writer and friend of the beer community Kevin Wise in July, we gathered just about every local brewery in the area in what was almost definitely the single biggest collaboration of Buffalo breweries in the area’s history, and perhaps one of the biggest collaborations of breweries anywhere in the US (?)  Wise PA was a really nice IPA, but the best part of this story is that all proceeds from the sales of this beer, which was sold at all of the collaborating local breweries, will be donated to a college fund for Kevin and his wife Celeste’s children.  

Wise PA brewers.jpg

The best moment of this year was easy – winning the best craft brewery in New York State award at TAP NY.  You can see how surprised and happy we are in this picture.  It’s hard to imagine having another moment as great as this for a while.  That’s not to say we won’t try though!

 

That leads us into a preview of 2017.  First of all – no more construction.  This year we’ll be focused on doing what we do – making great beer and food – and doing it even better.  Expect more beer in cans this year.  Deep Cut, our double IPA, is just a few months away from being canned.  We’re planning on canning a few of our seasonals this year, beginning with our session wheat IPA, FC (Fantastically Crushable), the beer that we began with FC Buffalo, this summer.  Sorry, no Galaxy Red in cans this year!  But, in even better news, we're excited to announce that we are planning on canning several limited IPAs this year!  We should be releasing four to six new IPAs throughout the year, featuring lots of fun hops we’ve contracted for the year.  These batches will be one offs – that is, when they’re gone, they’re gone… although the very popular beers may return for an encore in 2018.  We’ll keep you posted!

We’ll be sure to continue and grow our barrel series in 2017 as well.  In addition to the Bidwell Wild project, we now have 8 x Woodford Reserve barrels we’ll be filling with Towpath sometime in January.  We just filled some gin barrels from Tommyrotter Distillery with Beautiful River, our saison.  We added two kinds of brettanomyces to the beer after racking to the barrels, which should take 3-6 months to age; after which time we’ll dry hop the beer with something nice and bottle it up.  Stay tuned…

 

We’re also planning on expanding our reach a bit more in 2017 – we’ve had some good feedback from Rochester and would like to be there sometime during the year.  And after that – who knows?

Finally, a rundown of great beers we’ve had this year.  What’s pretty cool is that this year we can focus just on NY State beers alone – because NYS is truly making some great beers.  Here’s a short list – pretty much anything from Grimm Artisanal Ales, Hand & Seal from Brooklyn, Squeaker from Suarez, Sunday from The North, Double from Upstate (these guys have come a long way – congrats!), Hard Core Leaf Peeping from Common Roots, Solera and Without Regarde from Good Nature, who are one of our favorite breweries in NYS right now, Run Like an Apricot from Prison City (our other favorite), Toasted Coconut Kareem from Stoneyard (‘sup Jason!).  And, let’s not forget how much great beer is being made locally these days!  Sky High Rye from EBC (who won F2P this year in my opinion), Spot Coffee Stout from Flying Bison, Cosmic Truth and Irish Breakfast from Resurgence, Dreizehn from CBW (one of my favorite pilsners ever, and I love pilsners), and Bliss from (sort of?) newcomers Thin Man, who blew us away with that beer.

Here’s hoping we make someone’s list next year!

As always, thanks so much for your support – we appreciate our customers and guests more than you know – the smiles on your faces are the reasons we come to work every day.  Have a happy 2017, Buffalo!

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The culmination of our summer: cans

It was right around Memorial Day when we ran out of beer.

We became aware of this trend as early as December of last year.  Based on the success of our tap room, and primarily our flagship IPA Hayburner on draft lines around the city, we were growing faster than we had originally planned to grow.  By the time we won the TAP NY award for “Best Craft Brewery in New York State”, we knew that we would need to make more beer than we were capable of.  And, by Memorial Day, we were all out.  

Let’s back up a bit.

Even before we opened our brewery, there were three parts to our long term plan:
1)    Make great beer
2)    Serve it in a comfortable and appealing tap room (our factory showroom so to speak)
3)    Distribute in bottles or cans all over Western New York

And so, we had always planned to expand the brewery in order to put the beer on shelves in supermarkets and retail stores.  Just not this quickly.

There were a number of questions we had to answer immediately.  

First question: bottles or cans?  

In a sentence: cans have a story.

Cans completely protect beer from light exposure.  All things being equal, the seam between the can and the can lid does a better job of keeping out oxygen than a bottle cap does.  Cans are more accessible for outdoor drinking at parks and beaches, and easier to transport as well.  Cans are lighter than bottles, and thus cost less to transport, both filled and unfilled.    

And finally, cans are just cool right now.  Probably because of all the stuff above.  But also, they’re just cool.

So, we began the work of scoping our new brewing equipment – 6 x 60 barrel fermenters would effectively triple our capacity and give us some room to breathe.

More beer to package requires more packaging tanks, so we added on 3 more brite tanks as well.  More beer production requires more raw materials, and so we decided to add on a 60,000 pound silo, which instantly reduced the cost of our most expensive material (base malt) as well as the number of people required to actually mill and mash.  We bought a real time, inline weighing scale as well, so now we just program what we want to weigh, press a button and the mash begins!

Then, we realized that to store all these cans, we needed more warehouse space.  And, we also knew that we were out of space to store all sorts of other stuff – dry food storage for the kitchen, spare furniture for the beer hall, etcetera, etcetera.  We were even out of space to store employees.  When we started this in 2014, we had three employees.  We now have almost 90, including all of the tap room (part and full time) employees we have.  This means we needed more office space, a bigger break room, and even another employee bathroom (we only had one bathroom for those 90ish employees up until this summer – which I can tell you, was not a pretty sight.)  And finally, we were a bit short on space for tap room private events, which was a part of our business that had grown a lot since we first opened.  

And so, what began as the (relatively simple) idea of putting beer into cans, became an expansion project for the entire site.  This was incredibly stressful.  Imagine starting with a crazy idea like opening a brewery, watching it succeed, then pretty much knocking it all down and starting all over again?  Yet, that’s what we did.

So, on that Memorial Day, when we realized we were out of beer, well yeah, that was a problem.  A “Good Problem to Have?” Of course.  But still a problem.  

Luckily, we already had a plan in place.  We hired several new brewers to our staff that very same week.  By middle of July, we had our new tanks in and switched our schedule to brewing three shifts a day.  That’s right – we start brewing at about 11:30pm on Sunday and don’t finish until midnight on Friday.  The brewers have worked very hard to make beer for you, Buffalo.  If you happen to meet one of our brewers out, buy them a beer!  

The Beer Hall was completed in August and we had a nice little party to celebrate the re-opening at the beginning of September.  It is now a perfect place to hold a banquet, complete with its own bar, bathrooms, video and audio, and capable of being privatized from the rest of the tap room.  

The cans were the last piece of the puzzle.  Lots of decisions here.

12 oz in 6-packs or 16 oz in 4-packs?  We went with 12 oz.  More volume per pack, more servings per pack, more beer to share with friends.  

Which beers?  Of course Hayburner, but we wanted more than just the one option.  Low Bridge, the low ABV yet flavorful crossover golden ale we make is regarded so well in our tap room; and often at events, we get great feedback about Excavator, our rich, chocolatey brown ale with notes of spicy rye.  Our three signature beers are like a family.  We just couldn’t split them apart.

We knew the first question people would ask: “Where’s Deep Cut?”  We are totally planning to put Deep Cut, our award winning and buzzworthy double IPA in cans, just a bit further down the road.  But what about your favorite beer (X)?  Cans are expensive and it takes time to create and approve artwork and print cans or can labels.  So, it is too early to say what the next beer we’ll can will be.  This is just the beginning, people.

The artwork for these cans took longer than we wanted – but by now, you probably have a good idea who we are.  We take our time until we feel like it’s right.  And we’re very happy with how the cans look.  

Getting the canning line up and running was incredibly difficult.  Packaging is not at like brewing and there were many challenges.   However, by Friday night on 9/23, we had canned all the beer we needed for the launch.  That brings us to today.  

You’ll be able to buy our beer in cans beginning on Thursday, 9/29.

A few features/notes about the cans:

  • They are sold in these sweet 6-pack cartons: honestly, I almost like the way the cartons look more than the actual cans!  These should be easy to spot on the shelf.

 

  • “Drink this beer fresh.  Keep refrigerated.”  These phrases are written all over the can and carton.   Craft beer is like fresh bread from your bakery.  Take it home, store it properly, and enjoy it as fresh as possible.  If you’re the kind of person that prefers Wonder Bread, you’re probably shopping for beer in the wrong section of the store.
  • “Canned on” dates.  We think it’s important that you know the date that we canned the beer so you have an idea of how fresh it is.  What does fresh mean?  There is no simple answer to this question.  Rest assured, if you buy our beer, keep it cold, and drink it as soon as possible – you won’t be disappointed.  The date is both printed on the can and stamped on the carton.  (FYI - there may be a few cans missing the date as we worked on getting the canning line going – this is a problem that will be rectified, and you should not see much of this going forward.)
  • Why is the ABV on the Hayburner can 7.2%?  I thought it was 7.0%?  And why is the ABV on the Excavator can 6.2%?  I thought it was 5.8%?  Yeah, well… New York State makes you file for a label approval before the beers are even brewed.  And, sometimes, in order to get the flavors right, they don’t turn out at EXACTLY the ABV you thought they would turn out at.  We also had the beers tested for ABV, because there are federally mandated alcohol tolerances on labeling, and in doing so we found out the ABVs were a bit higher than we thought.  Sorry!  There are a few of you out there reading this, nodding and saying to yourself “Now I get it…

Where can you get our beers in cans?  As of 9/29, they will be sold at Consumers, Wegmans, most Tops, Dash's, a few independent gas stations, and bottle shops all over the area (ABW, Brewed and Bottled, Murphy Brown’s, Premier, VBM, and WOB.)  Thanks to everyone who is supporting us in carrying this beer.   

This weekend, we’ll be at the following locations sampling the beer from cans:

  • Thursday 9/29: Consumer's 3160 Niagara Falls Blvd and 8580 Transit Rd 4 - 6PM
  • Friday 9/30: Wegmans Amherst Street 4 - 6PM
  • Friday 9/30: Wegmans McKinley Parkway 4 - 6PM
  • Friday 9/30: Village Beer Merchant Elmwood 5-7PM
  • Saturday 10/1: Consumer's 2644 Elmwood Ave 11AM - 1PM and 3025 Sheridan Drive 1:30 - 4PM
  • Saturday 10/1: Wegmans Alberta Drive 12 - 2PM 
  • Saturday 10/1: Wegmans Sheridan Drive 3 - 5PM
  • Sunday 10/2: Tops South Transit (Lockport) 10AM - 12PM

We’ll also have six packs for sale in our tap room in the new cooler in our merchandise area (another thing we had to build this summer!)

Thanks to all that have helped us get this far – our contractors, the Iskalo Development team, other breweries that have spoken with us about the canning line (Rohrbach in Rochester and Tool Shed in Calgary – you are both awesome), and our staff that had to deal with our mess of a warehouse for the last four months – thanks for persevering.  

We have worked very hard to bring you this beer and we very much hope that you enjoy it.  Cheers!

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Brief thoughts: Why Craft Beer?

Just a brief thought I was having for no particular reason.

At the tail end of high school and into college, I became a pretty big fan of philosophy.  I was an engineering major in college, and philosophy did absolutely nothing for me with regards for my degree.  Nevertheless, I found taking philosophy classes kept me balanced amidst all the math and science.  My favorite philosopher, even in high school, had always been Socrates, or rather his pupil who documented his work, Plato.  There were many great works by Plato that addressed many concepts, but one concept that seems especially relevant to me today is his philosophy of (what else?) alcohol consumption.

Plato believed* that, when consumed in moderate quantities, and regulated properly, consumption of alcohol (he spoke of wine specifically here, but one can infer that any alcoholic beverage would do) was a useful method of educating the soul.   He spoke particularly of the ability of alcohol to promote the virtue of fearlessness, as well as its use as a method of improving relations between groups of people, from citizens of the state, to militia.  

This concept of drinking in moderation as an educational tool always stuck with me, and today, I think back to this lesson fairly often.  However, there’s another facet of drinking as education that Plato didn’t touch on; namely, tasting as a method of sensory expansion.  

When you’re drinking a beer, or a wine, or drinking anything for that matter, or eating anything for that matter, you are tasting, and your taste buds map to a part of your brain which corresponds to varying degrees of pleasure (or perhaps pain in bad cases).  And this is the very reason that people want to try new craft beers – to taste something they haven’t tasted before, not just on their tongues, but in their minds.  

Brewers have often complained about the fickleness of today’s craft drinkers: they have no brand loyalty, they won’t drink very much of one kind of beer before demanding a different kind, etc.  But I get what these consumers want.  These drinkers are addicted to the sensation of tasting something they’ve never tasted before, and by doing so, expanding their mind regarding the possibilities of what craft beer can taste like.  

Plato would argue that drinking without the end goal of education is deleterious to society.  I wouldn’t go that far.  Sometimes, you just want to turn your brain off and have a beer.  

But, I know that the best beers I’ve had have been so good that I demand that the person next to me stops talking – so I can truly concentrate, in order to understand and describe what it is I’m tasting.  Someone who’s had a really good beer may describe the beer as “mindblowing”; perhaps this description isn’t too far off.  

In conclusion.  If you’re interested in learning and challenging yourself, then craft beer is probably for you.  Not only that, but we're in a golden age of brewing at the moment, where creativity is king and no idea is too out of bounds.  We should consider ourselves to be lucky.

Nothing anyone that’s reading this probably didn’t already know.

Hope this makes sense.

* reference "Laws", Book I.

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The allure of sour

Over the last several years, as the number of craft breweries has grown in the US, and the number of available beers has proliferated, we’ve seen a lot of IPAs come on the market.  And for good reason: America, in general, grows the best hops in the entire world (although you can get some pretty nice hops from Australia too).  The hops grown in America, particularly the Pacific Northwest, are capable of producing some amazing flavors, including grapefruit, orange, berry, peach, pineapple, and just about any other magical fruit flavor you can imagine.  The primary appealing attribute of hoppy beers are their intensity.  I’m often amazed at the intensity of hop aroma as I’m standing by our bar, as glasses of Hayburner or Galaxy Red or Deep Cut are passed in front of me.  

The downfall of these hoppy beers, however, tends to be their unsustainability.  We wrote about this over a year before we opened the brewery in fact: it is very difficult to acquire substantial amounts of prized hops.  (For this very reason, we need to purposefully limit production of our double IPA Deep Cut.)  

I should qualify this statement as well: it may be possible to make enough IPA, except for the fact that hops, and hoppy beer, are so damned expensive.  Hops are being sold and traded on forums for 2x their normal market price.  A technique that enhances hop aroma in IPAs is dry hopping, which is basically dumping hops right into the finished beer.  It works well, but the hops suck up a lot of beer, ruining yields, driving up cost.  

People have wondered for a long time: what could unseat IPAs as the next hot trend in craft beer?  The response was nearly always: sour.  Of course it makes sense: the same trend that would attract beer drinkers to intense (not sweet) bitter flavors would also attract them to (not sweet) sour flavors.  

This thought has raised a few doubts for us. First, the dimensions of sour are a bit more unilateral than that of hoppy.  Sour doesn’t taste very much like fruit, it tends to taste more like, well, acid: usually lactic, sometimes acetic (and hopefully never like butyric).  The amount of sourness in beers can be tweaked up or down, just as bitterness can be tweaked up or down in an IPA, but it’s difficult to get layered dimensions of flavor in sour beers without some other contributor: wild yeast, fruit, hops, etc.

Sour beers are also much more difficult to produce well.  Sour beers often require patience, as beers age and mature, which many newer breweries just don’t have the time for.  Not only that, but there is inherent risk in exposing an otherwise “normal” brewery to wild yeast and bacteria.  Wild yeast and bacteria are known to be incredibly difficult to eliminate once they’ve found a hiding place in equipment (believe us - we’ve seen it happen).  It’s one thing to add a sour beer to your portfolio of beers; it’s another thing entirely to have to make only sours because that’s all your brewery is capable of making since you can’t eliminate the contamination.  

And so, I think it’s very unlikely that America will embrace sour beers as much as they’ve embraced IPAs; there just won’t be enough good ones to get people to switch over.

That being said – right now, we are becoming increasingly excited about the prospect of brewing wild and sour beers.  We’ve just began to experiment.  We brewed a Chocolate Gose for the Brewer’s Invitational festival – which was a very experimental beer, and not just because it was tart; we were trying to combine sour, salty and sweet in a single beer.  We loved how the Bidwell Wild experiment turned out – not just for the character of the beer itself, but the fact that the fermentation took place using native Western New York organisms.  We’re looking forward to brewing it again and aging it in wine barrels this time.  We’re pitched some of that culture into our 2016 Farm to Pint beer that we called Niagara Wild (as it incorporated local malt and hops from Niagara Malt); again, this was an extremely experimental beer where we were really guessing and hoping how things would go as opposed to having a high degree of confidence.  It still turned out tart, complex, and pretty tasty for a beer this young.  Finally, we just released Squeezer about a month ago, which is a dry-hopped kettle soured beer, and we think it turned out pretty nice: tart, fruity, super refreshing.

Niagara Wild

The thing that’s exciting about sour beers is that they are just a whole different ballgame when it comes to the art and science of brewing.   You almost need to learn the principles of brewing over again to understand what will work and what won’t.  I always thought that we’d be great at brewing sour beers because of the biology involved – remember, this is what we did before we brewed.  But I’m also excited about the artisanal aspect of tasting, blending, tweaking, waiting for the perfect moment when the beer is ready to be blended and served.  

I can’t say we are going to brew a lot of sour beers in the future – but I do expect you’ll see more of them in the future from us.  We hope you’re as excited as we are.

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TAP New York and brewery expansion rundown

So, you may have heard a bit about this already, but we thought we'd quickly document the events of the past weekend on our blog for posterity's sake.  

We were excited to go to TAP New York because we knew that it's one of the best brewfests held in NY State, and it did not disappoint.  First of all, the festival was extremely well organized, from the staff setting up and breaking down, to the water rinse and dump buckets at each station, to the free food, which is always a plus.  Second, I spent all day on Saturday tasting beers from around the state and had a ton of really, really good beer, ranging from sours, to IPAs, to flavored cream ales and stouts.  Highlights (in no particular order) were beers from Good Nature (love these guys to death), Rare Form, Spider Bite, Prison City (amazing), Stoneyard, Sloop, The North Brewery (thanks Kyle!), Nedloh, and Common Roots, to name just a few.  

We awoke on Sunday to find we had won a silver medal in the New York State Strong IPA category for our Deep Cut Double IPA.  Needless to say, we were flying high from this accomplishment by the time we got to the festival on Sunday morning.  But, as I wrote to our team in the morning: "They have not handed out best brewery awards yet, although I would be very surprised if we won anything - the competition is tight, and there is a lot of good beer being served here."

Before the award....

So, of course we were delighted, and grateful, and shocked, and humbled, at being awarded the F.X. Matt Memorial Best Craft Brewery in New York State Cup on Sunday.  Never saw it coming.  We are so appreciative of all of our customers and consumers for this award and so proud to bring this award back to Buffalo.  We aim to prove that Buffalo is capable of making great beer, and we think this certainly pushes things in the right direction.  

On the heels of this announcement, our presentation in front of ECIDA on Wednesday prompted us to make another announcement, which seemed timely: we are expanding the brewery.  We expect to add 10 new tanks and a canning line  to the brewery in the next several months.  The additional capacity should triple our output over the next several years, and the canning line will expand the number of places where you can purchase our beer.  More details will come on the expansion later, when the time is right.

We'll let you read about the news below via all the nice folks that dedicated some time and space for us.  Thanks again Buffalo, and New York State.  We aim to make you proud.

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