Big Ditch Brewing Company

Buffalo, New York, seems poised for a comeback of monumental proportions, a shift illustrated by the Rust Belt city’s booming beer scene. In the last five years alone, some 10 brewers have emerged, redefining the city as a hub for hipsters and hop-heads.

In the midst of empty lots and abandoned buildings, turn-of-the-century factories dwarf a windowless structure nearby. The freshly painted brick building bears no signage—or, for that matter, any indication about what goes on within its walls. 

Inside, owner John Domres is hard at work producing Buffalo, New York’s next craft brew.

It’s become a familiar scene for the Rust Belt city. Since 2011, five breweries have opened within the city limits, with another four in the surrounding suburbs, and more in the making. Brewers like Domres are turning to abandoned or underutilized factory buildings to operate their breweries. The structures are, after all, affordable and abundant, with the openness needed for a modern facility.

Domres, who has great pride in his hometown, named his operation Buffalo Brewing Company, and thinks of the endeavor as a way to pay homage to Buffalo’s extensive brewing history. And it’s true: from the early 1800s until the mid-1900s, nearly 35 breweries supplied beer to more than 2,100 saloons that operated within city limits.

It was said of Buffalo at the time that if you collected all of the beer brewed in the city during the course of a year and poured it over Niagara Falls, it would flow for over a minute and a half.

In the late-1910s, the United States boasted approximately 1,400 breweries, but with the enactment of The National Prohibition Act that saw the ban of alcoholic beverages in the country in the 1920s and early-1930s, many of these brew houses shuttered for good. By the 1970s, beer production in the city, and the country as a whole had all but dried up. 

In 1974 only 69 breweries remained and Buffalo was not immune to the demise of the industry as local institutions failed to have the resources awarded to macrobreweries—large national and international breweries. At this time, only two breweries remained open—Iroquois Brewing Company and William Simon Pure Brewery—as the city’s population started a steep decline.

“None of these local breweries tried to venture far our of the Buffalo area,” said Michael Rizzo, co-author of Buffalo Beer: The History of Brewing in the Nickel City, as he explained the downfall of the local brewing industry. “The larger corporate brewers were able to ship in beer at below cost making it detrimental for smaller brewers to stay open.”

Macrobreweries like Labatt Beer and Anheuser-Busch meant the city’s two remaining breweries shuttered for good by 1971. The demand for artfully crafted brews morphed into a preference for affordable beers with a consistent taste.

The ‘90s and early 2000s saw a small wave of nanobreweries and microbreweries open in Western New York, as Ellicottville Brewing Company, Pearl Street Brewery, Flying Bison Brewing Company and Southern Tier Brewing Company realized the potential in catering to avid craft beer enthusiasts.

The eventual passage of 2014’s Craft Beer Act, which alleviated a lot of red tape for aspiring brewers, helped the movement truly bloom. Under the law, breweries can sell pints of their beer on site in addition to growlers and merchandise, without having to obtain an On-Premise Liquor License.

The Craft Beer Act made it easier for places like Resurgence Brewing Company to operate by cutting costs and easing restrictions. When the brewery opened this past summer (in a former boat engine factory along a once-seedy thoroughfare that spans the Buffalo River, no less), it became the first beer garden in the area.

“One of the hardest things was finding a building,” Ware said. “Even though Buffalo has a lot of vacant buildings, it had to be the right building with the right setup. And we finally found it.”

Originally from Buffalo, Ware spent years working in New York City selling beer for Samuel Adams. He always felt drawn back to his hometown and saw the absence of a beer garden, like the one he used to frequent in Astoria, Queens, as a shining opportunity. He settled on the former Sterling Engine factory, which sat empty for nearly 30 years.

“I’d come back to Buffalo to visit and I could feel a change in attitude in the city,” Ware said. “Buffalo is really coming back with a hip vibe and people are really into it.”

In the 10 months Resurgence has been open, it has exceeded its growth goals. 

“When people come back to visit Buffalo,” Ware says, “we’d like them to think, ‘You’ve gotta stop for chicken wings, and you’ve gotta stop for Resurgence.’”

Buffalo’s other breweries have stories with similar themes: a love of Buffalo, an unexpected coolness, and new-found fervor for adaptive reuse.

Corey Catalano and his partners, Matt Kahn and Wes Froebel, came up with the concept behind Big Ditch Brewing Company, which occupies an old Verizon service center in the heart of Buffalo’s downtown, four years ago. Then, there were only two breweries operating within the city limits.

“There was definitely a vacancy in the Buffalo market at the time,.” Catalano says. “Now there are plenty of breweries, but I don’t see a cap for the future of brewing in the city. The more local choices you have the better it is for all of us.”

When Ethan Cox, co-author of Buffalo Beer and President of Community Beer Works, opened a brewery with his friends in 2012, they knew it had to be in Buffalo.

“It’s our city. It’s where we wanted to be.”

He predicted a warm reception from Buffalonians, but never imagined just how dedicated they would be. In fact, the term “Buffalove” gets mentioned throughout conversations about the craft beer movement.”

The city’s brewing history is another recurring theme. It’s nearly impossible to miss the remnants of Buffalo’s brewing past; the architectural remnants still dominate the city. Corner pubs built in the late 1800s and early 1900s, bookend the majority of roads within the city limits.

Domres depends on this nostalgia to set Buffalo Brewing Company, which he plans to open in September, apart from the area’s other breweries. He’s eager to showcase his collection of city brewing memorabilia and to take part in Buffalo’s annual Beer Week in the fall.

Domres, in the end, puts it simply: “You’re finally feeling like Buffalo is on the uptick, and I think breweries are a huge part of that.”

Sean Flynn is a web producer at Travel + Leisure.  Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @BuffaloFlynn.

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