Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Nobody Circles the Wagons

A few months back we talked about the brewing renaissance in our adopted hometown.  Today, we're bringing you a brewing renaissance in our actual hometown, Buffalo, NY.  Sitting on the shores of Lake Erie, Buffalo has a rich brewing history.  Well, it did through the mid-1970s when the last brewery in town, the Iroquois Brewery, closed its doors.  But in it's heyday Buffalo boasted more than 35 breweries.

It's a tough economy in upstate NY but the people of Buffalo are tough too.  Since the collapse of the steel industry, the region has struggled to rebuild its economy.  Urban planning consists of little more than looking for a silver bullet (a great read is Power Failure).  The Adelphia Tower collapsed with the rest of the cable company.  Bass Pro was never coming.  The new Peace Bridge is coming next year, again.  NFTA still owns the waterfront.

Sounds pretty bleak but it's always darkest before the dawn and every cloud has a silver lining.  It's not clear if you can see the silver lining just before dawn but that's not the point.  The medical corridor has been quietly revitalizing parts of the city and seems to be poised for major gains.  Buffalo is a micro-financial center with headquarters for HSBC*, M&T Bank, and First NiagaraYahoo! opened a data center nearby and Verizon may be nextMoog and Fisher-Price are nearby.  CNBC recently ranked Buffalo-Niagara the second best place to relocate to in the US.  Forbes called it the third most affordable to live in.

And, now Buffalo is rebuilding its brewing community.  Flying Bison is back and better than before.  The Blue Monk is open for business.  Pearl Street Grill & Brewery continues to be an anchor for downtown.  This long-winded ode to home leads us to Community Beer Works - the newest brewing endeavor in Buffalo.  We've mentioned CBW in the past but today we bring you a conversation with Ethan Cox, one of the founders of the company (special thanks to CBW's Dan Conley for pulling this together).  Enjoy!


DB:  How did you get into brewing and how did it become a business idea?

CBW:  Well, there are nine of us collectively in this thing, and we vary from investors & advisers to homebrewers & jacks-of-all-trades.  So, we have varied paths to get here.  Myself, I’ve been homebrewing since college, though grad school and even still.  I’ve been a lover of all things beer for a while, and this was just a natural consequence of a bunch of things coming together.  Did I chose it, or did it choose me?  I wonder.

DB:  Can a nanobrewery really be profitable?

CBW:  We’re not anticipating being in the black right off the bat, like any startup.  And, it’s only sustainable, in our eyes, because we see a limited period of “sweat equity” (= no pay) and rapid growth.  That said, what’s “profitable?”  Some of these breweries are sustainable at a hobby level or slightly more, and I’m sure their owners are really happy with what they do and the level they’re doing it at.  Our business plan and financials will quickly allow some 4 to 5 of use to make a good living making good beer, and that’s essentially the minimum we’re shooting for.  Not like we’ll avoid exceeding expectations, mind you!

DB:  The raging debate in the craft industry is around defining a “nanobrewery”.  Care to provide your definition or is this much ado about nothing?

CBW:  We don’t want to get embroiled in a debate about categories--doesn’t that happen enough in beer already?--but, we are grateful that people before us have paved the way for making a startup of this size a viable idea, and for documenting the process.  We were reading about all these great brewers like Hess and Blind Bat, and we thought: “There it is, it’s for us, let’s do that.”  As to when, precisely Sam Adams is no longer “craft” and questions of the like- here: I like some of Sam’s beers and I buy them sometimes, and Hair Of The Dog, too.  Isn’t that good enough?

The Brewery

DB:  Who will make your system?

CBW:  All the BTUs and controls, and as well, the heat transfer system, are being fabricated by Chris Breimayer at Psychobrew, in Michigan.  We looked initially at a Sabco--who doesn't?--but thankfully, with some input from Paul at Blind Bat, we realized that maybe 10 gallon batches was too crazy, and that 1.5bbl was just crazy enough.  Then we had to shop for some stainless, and we found Stout tanks & kettles in Portland. John Watt’s products are just beautiful, and he was able and willing to build us the kettles we really wanted to have on the burners- it’s a RIMS, and it’ll be nice and precise.  The tanks he’s assembling are also custom-sized for our batches, and they’ll be air-cooled in bays we’re building off our walk-in cooler.  It’s a bit unconventional, perhaps, but we can rock it.

DB:  According to reports, CBW hopes to have a series of nanobreweries across the city.  Is CBW operating like a franchise?

CBW:  Well, for time time being, we just want to get one brewery open, for sure.  As for expansion, we’ll see exactly which way that goes when we can better analyze our growth curve.  We are interested in doing other projects in the area, but not necessarily a series of nano-breweries.

DB:  You getting any help from the good folks at Flying Bison?

CBW:  Oh, of course.  We’re trying to learn as much as we can on our our own, but Tim is an excellent brewer and a super resource, he’s very approachable.  As we continue our transition from paper to brick-and-mortar brewery, I know we’ll be drawing on all the brewing resources in the community. As a bunch of current and experienced homebrewers, too, I know we’ll be soliciting advice from both the industry and the hobby levels- I talk to Ian & Bert at Niagara Traditions homebrew shop frequently.

The Brew

DB:  Want to tip your hand on what you will brew?

CBW:  Our main beer will be an American Pale Ale, we just love a good session beer, and it is the quintessential American microbrew revolution beer, perfected in Northern California, but certainly something we can do and do well.  As homebrewers, we’re off and developing prototypes even now.  We like the style in part because it makes for a good, local beer, in that freshness really matters for good hop expression.  It is just a beautiful well-rounded and approachable brew.

We’re also going to have a saison right off the bat, which is because we love the complexity and depth of that style: it pairs with so many kinds of food, it’s a style with a great history, it has beer geek gravitas, and quite frankly, we all like to suck ‘em down.  They are a challenge to brew and will need some real attention, but we’ll also hand-bottle, cork, cage & label them initially and it’ll be a fun offering.

DB:  Is there a Dumbarton’s Ale in the business plan?

We’re definitely planning to do lots of one-off batches, that’s the beauty of a small and flexible beginning.  What kind of beer is a Dunbarton Ale?  I somehow suspect it is got some Scots to it, so that’s good because a slow, cold ferment is definitely a Buffalo-style beer: Let’s talk!


DB:  You’ve indicated plans of incorporating urban farms and community gardens.  How will they be incorporated into the work of the brewery?  Do you risk trying to do too much?

CBW:  We’re very much committed to responsible brewing and business practice- it’s just the kind of people we are but also we think it’s the way to be a successful business.  We’re far from the first brewery to incorporate green practices into the brewhouse, and we’ll be limited initially, too.  Green doesn’t mean DIY, all the time.  We’re looking at solar water for pre-heating our brewing water- this will save money on gas, primarily.  Worms will eat our spent grain, and that in turn will contribute to a aquaponic fish farm on the west side- it’s perfectly symbiotic, apparently worms love grain, so all we have to do is arrange the transfer.  As for gardens- on down the road, maybe some minimal hops, or specialty grains which we lovingly malt ourselves, enough for something like an “Urban Estate” ale?  We’ll see, but we’re not afraid to put our ideals into our business.

Last Thoughts

DB:  Planes, Trains, and Automobiles or The Natural?

CBW:  It’s gotta be Planes, Trains and Automobiles.  We’re comi-tragic!

DB:  Thoughts on the new Sabres uniforms?

Fuck Yeah!  Old School Rules!

DB:  What else should we know about Community Beer Works?

Our favorite air-guitar player is definitely Bjorn Turoque


T.J. said...

Well aren't you the shit...

jerome said...

Yes. Yes, I am.