By Julia Burke, Beer Editor
The national trend toward tiny, uber-cool, garagiste breweries is thriving in New York, with several nanobreweries already open in the downstate area and across the state, and many more in the works.
Buffalo’s first nanobrewery, Community Beer Works, is set to open by the end of the year and is already generating plenty of excitement in the region for its mission to “embeer” the community with off-the-wall, exciting beers made from ingredients sourced as locally as possible.
Initially, explain co-founders and owners Rudy Watkins and Ethan Cox, the idea was born of a passion for homebrewing and a desire to save money by pooling resources. “For a long time I didn’t want to have a brewery, because I thought it wouldn’t be fun,” Watkins admits, “but it grew out of another idea we had which was to be a homebrew collective where we shared space and equipment. But that doesn’t really work with New York State laws.”
“It was a cool idea but it wasn’t really workable,” Cox adds. “I was like, all right, well, how about just a brewery? We REALLY wanted to make beer!”
But what exactly makes it a nanobrewery? “There’s not a definitive answer for what a nanobrewery is — just that it’s smaller,” Cox explains. “We’re going to be putting out 1.5 barrel batches, or about 47 gallons, which is really small. Most guys in the industry have agreed, if you’re three barrels or less, you’re pretty much nano, but even that’s a wide range. You have guys rocking the same system they were homebrewers on; they’ve just applied for license.”
This level of production brings a unique set of challenges and benefits. “There are certainly disadvantages to being small, like not being able to take advantage of economies of scale when buying our brewing ingredients,” Cox points out. “But the advantage is flexibility. We’ve got the ability to really respond to our customers and we will be able to pull off interesting, unique recipes that we might not actually do a second time. And we’re not too worried about that. It’s not like we’re bottling and getting a label drawn up.”
Watkins hands me samples of homebrewed pale ale and saison, prototypes of the official recipes for when Community Beer Works opens. “These will be our initial offerings,” he says, “but we’re going to make pretty much whatever we like. The pale will be the flagship; the saison we’d love to have available in nice restaurants in the area, and we’re going to be bottling it in 750s. Beyond that, it’s whatever the market wants and whatever we feel like brewing.” Restaurants, Watkins says, are going to be the majority of CBW’s business since they’ll be mainly kegging their beer. “It would be great to get a bottling line, but it’s not in our immediate business plan. And we want people to come in and get growlers!”
They’re delicious brews; the saison in particular shows a gorgeous nose of apricot cream and a velvety, smooth palate with a dry, snazzy hop finish.
Watkins mentions Ithaca AlpHalpHa, which is made with New York hops, as an influence for possible future beers: “We’d love to work with others to bring hops back to New York. [Local bakery] Five Points is working with farmers in Hamburg; it would be cool if we could work with those farmers as well and say, hey, can you guys grow some rye? And we can toss that in with an IPA that we made from hops from Niagara County or wherever.”
Ethan adds, “We’re going to do our best to do locally-sourced stuff; we’re microlocal just like we’re a really small brewery. We don’t need a ton of stuff, so especially when it comes to a special kind of grain like rye, we can approach a farmer and say, plant a little bit, we’ll buy it off you, and we can malt it ourselves. We’re not looking to become a micro-maltster, but for a one-off batch, we’ll try it!”
One of the coolest local aspects of Community Beer Works, however, isn’t the source of the ingredients but their final destination. Cox explains that spent grain is one of the biggest waste products breweries produce. “A lot of breweries are socially conscious so they don’t tend to throw it out or anything — a lot of them send it to farms to feed cows,” he says. “That’s great, and I’m all for that, and I will eat those cows later. However, we have a much cooler scheme.” The Massachusetts Avenue Project, a neighboring urban farm up the road from CBW, “has this awesome urban aquaponic system” where they’re growing tilapia to supply to local high-end restaurants. Cox explains, “As part of that system, they have worms chewing up whatever they can find, and not only will the worms eat our spent grain, but also their chickens will peck at it. Between the worms and the chickens I feel really good about where our grain is going.” It’s a waste solution that truly fits Cox’s “microlocal” philosophy. “It’s an urban farm—we’re trucking it blocks away, not miles out to wherever,” he adds. “We’re going literally around the corner. I think it’s totally badass. It’s one of my favorite things about our plan.”
The Community Beer Works building, located on Buffalo’s West Side, is already starting to look like a brewery, with a shiny row of tanks and a spiffy office. Watkins says, “We were looking for something in this general neighborhood. This building popped up, and it’s perfect. It used to be a garage for the malting plant across the street, so it’s got a beer history.” The owners are confident that the city is ready for its first nano. “Buffalo’s absolutely ripe for it,” says Watkins. “Within the last ten years since I started brewing there’s been a major improvement in the beer that’s available in Buffalo. You walk into Wegman’s, Cole’s Goodbar, Blue Monk and it’s amazing. There’s a major interest in the city of Buffalo for craft beer.”
Cox adds, “It’s not really in our mission statement, because it’s too grand, but part of what we hope to do here is to reinvigorate Buffalo’s beer community. We had one before Prohibition. Beer culture is a bigger thing than having good beers available. You look at cities like Seattle and Portland, and there are myriad breweries. Buffalonians love to drink, and they’re proud of Buffalo. You look at the market — 160 breweries opened last year. How many were in Buffalo? Zero. The time is right.”
The CBW crew has reached out to other nanobreweries and homebrewers looking to go nano in New York, and has found a great community of support. “There are a lot of people doing this,” says Cox. “There’s mostly synergy. There’s a lot of thirsty people out there.” He believes that the benefits of local beer mean that when it comes to nano, the more, the merrier. “You know, I love the fact that I can go to [a beer shop] and get a beer from somewhere like Germany, but that beer is a shadow of the beer that brewer wanted me to drink. The vast majority of beer styles are best pretty fresh. So there will always be a place for nano, because it’s just the best way to get the freshest beer.”
The brewers are excited to challenge the community’s palates with some crazy one-off batches as well as their favorite styles. “There’s a whole world of strange stuff at the Vietnamese markets around here,” says Watkins. “I was thinking I’d love to do a porter with lime leaves. We’re making 47 gallons—if it isn’t awesome, we’ll find people to drink it. WE’LL drink it. What’s the worst that happens?”
Cox points out, “We’re making a batch size that if all our fans buy one, we’re done. If each of our thousand Facebook fans wanted one serving, we wouldn’t be able to do it. We’re making such a small amount that if something doesn’t work out, as long as we get everyone to try it once and say ‘that wasn’t so good’ we’ll be fine.”