In a greenhouse attached to an Eden home, a binder full of handwritten beer recipes lays open to “amber porter.”
A 10-gallon batch is brewing at the end of the room. Dave Johnson, an engineer by profession, uses devices of his own creation: a magnetically driven stir plate for starting the yeast, a grain grinder, a brewing stand and a large wooden paddle.
After decades of home-brewing award-winning beer and cider, Johnson will be the head brewer for the Rusty Nickel Brewing Co., a microbrewery scheduled to open next year in West Seneca.
Thanks to a legion of brewers who got their starts in dorm rooms, garages or, in Johnson’s case, in his mother’s kitchen, small independent craft breweries have revitalized the industry.
“We have seen a massive increase – especially in the last three years. I think a lot of it has to do with the increase in craft beer awareness,” said David Katleski, president of the New York State Brewers Association and owner of Empire Brewing Co., a Syracuse brew pub that opened in 1994.
As of this summer, there were 131 licensed breweries in New York. More than 100 are microbreweries, defined as having an annual production of less than 15,000 barrels.
Nationwide, there were 2,483 craft breweries, representing 98 percent of all brewers.
“More breweries are currently operating in the U.S. than at any time since the 1870s,” said Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association, a national trade group. “It’s a very good time to be an American beer lover.”
Especially in Western New York.
During the past few years, four craft breweries or brew pubs – the latter also sell food – have opened in the region: Gordon Biersch Brewery & Restaurant, part of a national chain, in Cheektowaga; Woodcock Brothers Brewery in Wilson; and Community Beer Works and Pan-American Grill & Brewery, both in Buffalo.
They joined Flying Bison Brewing Co., which opened in 2000; Pearl Street Grill & Brewery, in 1997; and the local granddaddy, Buffalo Brewpub, founded in 1986. Farther afield, there’s also Southern Tier Brewing Co. in Lakewood, which opened in 2002, and Ellicottville Brewing Co., which dates back to 1995.
At least seven others plan to open within the next year or two.
“We know that the City of Buffalo and Western New York are excited about breweries. Having another one will be a benefit to all,” said Jason Havens, Rusty Nickel’s president and, like Johnson, an engineer.
Also on the drawing board:
• Big Ditch Brewing Co., scheduled to open early next year in Buffalo.
• Nickel City Brewing Co., location still undetermined, is looking at a 2015 opening.
• Hamburg Brewing Co., looking to open later this year on Boston State Road.
• New Buffalo Brewing Co., whose beer initially will be produced in the Albany area, should be selling in Buffalo early next year.
• Old First Ward Brewing Co., under construction next to Gene McCarthy’s in Buffalo, plans to open for Oktoberfest, beginning Oct. 17.
• Mazza Chautauqua Cellars, which added a distillery last month, also plans to add a brewery in 2014.
The state has been trying to cultivate interest in locally made beer – and help brewers, too.
The Empire State Brewery Trails program was enacted in 2006, mirroring the promotions used to attract visitors and grow businesses in the state’s wine-producing regions. The trail includes Western New York’s established breweries and brew pubs.
And craft brewing has become the focus of annual events, including this Friday’s Buffalo BrewFest in First Niagara Center and Buffalo Beer Week, scheduled for Sept. 20-29.
The industry received a major boost last year from state lawmakers, who passed legislation that includes refundable tax credits tied to annual production and exemptions from yearly brand label fees for breweries that produce 1,500 barrels or less annually.
It also established exemptions from tax filing requirements, and created a “Farm Brewery” license, which allows craft brewers that use state-grown ingredients to operate in a similar fashion to the state’s farm wineries.
Despite the explosive growth of craft brewing, there’s no threat of it being tapped out any time soon, according to Katleski, the state association president. In the pre-prohibition days, there were 350 breweries for the state’s then 5 million residents, he noted.
“I think the key to sustaining this number and more is simply by buying locally,” he said. “As long as the 20 million people that live in New York State continue to demand ... local and New York State-made products, then they will all flourish.”
Hamburg Brewing is entering the market as a farm brewery, according to John Russo, who’s partnering with his father, John Sr., and brewer Scott Roche, who previously brewed at Abita Brewing Co., near New Orleans.
“We are currently growing our own hops on site with future plans to expand not only the hop yard, but also to grow barley,” said the younger Russo. “We will have some beers where 100 percent of ingredients will derive from the state ... even 100 percent from our grounds. We think this is pretty cool.”
Finding local sources for hops and malted barley are among the challenges facing craft breweries, Katleski said. Pre-prohibition, Madison County in Central New York was the hops growing capital of the world, he said. Now, many brewers turn to farmers in the Pacific Northwest.
Even more important is malted barley. “It’s the main ingredient, other than water, in the brewing process,” Katleski said. Canada is a major source of malted barley for brewers.
Efforts are under way to interest New York State farmers in growing those crops, Katleski said.
‘Like a symphony’
Back in Johnson’s greenhouse, a coil chiller cools the beer before it travels by tube through the greenhouse floor and into a fermenter below. Designed as a bomb shelter by a previous owner, the room now has a mellower purpose: fermentation and storage for specialty grains and other supplies.
Given the varieties of barley, wheat, hops and yeast at a brewer’s disposal, Johnson says beermaking is “kind of like a symphony. You’re assembling the musicians to make beautiful music.”
Johnson, Havens and their fellow brewers have found that launching a craft brewery is a long process, filled with regulatory challenges.
It’s been two years and counting for Rusty Nickel, whose four-man partnership also includes Jim Ruppert and Scott Fiege.
Ruppert also is an engineer; Fiege is a recruiter for an international human resources company. Brought together by beer-related interests, the partners intend to keep their day jobs.
West Seneca’s Zoning Board of Appeals gave Rusty Nickel the green light last month. The next steps include signing a lease for the brewery site – a small building behind Ebenezer Ale House on Seneca Street.
The ale house owners not only have shared business tips with the budding entrepreneurs, Havens said, but will have a Rusty Nickel brew on tap.
The lease must be signed before Rusty Nickel can apply to the State Liquor Authority for required licenses. Plus, the building needs to be renovated and equipped.
Operations will be limited to production and retail sales, Havens told West Seneca officials.
Other merchandise will be marketed online.
“There will be a very small tasting room,” Havens told town officials. “We will not be operating a bar in any way, shape or form.”
Summer 2014 is the target for opening, but Havens came up with the name Rusty Nickel years ago, while camping with other engineers and teachers.
“I wanted to pay tribute to the rust belt,” said Havens. “When you live here, you can actually see how we are turning around.”
As for the ‘Nickel’ part, “It’s kind of a homage to our Nickel City heritage,” Havens said.