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Buffalo likes its beer, especially Labatt's Area ranks No. 4 in percentage of beer drinkers

Decades after the steel plants closed, the blue collar traditions of the Buffalo region hang on in the beer drinking ways that keep beer delivery truck driver Jim Green employed.

The drink of the European immigrant workers who settled here a century ago is still a favorite beverage. A marketing survey found half the adults in this western part of the state had at least one beer in the past month.

Green admits that he's among those who like to sip a cold one at the end of his work day.

"I keep a lot of people working," he kidded as he neared the end of his day unloading 670 cases of Labatt Blue, Budweiser, Michelob Ultra to 17 bars, restaurants and night clubs on his Cheektowaga route.

Even though beer distributors say local consumption here is down in line with the trend in the rest of the country, the Buffalo area is tied for having the fourth-highest percentage of admitted beer drinkers: 50 percent of residents surveyed by Scarbough Research had a cold one in the last 30 days. (The beer-producing town of Milwaukee came in first, at 53 percent.)

Beer drinkers here differ from those in most big cities in one way, though: one survey shows they favor Canada's Labatt Blue over Budweiser, the first choice most everywhere else.

"Everybody in Buffalo drinks Labatt's," said Jim Starck, a sales manager of Dunkirk-based Lorenzo International that delivers some 50 to 75 truckloads of beer nationwide in the summertime.

Here on the border, the taste and price of Canadian brews are enticing. Starck finds 12 packs of Labatt Blue Light for $9, less than the Bud Light he sees at $12.

"It's a nice even-keeled beer," he said of Labatt. "It's kind of the flagship beer for Buffalo beer drinkers."

As the year's biggest beer drinking summer season ends -- it leads to the second-biggest winter holiday beer season -- people in the local beer trade tried speculating on the reasons for Western New York's peculiar and particular beer drinking habits.

An amateur beer historian and the city's only local distributing brewer traces the pattern the Poles, Germans and Irish who were used to drinking beer in the old country. A century ago when they helped sustain some 20 local breweries, people thought of drinking in simpler terms. There was milk, water, hard liquor. And beer: "The choice of moderation," said Tim Herzog, a part owner of the Flying Bison brewery operating in an old grocery on Ontario Street.

When Prohibition law banned liquor in 1920, local breweries shut down and switched to soda pop, and Buffalonians fetched Canadian brews until the law was retracted in 1933.

"In this city most people had been sneaking over the border to Canada," said Herzog.

Now, of the top three beers sold locally -- Labatt Blue, Coors Light and
Molson, according to one Scarborough survey -- two are Canadian, a tribute to the old days.

The thirst for Canadian brews has made Lancaster-based Try-It Distributing, which sells more than 3 million cases of Labatt in Erie and Niagara counties, the nation's largest Labatt wholesaler, said Executive Vice President Bob Kolasa.

West Seneca's Certo Brothers, the other big local distributor, handles Molson in five area counties, a distinction Certo says makes it the largest Molson wholesaler in the country.

It is unusual for Canadian beers to top the list for an American city, said Eric Shepard, executive editor of Beer Marketer's Insight magazine. "It's your claim to fame," he said.

Yet in spite of Buffalo's fourth-place beer drinking ranking, New York state remains at the bottom of a national per capita consumption list at 23 gallons of beer per person. This makes the state number 50 on the Beer Institute's national per capita list by state and District of Columbia. (Utah is 51. Nevada is No. 1.)

Shepard thinks the state's population of immigrants from countries without beer drinking traditions, much of it concentrated downstate, may be diluting the numbers.

"Greater ethnic diversity is probably part of the answer," he said.

Western New York's own traditions that may affect local beer drinking habits include extended families staying the region and socializing together, and the worker habit of retreating to a bar for a beer and a shot after work.

Kolasa sees evidence of this in the draft beer sales that remain proportionately high even as general beer sales slip. "It tends to cluster around some of the old rust belt type areas," he said of draft sales.

And Buffalo is such a family town that it makes sense to Kolasa that beer is tops. It is the sort of low-alcohol drink people favor at picnics and family parties.

"Beer is a multi-occasion drink," said Kolasa. "It's a more socially relaxed drink."

Pro football and hockey teams and their fans make for good beer sales, too. In the years the Bills went to the Super Bowl, beer consumption jumped. "We were selling as much as we were in the summer," said Kolasa.

The national dip in beer consumption is in sync with Try-It and Certo's own observations. While companies don't release sales figures for competitive reasons, Try-It's market projections for this year are below last year's: From 11.4 million cases sold by it and competitors throughout Erie and Niagara counties in 2004 to 11.2 million for 2005.

Perhaps to compensate for extra dollars spent on pricier gas, lower-priced beer sales have been growing. Sales of "value-brands" beers Busch and Natural Ice, at about $3 a six pack, have doubled. And while "super premium" imports Corona and Heineken, at about $7 a six pack, are growing to some 3 percent of the market, they aren't growing at the rate that they are in other cities.

The national beer counts show that beer-drinking has declined by about 1 percent or 1 million barrels between January and June, said Shepard, executive editor of the Nanuet-New-York-based magazine Beer Marketer's Insights.

From 1999 to 2004, beer sales nationally increased just 0.07 percent. Last year, 6.3 billion gallons of beer were sold.

By contrast, wine and spirits sales rose about 3 percent from 1999 to 2004. Last year, 632 million gallons of wine were sold along with 395 million gallons of spirits.

"This is not what had been expected," said Shepard. In the 1980s and 1990s beer outsold the other alcohols. "Some people think it's a natural switch back of the pendulum," he said.

The shift is traced to people 21 to 28 years old who have been responding to heavily promoted new non-beer drinks, such as vodka lemonade blends. "Sex in the City"-inspired cocktail drinking may have had an effect too, said Shepard.

The more rarified micro and craft brews have been catching on even though they're more expensive.

In the last five years, sales of these beers with a reputation for distinctive tastes -- such as Sam Adam's, Saranac, Yuengling -- have grown by 2 percent. In 2004, brewers sold 6.6 million barrels, or 3.2 percent of total U.S. beer shipments.

Those sales have been up for Cheektowaga-based Buffalo Beverage Corp., a smaller local distributor, selling Miller brands and an array of craft beers. "All the upscale beers are doing very well," said John Jablonski, vice president and general manager. Buying the pricey stuff -- the $7 apple martini trade has grown too -- may just make people feel better about themselves. "There's a lot more buzz about anything that costs more money," he said.

Local microbrewer Herzog has had dramatic sales spike of his own. Flying Bison sold its first 480 barrels five years ago when it started specializing in beer left unpasteurized to better keep malted barley and hop flavors strong.

"Every two months we make more beer than the first year we were open," he said. The brewery has projected sales of 3,200 barrels this year, enough to finally make a profit the last two months -- after five years of losing money or breaking even.

The continuing momentum makes Herzog think people buy his bestselling Aviator Red, which sells for about $8 a six pack, because they like the stronger flavors and personal connection he makes by doing public tastings.

People may be drinking less -- to save on calories and drive safely -- so they sip beers longer. "If you're going to nurse something over an hour, it's got to have some flavor," Herzog said.

Local distributors who are proud that they've kept their own family roots close to the community for generations -- while Certo and Try-It go back for three -- can chronicle how beer fashions have changed. In the 1960s and 1970s there were fewer offerings and more local domestic brews, such as Iroquois and Simon Pure.

"The old shot-and-beer guys didn't care what they were drinking as long as it was cold," said Kolasa. In the mid 1980s, the popularity of light beers began to take off -- now half the beers in Western New York's top 10 are light -- leading to the current diversity of beer styles, craft and imports and sizes.

Try-It has some 400 assortments of brands and packages, including non-alcoholic beverages. "We live in an age of customization," said Kolasa.

Certo has about 600 to 700. "The variety here is almost unheard of," said Peter Joe Certo, one of the distributor's vice presidents.

He suspects the area's working class ancestors left upscale-bent, beer-loving descendants who like variety. "We're just sort of a receptive beer culture," he said.

For Phil Grey, general manager of Macaroon's Nite Club in Cheektowaga, drinking beer is about history and something even more basic.

"It's a blue collar town. It's tons and tons of working guys and their parents in factories. Shots and beers are still a big way of going out," said Grey, who was one of the last stops on Jim Green's route.

Grey paused to think about why he drinks the stuff.

He just likes the taste. "After a long day and you open that first one and it's nice and cold . . ." he smiled, musing.

e-mail: mkearns@buffnews.com

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