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Brewing a comeback

There's only one Buffalo brewer that makes beer you can take home in a six-pack -- Flying Bison Brewing Co., crammed in a small factory in the city's Black Rock section.

And there are only two brew pubs, restaurants that brew their beer for consumption on site, in town.

But there was a time when Buffalo was known for having a tavern on every corner, most of which brewed their own beers.

"Buffalo had an abnormal number of breweries per capita," said Stephen Powell, author of "Rushing the Growler," a history of Buffalo brewing. "These were anything from pretty big-sized buildings, five stories, to something not much bigger than a bar."

There were 38 breweries within the city limits in 1872, what Powell considered the peak of Buffalo brewing.

But in the past 39 years there have only been two breweries in Buffalo -- Buffalo Brewing Co. open from 1988 to 1994, and Flying Bison, which opened in 2000.

"Once [Buffalo Brewing] closed, it was like 'Where do you go to get fresh local beer?' There just wasn't a distributing local brewery," said Tim Herzog, one of the founders of Flying Bison. "Some day we will be able to distribute out of town, but for now every drop of what we make is consumed locally."

And that's a lot of beer.

Each day the Ontario Street business fills at least one tractor-trailer with beer to send to its distributor, Try-it Distributing. It's on pace to brew 55,120 cases of beer this year, 10 times what was poured in its first year in business, Herzog said.

"In the olden days, before we got detailed sales reports, we had a map of Buffalo on the wall and we had pushpins where we were," he said. "Now we are actually bigger than I'd ever thought we'd be."

The company almost didn't survive to grow. It stopped brewing for several months at the beginning of 2010 because of a financial crunch. That's when F.X. Matt Brewing Co. of Utica stepped in, propped it up, and vowed to buy the company. It took a year to seal the deal.

On June 30, Matt closed the purchase after investing $100,000 in new equipment and assuming approximately $225,000 in debt. Matt also brews Saranac beers and ales and other smaller brands, like Lake Placid Craft Brewing Co.

"The main benefit from our standpoint is that we're able to promote a brand that we believe in," said Meghan Fraser, marketing coordinator at Matt Brewing. "What we've basically done is take their products and help make them better."

Matt Brewing helped Flying Bison get its name out and increase the penetration of its distribution, Herzog said. There is more confidence in the brand now that it is backed by a larger brewer.

The company also provides leadership to Herzog, who started brewing as a hobby in his basement when his wife gave him a starter kit as a joke about 30 years ago.

Which is right about when the rest of the nation started becoming more interested in microbrews and home brews.

Craft brews accounted for 5 percent of beer sales in 2010, and should account for a bit more in 2011, said Eric Shepard, executive editor of Beer Marketers Insight.

"More and more craft breweries are in the process of opening," Shepard said. "Craft brewers have gotten very good at telling their stories."

Overall beer sales have flat-lined or even gone down, Shepard said. The sales being lost are from large national chains.

That is a trend that local brew pubs have noticed.

Bill Casale, general manager at Pearl Street Grill and Brewery, said sales of beer not made on site have dropped during the past three years.

Sixteen beers are made at Pearl Street, and demand for craft brews has prompted it to expand brewing capacity three times in the past four years.

The region's other local brew pub, Buffalo Brew Pub in Amherst, also has seen increased interest in local beer, said manager Chris Townsell.

"There's definitely a strong following for the non-mass produced product," Townsell said.

Brew pubs like Pearl Street and Buffalo Brew Pub are reminiscent of Buffalo's beer past, where a large immigrant population and lots of manufacturing jobs helped form a beer culture.

"The first taverns were built in the Buffalo area before the first churches were built," Powell said. "The breweries kind of grew with the population. The breweries were really small, and they served specific neighborhoods."

The large German and Irish immigrant populations drove up the number of breweries in the 1840s, and Buffalo's drinking wasn't detered by Prohibition, Powell said.

"Prohibition had the opposite effect that people would expect here in Buffalo," he said. "The immigrants that were here in Buffalo took Prohibition as an affront to their culture and that it was anti-immigrant legislation."

Of the 20 brew pubs and taverns open before Prohibition, only seven reopened. The drinking culture has changed since then, Powell said.

The last of the old breweries closed in 1972, he said.

But beer is coming back.

"People got the idea in the mid-'80s to start making beer here again," Powell said. "You get this new generation that actually a lot of people travel from city to city trying the local beers, as a way to check out local flavors."