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In Focus: Willard Brooks, chairman of Buffalo Beer Week

Buffalo’s affinity for beer, dating from its earliest days, has fostered a growing trend: craft brewing using local ingredients.

As the region celebrates Buffalo Beer Week, The Buffalo News’ Brian Meyer sat down with the chairman of the 10-day event, Willard Brooks, who talked about some of the activities and looked back on Buffalo’s beer heritage. Here is a summary of their conversation, part of the weekly “In Focus” series. Watch the full interview above.

Meyer: How do you think our brewing history has shaped the region?

Brooks: Fundamentally, Buffalo is a beer town. It has been probably since the beginning of its history. In the late 19th century, there were 38 breweries at one point in time open simultaneously. There was a rich history of malting, as well. There were several malting facilities in Buffalo Niagara. This is part of our DNA, it seems. It’s now coming back. History seems to be repeating itself right about now.

Meyer: What has triggered this craft beer phase?

Brooks: People demand beer with great flavor. I think that is the fundamental thing that’s shifting it in that direction. Also, there’s a demand for a locally made product, which is also happening. … There are local hops farms. … In Batavia, there’s a new malt factory opening. We have breweries – two new ones – and several new ones on the way. … Within a few years, I think there will be 15 or 16 breweries.

Meyer: Is it kind of piggybacking on this whole locally grown craze for vegetables and all kinds of other things?

Brooks: I think it is part of that wide trend. However, beer is a beverage that people in Buffalo have a great deal of passion for. It’s hard to find any public event that doesn’t have beer involved in it. Going back to the 19th century, Buffalo was a city that had a tremendous number of beer gardens, with our German-American brewing history. It’s just somehow part of our culture here.

Meyer: Let’s compare the craft beer trend here in Western New York with other cities. Where are we in comparison?

Brooks: Most people would say that we’re a little bit behind, but I believe that we’re catching up quite quickly. The craft beer revolution, as many people call it, sort of began back in the 1980s. At a low point in the United States, there were about 90 breweries in the early ’80s. And now there are 2,500 breweries.

Meyer: Beer Week aims to try to capitalize on that and expand this trend. … The organizers of the event are doing anything but telling people to stay inside, grab a six-pack and enjoy a good football game, right? You’re saying, “Come on out.”

Brooks: (Laughs) Come on out. We have over a hundred events all across the region. We have events with breweries. We have events at pubs. We have beer festivals. We have films. We have beer tastings.

Meyer: How did Beer Week come about?

Brooks: Beer Week started about 10 years ago in Philadelphia. That’s the original and the largest Beer Week in the country. There, they have something like a thousand events across their 10-day celebration. That’s become a trend across the country. There are now several cities across the country that have rather large beer weeks, such as New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco. … They coincide with a trend … where cities sort of adapt to a brewing culture as a way to develop their economy.