Outdoor shoppers at the Clarence antique market had no idea.
In the dim recesses of the nearby warehouse, experiments were being conducted. Test tubes, thermometers and stainless steel tanks gleamed with a clinical sheen. Behind stacked palettes, the sound of flames and boiling water bounced off of the low concrete ceiling. This was a hall of science -- beer science.
It was a Sunday and William Campbell, owner of the fledgling New Buffalo Brewing Company, had been at work for hours, hovering over sensitive digital scales, cracking malt seeds and portioning out tropical Citra hops, pursuing his vision of a distinct, new brew for his brand.
The look of this place – sign-less, bunker-like -- is a throw back to Campbell’s former life as an officer in United States Air Force intelligence. But his posture, poised with a beaker, not a rifle, wearing a t-shirt, not a flak jacket, signifies a change of direction, a philosophical switch flipped after years in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Most good intel ops (operations) result in flames and destruction,” said Campbell, 28. “I decided I want to produce something.”
An Akron native, Campbell, grew up in a small-town culture supported by manufacturing. Perry’s Ice Cream was down the street. His father made sprayer heads for Chapin International in Batavia. In high school, Campbell worked for Akron’s Whiting Door Manufacturing Corporation.
Much of that childhood has spilled into his beer. The New Buffalo Brewing Company logo (left) recalls the World War II era and the hey-day of materials production in the United States. New Buffalo print ads look like Rosie the Riveter pressed them herself. The plain-palette, Art Deco designs are all at once a display of strength, and a rally to arms.
Reinvention, of Campbell himself, and the region, is the other theme. While he cooled boiling beer mash with a spray gun, Campbell talked about the city of Buffalo in the 1950s. It was one of the richest cities in the country, he said, the population ballooned past a half-million people.
The local steel plants – Western New York’s industrial base – closed down before Campbell learned to walk. The recent recession set in about the time he left Akron High School.
“Things aren’t like they used to be. I really saw a decline around here after graduation,” Campbell said, “Now, everyday, I see things get better and better.”
Like a human baby, the process of birthing a new beer takes about nine months, Campbell said. The difference is “you’re in labor the entire time,” he added.
The New Buffalo Brewing Company started selling bottles in June – including an IPA, a stout and an English-style bitter beer. This experimental beer, still without a name, just entered the second stage of gestation.
The first stage is kicking a can around for a month or so.
In the lab, Campbell drinks coffee, eats Timbits and paces around with his brewer and his marketer. He peruses the brewing books, occasionally beating life into the flattened leather Stetson hat hanging on the shelf, the only ragged symbol of military history in the otherwise bleached hall of sterilized gadgets, of beer science.
In 2012, Campbell volunteered at the Tallgrass Brewing Company in Manhattan, Kansas. The tutelage of Tallgrass President Jeff Gill had a lasting effect on Campbell’s business ethos.
“The market’s crowded. There’s a brewery a day popping up. At the same time, Americans want more affordable luxury goods … You need a little luck and strategic thinking to get in,” Gill said recently over the phone.
From the outside, Gills approach is spot on. Since, 2007, Tallgrass has grown its distribution to 13 states. The company has a new $7 million facility currently under construction.
Those words, strategic thinking, echoed through the hidden hall of beer science as Campbell packed his experimental beer mash with a heap of bitter hops – so many hops the unfermented beer couldn’t drain.
The trio had decided on a second, stronger IPA. The consensus: boozers want a beer with more bite.
“People are sick of Coors. As a country, we’re moving away from cascade hops, toward something more flavorful,” Campbell said.
The typically depressed economy factored in as well. Palate-sensitive wine drinkers trying to save a buck have turned to beers with complex taste, Campbell said.
“They know they can get six-pack of really good beer for $8 or $9. There are a lot of those people.”
The lab setup is deceptively simple in appearance. There are three keg-size tanks and a few burners on a black metal frame. Campbell opens a side panel revealing microprocessors that regulate time, temperature and fuel to each burner. It’s actually a finely tuned $8,000 instrument, built to eliminate the variables in each test batch of experimental beer.
Space-age sensors and military attention to detail – to proportions, cleanliness, dings, pings and bleeps from the machines – have carried Campbell to the threshold of this new invention, and the craft beer industry’s growing frontier.
But his new baby still doesn’t have a name. In the coming months the recipe will be tweaked with esoteric grains from silos all over North America until it becomes special, irreplaceable, a mixture sought-after and therefore guarded just yards beyond the sight of the everyday Joe rocking on his heels, angling for a deal on antiques.
Before the New Year, the trio will take to the street with questionnaires for bar owners and beer judges. They will appear behind tasting tables at joints like the Blue Monk and Keg Works before heading back to the lab to perfect it one last time.
From months six to nine, Campbell will wait for the federal Tax and Trade Bureau to approve the new recipe and the new label. Right now, New Buffalo Brewing Company distribution covers 80-percent of New York State. One day, it will sell from coast to coast, Campbell said.
While they wait for TTB approval, the trio will start kicking that can again, pacing the lab, tearing at their brains over the next type of beer to develop, when and how.
Campbell’s business is a determined march.
“We’ll keep chugging toward national distribution,” Campbell said.
“I want to maintain that battle rhythm.”
Daniel C. Britt is a freelance writer and photographer whose work has appeared on the websites of The New York Times and Time Magazine, and in The Washington Post and Playboy magazine.