12 Gates Brewing Company, Western New York's newest brewery and tap room, is now open. From an industrial park south of Wehrle Drive in Williamsville, the operation has the capacity to make a major impact on the area's beer inventory.
While general manager Rob Haag, head brewer Shawn Kerr and assistant brewer Kevin Long chose the name 12 Gates before learning its background -- a series of writings by Sir George Ripley, an alchemist in 15th-century England, boast the same title -- it suited the entrepreneurial trio.
Members of the brewing staff at 12 Gates are well-versed in an alchemy of sorts: hops. Kerr wields a background in homebrewing and geology. “A background in science is a huge piece to the brewing puzzle,” he said. Having spent time in southern California and Boston, Kerr has been immersed in a more evolved brewing scene than Buffalo's.
Although his title reads "assistant," Long comes with credentials, having completed a six-month program in Berlin, Germany, at the Versuchs-und Lehranstalt für Brauerei (VLB), which translates to research and education in brewing. This program provides students with an in-depth understanding of brewing technology with related topics in engineering, filling/packaging and quality control.
“After I graduated this past June from the VBL, I was contacted by 12 Gates," explained Long, originally from Alabama. "During the interview process, everyone asked if I could handle the cold weather in Buffalo." And so far this winter has been kind to Long. Ironically, on opening day of the 12 Gates tap room, it was snowing.
The two main owners of 12 Gates are Todd Wilhelm and Tom Kirchmeyer, with a few other partners as well. “Todd and Tom invested a fair amount of money into the research and development side of the company,” noted Kerr. “I was working on a pilot system testing beers out and getting our recipes in order way before moving to the big system.”
The big system Kerr mentioned is now fully operational, but not without obstacles. When asked what his biggest challenge was so far, Kerr exclaimed, “Getting everything to work right! We’ve been challenged to be a bit creative and versatile.”
Finding and sticking to an identity in the burgeoning craft-beer market is important to 12 Gates, too.
“First and foremost, we’re a production facility,” said Kerr. The brewing equipment at 12 Gates currently consists of a 30-barrel brewhouse (1 barrel holds 31 gallons), six 60-barrel fermenters and a 60-barrel bright tank, with plans to expand as needed. These numbers put 12 Gates near the top of the list in terms of brewing capacity in Western New York.
“Realistically, we can do six to 12 thousand barrels a year," calculated Kerr. “We are putting a fair amount of money into having a really nice tap room. More importantly, we are putting a fair amount of money into making sure we put out a quality product. The ownership brought us in way before opening to make sure our recipes were solid.”
Both Kerr and Long agree that producing vast quantities of beer is not as important as ensuring the beer meets quality standards. “Our 2016 goal is 52,000 cases,” said Long. “We say this in our mission statement. We are quality first. As the production side reflects, beer is our number one export.”
Some of the challenges inherent in a production facility include satisfying distributor quotas and producing beers that will sell well. These factors will in part determine what beers are being made at 12 Gates.
The top-selling style of craft beer in the country is the India Pale Ale (IPA), a beer characterized by flavorful hop additions that impart floral, citrus, earthy and pine notes to beer. In order to satisfy customer demand, 12 Gates plans on producing a large quantity of many different IPAs.
“Todd and Tom envisioned a hop-forward, hop-centric brewery, like the southern California movement of craft beer,” said Kerr, who witnessed the craze first-hand while living there in the early 2000s.
“Stone, Green Flash, Mission, Ballast Point were coming on the scene and blowing up. They made aggressive West Coast-hopped beer. This is our goal as well.”
Initial beer production reflects the need to provide sought-after beers. Of its five initial releases, three will be IPAs: Session IPA, West Coast IPA and a seasonal IPA called Under the Southern Cross, which contains a mix of West Coast and New Zealand hops.
“Three out of five beers are very aggressively hopped," explained Kerr.
Will Buffalo be able to support a production brewery the magnitude of 12 Gates?
“I think Buffalo has a lot of room to move," Kerr answered. "There are still a lot of Bud, Labatt Blue and Molson drinkers in Buffalo. All it takes is the right craft beer and people aren’t going back. It’s a one-way road."
Mainstream lager sales continue to be under heavy attack by craft beer, and Kerr hopes 12 Gates can influence that movement here in Buffalo.
In addition to its IPAs, 12 Gates will produce a coffee porter in collaboration with Glen Edith Coffee Roasters. This beer contains chocolate malt, flaked oats and roasted barley, and micro-roasted, cold-brewed coffee from the Rochester roasters.
12 Gates also plans to stock a Belgian Witbier consisting of oats, barley and rye. This beer contains orange peel and coriander to lend the traditional sweet and spicy tasting notes common to this style. Customers can expect to sample “one-offs” and pilot batches at the brewer once 12 Gates becomes established.
Kerr views Buffalo’s obsession with bitter dark roast coffee from Tim Hortons as a sign that people desire strong flavors and bitterness in their drinks.
“Our session IPA definitely has a full body and a decent malt background, but it will punch you in the mouth with bitterness and hops, and with great hop flavor," Kerr explained. "In making a lot of careful IPAs, I think we don’t give people enough credit for what they really want.”
“I want people to have our IPA and realize they can’t have anything else, because it doesn’t taste as hoppy as ours,” said Kerr.
“It’s difficult to do a session IPA to be full-bodied and full-flavored, and we’ve got one," Long added. "We did it.”
The tap room at 12 Gates opened on Dec. 18, 2015. Flights of five beers cost $7. Beers are divided into “Tier 1” and “Tier 2." Tier 1 includes most of the brewery's beers, while Tier 2 includes guest taps, like 42 North Brewing Company’s Treaty Saison, and beer with more extensive ingredients, like 12 Gates’ Coffee Porter and West Coast IPA.
Pints of Tier 1 beers cost $5 and pints of Tier 2 beers cost $6. Logoed growlers are also sold: 32-ounce growlers cost $3 unfilled, and 64-ounce growlers cost $4.
Growler fills for Tier 1 beers cost $7 and $10 for the 32-ounce and 64-ounce growlers, respectively. Growler fills for Tier 2 beers cost $10 and $13 for the 32-ounce and 64-ounce growlers, respectively. 12 Gates also sells a range of clothing and glassware options.
Info: 12 Gates Brewing Company, 80 Earhart Drive, Williamsville; 906-6600
Kevin Wise, Ph.D. is a Professor of Biology at Trocaire College who maintains a blog on beer science and beer reviews and can be reached at: www.buffalobeerbiochemist.com; Twitter: @BuffaloBeerBio; Untappd: @BuffaloBeerBiochemist