Buffalo could well become the birthplace of the next big Labatt beer.
If it does, the owners of the city's football and hockey team will deserve some of the kudos.
That was the message representatives from Labatt USA and Pegula Sports & Entertainment shared Thursday during a walk-through at Labatt House, a $20 million collaborative project between the companies near KeyBank Center.
"Our hope is that the next Blue or Blue Light comes out of this brewery," said Brinn Johnson, director of retail strategy and business development for Labatt USA.
The Buffalo native shared that dream before she led a small group wearing hard hats for a walk-through of what will soon become an "innovation brewery," tasting room and beer emporium on the first floor of a century-old manufacturing building at 79 Perry St.
Meanwhile, Labatt USA is bent on helping upstate New York become an international beer tourism destination – and why not? The region is approaching 40 craft breweries, a number not seen since Prohibition started in 1920.
Labatt USA brings new muscle toward that goal. North American Breweries owns the company. Its other holdings include Genesee Brewing Company, about 60 miles east in Rochester, as well as Magic Hat Brewing in Burlington, Vt.; and Portland Brewing in Oregon.
The sister outfits can help Labatt USA ramp up production if a beer takes off in its Buffalo hub. If things go gangbusters, the company can look to its namesake manufacturer in Canada for lots more help, said Mary Beth Popp, director of corporate relations for Labatt USA.
First things first. The Labatt Brew House needs to start making beer.
That should happen the week of Sept. 10, brewmaster Ryan Brady said during the walk-through.
The Detroit native, who turns 38 this weekend, started homebrewing about 15 years ago. He landed his first job in the industry five years ago at DC Brau, a Washington, D.C. brewery where offerings include The Public Pale Ale, The Citizen Belgian Ale, and The Corruption India Pale Ale (IPA).
Brady spent the last 2½ years as assistant in the pilot brewery at Genesee, creating bottled beers that included the Smash Series with ingredients key to IPAs.
“The reason I got into this industry, and homebrewing all those years ago, is because I liked IPA,” he said. “It's a common story. To this day, it's my favorite style of beer. But I really enjoy tasting everything, making everything.”
Buffalo Bills and Sabres owners Terry and Kim Pegula set the stage for Brady’s new job when they bought the former Hi-Temp Fabrication building early last year. The five-story Labatt House will feature four high-end apartments on the top floor and corporate offices for Pegula Sports & Entertainment and Labatt USA below that.
The Labatt USA brewing operation and tasting room – called the Labatt Brew House – will sit on the first floor, facing Perry Street. A 3,000-square-foot brew house will be visible from the sidewalk outside and 400-square-foot tasting room inside.
Eleven fermenters will age the beer and eight brite tanks will store the finished product, which will be pumped through draft lines into the tasting room. This means Brady conceivably can have up to 19 craft beers in his repertoire at any time. Each vessel can hold about 310 gallons – enough for almost 2,500 pints.
The tasting room will feature Blue, Blue Light, two other Labatt products and eight Labatt USA “test beers” brewed in-house. Four will be hop-forward; the rest a mix of other styles, Brady said. Flights of four, pints, and half and full growlers will be sold. Patrons will be encouraged to provide critiques of the test batches, recommend tweaks and pick favorites.
Pegula Sports & Entertainment, through its hospitality division, will operate the Draft Room at the back end of the first floor.
Both will open sometime between the fourth Buffalo Sabres regular season home game against the Colorado Avalanche on Oct. 11 and when the team welcomes the Ottawa Senators to the city the first weekend in November.
“We want to open tomorrow,” Don Heins, director of Pegula Sports & Entertainment communications, said with a smile during the walk-through.
The Draft Room will feature seating for 200, as well as two 30-seat bars at either end. The one closest to the Buffalo River will service a heated, year-round, 4,000-square-foot patio that spills out the back door.
"This is not going to be 716, Part 2,” Heins said, referring to another Pegula-owned restaurant in HaborCenter, around the corner at Scott and Washington streets. “This is a different feel. We're going to tell the story of the history of beer. There are TVs but it's not going to be everywhere you turn, like in 716."
The Draft Room will feature full bar service, like 716, and offer more than 30 beers, including all those available in the nearby tasting room, and other regional, national and international brands. The menu will feature shared plate communal dining options that celebrate beer and food pairings, Heins said.
Candied bacon, spent grain pretzels (spent grains are the byproduct of brewing beer) and smoked meats will tantalize, as will pierogi, poutine and French bread pizzas. All breads and dough will be made at an in-house bakery.
Brian Tierney has been hired as the Draft Room's general manager, and the hiring process is underway.
Restaurant chefs expect to take some of their cues from the brewing staff.
"Eventually we will probably have some flagship beers,” Brady said. “To start off, it'll be testing things out. It's going to come down to consumer feedback. If something really takes off … we can flip that into a flagship beer.
"At least at the beginning, we're going to try to do different stuff every time."