The flourishes vary, but all beer has four essential ingredients: water, malt, hops and yeast.
Water that goes into making craft beer in Western New York flows from the region. That’s not always the case, however, when it comes to the other staples.
Yeast comes mostly from a company in Hood River, Ore., though it can then be cultivated into in-house varieties.
Hops often hail from hotbeds in the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest and Australia.
Much of the malt comes from the Midwestern grain belt.
The exceptions are the most parochial of local crafts – beers that have helped diversify the farm trade during the last decade as the number of regional breweries has grown eight-fold. They will be among those available during Buffalo Beer Week, which runs from Sept. 14 to 23.
The Buffalo-Niagara Brewers Association presents the annual celebration of all things beer. This year, the theme is education, including an emphasis on the value of the local nature of the beverage. It will feature dozens of events, presentations and craft beers brewed specially for the occasion.
"This area used to have an abundance of hops and malts to choose from and it all disappeared with Prohibition,” Woodcock Brothers Brewing Company President and Brewmaster Tim Woodcock said. “It's exciting to see farmers and others interested in bringing back that tradition."
Woodcock, his brother, Mark, and their wives opened their brewery in 2011 in a shuttered, century-old cold storage building in Wilson once filled with apples and cabbage grown across Niagara County. The brewery uses hops and malts in several of its beers from other local entrepreneurs who recognized a New York State craft beer boom on the horizon earlier this decade.
State lawmakers helped fuel the boom in 2012, when they created a farm brewing license for those who pledged to use a growing percentage of their hops and malts from state sources to make their beers. The licenses are designed for those who look to build smaller breweries and sell beer on premises or a few taprooms.
Six breweries in the region – Amber Lantern in Warsaw, East Aurora, in the town of Aurora, Five and 20 in Westfield, Rusty Nickel in West Seneca, West Shore in Clarence Hollow, and Windy Brew in Strykersville – have those licenses, which are less costly to obtain than a traditional microbrewery license but tend to have more expensive material and production costs. Farm brewing licenses come with a caveat not required by other brewing licenses: Farm breweries must use at least 20 percent each of local hops and malts in their beers, a benchmark that will rise to at least 60 percent come January, and 90 percent by early 2024.
Bob Johnson beams at those numbers. He and his wife, Brenda Young, own Niagara Malt and Bines & Vines on Lower Mountain Road in Cambria, nine miles east of Woodcock Brothers brewery.
The couple also began to lay the groundwork for their venture in 2011, when Medaille College went through a staff downsizing. Johnson, now 65, continues to work there part-time as an ecology and botany professor. He spends lots more hours on a 160-acre tract that includes a malthouse, and fields filled with barley, wheat and hops.
In his last 3½ years as a “maltster,” grains used in the 1,700-square-foot malthouse have been grown on and off property by him and fellow farmers in the region.
Those farmers are thankful for the beer-makers and local craft beer drinkers who have helped them diversify their crops and bolster their bottom lines.
Rusty Nickel Brewing Company buys hops from farmers in the region and across the state who generally have patches roughly an acre in size, Jason Havens, co-owner and president of the West Seneca farm-licensed brewery.
Johnson calls hops the sexy part of beer. "They get all the attention, but malt is the heart of beer,” he said. “Malt is what gives it body."
Every beer will have a malt build – or foundation – of two to five malt types. Most craft brewhouses have at least five to 10 varieties in the storeroom.
Johnson’s Pilsner malt helps serve as the base of Frank, the flagship American pale ale at Community Beer Works, and his Vienna malt will be used in a Chinook wet hopped India pale ale (IPA) that Woodcock has made for Buffalo Beer Week.
Forty miles east in the Town of Batavia, Ted Hawley runs the even larger New York Craft Malt. The fourth-generation farmer owns 500 acres of land and a big barn near Genesee Community College along the New York State Thruway. Still, he buys all his barley and other grains from other farmers across the state.
The operation soaks, dries and roasts barley, wheat and rye. He also uses seasoned woods – including oak, apple, pear, hickory, and cherry – to make smoked malts for specialty beers made in craft breweries across the state.
Much of his handiwork, too, will go into Buffalo Beer Week brews.
Hawley sees a brighter future for state beers with mostly local ingredients.
"It's all about the consumer asking for a local-ingredient beer," he said.
It’s more complicated than that for craft brewers.
On the plus side, hops grow best on earth’s 42nd and 43rd northern longitude parallels. That includes Oregon, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New England, Southern Ontario and upstate New York. (It’s also why a brewery in East Aurora chose the name 42 North Brewing Company.)
Challenges include cost.
High-volume growers outside New York can offer hops at about 60 percent less in price, as well as malts that can run half the cost – or less, when bought in large quantities. That creates a trade-off for production microbreweries that sell off-site, particularly in cans and bottles, and a challenge for licensed farm breweries that tend to be smaller, said Havens, of Rusty Nickel.
Variety of state ingredients poses another hurdle, Havens said, including proprietary hops like Citra, a juicy hop that can’t legally be grown in New York and is a popular ingredient in West Coast and New England style IPAs.
“There's not enough variety to do specialty beers,” he said. “There's not enough variety to do certain IPAs. Therein lies the problem.”
All of those challenges, he added, continue to be less daunting as New York regrows its state beer-making industry.
Agriculture scientists with Cornell University are at work on the Batavia farmland owned by Hawley, and elsewhere in the state, looking to breed a proprietary malt they hope one day will serve as the base for a New York IPA that can catch hold on a large scale.
Havens predicts other styles could emerge, as well.
"I also think that there may be a movement back toward a New York State cream ale style, or a New York State lager, something that's simple, that is competitive with your macro commercial beers,” he said. “These beers satisfy the masses."
Meanwhile, there will be much to celebrate during Buffalo Beer Week in a region where an industry that a century ago helped fuel the local economy has become an engine of its revival.
“Buffalo is a small enough city where you can have camaraderie between the breweries, the common goal of producing good beer, and keeping the consumer knowledgeable about good beer,” said Katie Brown, general manager at Rusty Nickel. “It's also an area where you have enough nearby farmland to use local ingredients."