Craft beer isn't just big fun; it's big business in Western New York.
In fact, craft brewing is a bigger market in the Buffalo area than almost anywhere else in New York State. In 2018, Erie County had the third highest number of craft breweries and the second-highest number of jobs in the brewing industry statewide, according to a report by the New York State Brewers Association.
In addition to creating jobs, the industry is enticing tourists, revitalizing neighborhoods and breathing life into once vacant buildings. And though craft beer's once double-digit growth has slowed, it is still growing at a pace faster than the overall beer market, according to the Brewers Association.
There were 24 breweries in Erie County last year – that's the third-highest number in any New York county, behind Suffolk County on Long Island (which has 36) and Rochester's Monroe County (which has 26). More have opened this year. In 1919, shortly before Prohibition, Buffalo was home to 29 breweries.
All those breweries have created new jobs.
Breweries in Erie County alone employed 646 people directly and supported another 739 related jobs. The related, non-brewery jobs include beer retailers and distributors, as well as those that provide services to the brewing industry, such as banking and marketing. Together, they accounted for a total of $81.2 million in wages, according to the report. Wages were calculated using data from a survey sent out by the brewers association along with industry wage averages.
The study puts the brewing industry's total economic impact on Erie County at $294.6 million.
Timothy Glass, a labor market analyst with the State Department of Labor, said craft breweries have a "multiplier effect" that strengthens community economies. Analysts have observed the industry's impact across the state since 2012, when New York changed laws to cut red tape for craft brewers.
"One of the interesting things about the industry is its staying power," Glass said. "Craft breweries have proven that they are not a fad but an economic engine with room to grow. The industry has helped revitalize downtowns across the state with their drawing power."
While Erie County has one of the highest concentration of breweries, there are another 14 of them across Western New York: three in Niagara County, one in Allegany County, four in Cattaraugus County and six in Chatauqua County. Together, they account for another 281 direct brewery jobs and $45.5 million in total wages, according to the report.
More breweries have opened in Western New York this year. The 2018 report doesn't include data from the newcomers. Nano operation Prosper Brewing opened on Webster Street in North Tonawanda in March. Belt Line Brewery opened on Swan Street in January. Froth Brewing Co. opened on Military Road the same month.
Others have expanded. Woodcock Brothers Brewing Co., a Wilson restaurant that brews its own beer, opened a second location in North Tonawanda's Wurlitzer Building in March. Thin Man Brewery opened a second location on Chandler Street earlier this month, with a new $3 million brewing operation next door.
RG Brewery and Five Sons Winery in Brockport have spun off In the Mix Brewing & Creamery in Barker, which makes beer-infused frozen custard and has a brewing operation to come. (That location, however, replaces Barker Brewing, which closed.) Buffalo Brewing Co. on Myrtle Avenue is planning an expansion. Rusty Nickel Brewing Co. of West Seneca will open a second location at 36 Broadway this summer.
More new breweries are on tap. Joe Artanis, a local investor and co-founder of Florida brewery Three Sons Brewing is planning a brewery collective, also on Chandler Street, that he says would include five national and international breweries. Jamestown Brewing Co.'s long-delayed opening is promised soon. Britesmith Brewing began work on its Williamsville location earlier this month. The Hofbrauhaus franchise is still in the works at 190 Scott St., despite construction and financing problems.
Craft breweries are reinvigorating neighborhoods and putting old factories and warehouses to new use. There are practical and cultural reasons breweries tend to find their homes in industrial buildings, most of which have been idled since Buffalo's steel heyday, according to Willard Brooks, founder of the Buffalo Niagara Brewers Association. Old manufacturing buildings have an aesthetic, cool factor that beer lovers enjoy. And, as a former industrial giant, Buffalo's old manufacturing buildings have the infrastructure brewers need.
"It's a factory. It needs to be in a factory. They have the sewer pipes, the water, everything you need for manufacturing because that's what it is – manufacturing," Brooks said.
Riverworks Brewing Co. revamped abandoned grain silos to make its waterfront home on Ganson Street. Community Beer Works opened its first location in a former malting garage. Pressure Drop Brewery is just one craft alcohol tenant that gave new life to a 116-year-old former barrel factory in the Old First Ward. Before moving to its current Larkinville location, craft beer pioneer Flying Bison breathed new life into the Riverside neighborhood and helped touch off a renaissance in nearby Black Rock.
Buffalo Brewing Co. is eyeing a renovation of the former Schreiber Brewing Co. on Fillmore Avenue. Schreiber, which made a lager called Manru, opened in 1899 and closed in 1950. Community Beer Works will add a location in Niagara Falls this year, in a long-vacant building being revamped by Savarino Cos. Thin Man is located at Chandlerville, Rocco Termini's $50 million eating, drinking and business district that will reuse, among other industrial buildings, the former Barcalounger factory. Artanis's project will reuse the vacant former Keystone Manufacturing industrial building he purchased in 2016 for $200,000, and in which Brooks is also a principal.
There's room to grow – even double – Western New York's craft beer industry, Brooks said. The region consumes roughly 800,000 barrels of beer a year, but only about 5 to 7 percent of it is produced locally.
Nationally, the market share of craft beer trends more toward 13 percent. A key to growing market share will be in converting drinkers of national brands to local brews. The way to do that will be for craft brewers to expand their repertoire to include easy drinking beers with a lower alcohol content.
It shouldn't be a problem.
"That's the cool thing about craft beer," Brooks said. "There's something for everyone."
And that includes tourists.
Visit Buffalo Niagara printed 25,000 copies of a "Brewcation Destination" brochure last year and placed digital and print placements in places such as Southern Ontario, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Erie and Rochester. A new one will be printed soon to include such recent openings as the Belt Line Brewery & Kitchen, Froth Brewing Co. and the Labatt Brew House.
The tourism bureau placed "Buffalo Brewcation" ads in such beer publications as "The Growler," "Craft Pittsburgh" and "Hop Culture." It also turned an edited version of a promotional video about the Buffalo brewery scene into commercials on YouTube, Instagram and Facebook.
In October, the Shelton Brothers Festival will descend on Buffalo, offering further proof that the city has staked its claim as a craft beer destination. Lured by Mike Shatzel, it's considered the Super Bowl of beer and is expected to bring craft aficionados from around the world.
Patrick Kaler, president of Visit Buffalo Niagara, said it's "no coincidence that Buffalo's boom in craft breweries has correlated directly with its growth as a tourism destination."
“These breweries have been integral to the Buffalo story we promote in our advertising campaigns and in the buzz we’ve helped build in national and international media coverage," Kaler said.
The craft brewery scene embodies the authentic, unique experiences today's travelers are looking for, he said.