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What a difference 5 years makes: The state of Western New York's craft beer industry

A lot has changed on the craft scene in Western New York Since Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed the Craft New York Act in 2014.

Some things are easier (there is less red tape) and some things are more difficult (there's a lot more competition).

One thing is for sure: Western New York's craft breweries have changed the face of the region.

There's the economic impact. There are all of the corners that craft brewers have transformed as they've set up shop across the retail landscape. There's the vibrancy craft breweries have brought to the region's social scene.

And that's just a small taste.

Here are five ways the local craft brewing industry has evolved.

1. The scene is a lot more crowded

When Tim Herzog first started out, Flying Bison was the only game in town. Today, there are more than 35 breweries and five distilleries in Western New York, and more always seem to be in the works.

Skilled regional producers are expanding their reach, too. Nationally, there are more than 7,000 craft breweries, and it has never been easier for consumers to get their hands on artisan brands from around the world.

There's also competition from beverage conglomerates making craft brew look-alikes. The top-selling "craft beer" in the country is not a craft beer at all: It's Blue Moon, produced by $4.8 billion juggernaut Molson Coors Brewing Co. Boston Beer, which makes Samuel Adams and was one of the nation's first craft brewers when it was founded in 1984. It has grown to the point where it shipped 4.3 million barrels last year.

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Number of New York State breweries in 2012: 95

Number of New York State breweries in 2018: 415

Craft beer made in New York State in 2011: 557,436 barrels

Craft beer made in New York State in 2018: 1.2 million barrels

Increase in New York State craft beer production since 2011: 117%

Sources: The New York State Brewers Association, The Brewers Association

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Still, the rising tide has helped lift all boats, according to John Cimperman, who founded East Aurora's 42 North Brewing Co. in 2015.

"It has helped raise the notoriety of the market," Cimperman said Tuesday during a panel discussion at an event hosted by Western New York Business Leadership Forum.

The panel included Herzog and Cimperman, along with craft beverage makers from Resurgence Brewing Co., Thin Man Brewery and Tommyrotter Distillery.

Having more players in the game is also benefiting the consumer.

"I think every time a good brewery opens, it forces every other brewery to brew a better beer," Cimperman said.

Brewers have gotten more creative, too.

"If you were to put the craft scene in the '90s compared to what's coming about now, it's elevating at an extreme rate," said Jeff Ware, founder of Resurgence Brewing Co. on Niagara Street and in the Old First Ward. "People are producing styles that didn't exist anymore."

2. It takes more to win people over these days

In the old days, being a hometown beer was enough to draw craft brew fans to your brand.

If Flying Bison could get bars and restaurants to carry its beer, the hardest work was done. Growth was sure to follow.

Today, it's a different story.

"Now you have to take each consumer by the hand, drag them into your brewery, get them to sample your beers in a flight, give them a memorable event where they can pet a sheep or play giant bingo and hopefully when they leave they will go to the store and buy your beer," Herzog said.

He's only half-kidding.

The way consumer tastes have changed, and with the level of competition in the market, brewers have to be in more than the beer business. Local breweries have found the entertainment, the experience and the aesthetic they provide can be just as important as their beer. That means they're increasingly programming events, hosting entertainment and adding restaurants and music venues.

"It's an Instagram world," said restaurateur and Thin Man Brewery owner Mike Shatzel. "There's a lot of competition. So much more goes into it than just the quality of the liquid you’re putting out."

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3. The taproom is a vital component

More than a third of a brewery's sales can come through its tasting room, and that's where a brand sets its tone.

"Our taproom is the soul of 42 North," Cimperman said.

In 2013, Gov. Cuomo's Farm Brewing Law made it easier for craft breweries using ingredients grown in New York State to conduct on-site tastings and open restaurants. Brewers' ability to get creative changed the face of Western New York's dining and entertainment scene, and it opened a world of possibilities for brewers as well.

In addition to its events, music and restaurant, 42 North has opened four Airbnb units and banquet space.

"We've doubled down on the destination experience, taking advantage of the popularity of East Aurora," Cimperman said.

[RELATED: In 1.8 miles, beer-loving Buffalo's first brewery district since Prohibition]

Tasting rooms help brewers overcome one of the big challenges that craft drinkers pose: They're not particularly loyal to one brand. Where previous generations might pick one beer brand and stick to it, craft drinkers love to try new things. The opportunity to sample different varieties is part of what makes a taproom attractive to consumers.

A customer in the taproom is worth two in the store, according to Ware at Resurgence.

"The taproom is somewhere we can really get them out of their house and into our world, and push our brand and our marketing, and that has never been more important than it is now," he said.

4. There is room for growth

Though the brewers agreed with Herzog's suggestion that "the honeymoon is over," there is still room for more beer in Buffalo, they said.

That's partially because the trend hit Buffalo later than the rest of the country.

Elsewhere in the nation, the craft beer boom is slowing. Craft beer production once saw double-digit growth year after year, peaking at 18% in 2013 and 2014, according to the Brewers Association. Last year, it saw its slowest growth in a decade, increasing by just 0.6%.

While Western New Yorkers drink roughly 800,000 barrels of beer a year, only 5 to 7% of it is made in the region, according to the New York State Brewers Association. The national share is roughly double that, at 13.2%. In some places, it's much higher. In Oregon, for example, craft brew makes up 53% of the market, according to the Oregon Brewers Guild.

As usual, Buffalo has a lot of catching up to do, which gives the craft brew industry some room to stretch its legs.

If brewers can convert consumers from national brands such as Busch and Budweiser, the sky is the limit, said Herzog at Flying Bison.

"If people would put down the mega international brewery fizz water and pick up locally brewed beers, we’re all gonna be fine," he said. "If not, we’re all gonna be in trouble."

Brewers might also have to diversify away from India pale ales.

Thin Man's Shatzel, who also owns several area restaurants including Coles on Elmwood Avenue, said he is inundated by IPAs when ordering inventory.

"I used to have one IPA line at Coles. Now I've got 10," he said. "The field is getting tighter and tighter."

5. The consumer is more educated

Just as there are a lot more craft breweries now than there were in 1995 when Flying Bison was incorporated, there are a lot more craft beer lovers. Of all legal-age drinkers, 43% say they drink craft brew, according to research firm Nielsen.

And they know their stuff.

"Back in the day, you could have crappy beer and have some really cool handles – Magic Hat, maybe – and people would buy it. But people know so much more about beer now that you can't just put crap on tap and put a shiny handle and it's gonna do well," Shatzel said.

They also won't be fooled by brewers who aren't passionate about what they make.

"You're seeing the Wall Street money where people are in it for the cash, not for the beer. I don't like seeing that," Shatzel said. "I think those people will fall off despite their backing."

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