Ethan Cox and the team at Community Beer Works took the first step in their campaign to revive Buffalo’s beer culture last April, when they opened their “nanobrewery” in a former Meyer Malting Co. building on Lafayette Avenue.
The group of friends started out as home brewers but decided to “go pro” by opening their own brewery, where they sell beer by the growler to retail customers and by the keg to about 20 local bars and other accounts.
They recently completed an expansion that boosted production from 250 barrels per year to the 400 or 450 barrels they hope to make in 2013, and the RateBeer website in January named Community Beer Works 2012’s best new brewer in New York State.
Sure, the partners – led by Cox, Rudy Watkins, Dan Conley and Gregory Patterson-Tanski – want to make and sell a lot of beer, but they have higher hopes for their brewery.
Cox, who has a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology, said a growth in breweries and locally produced beer can strengthen community ties, bolster city neighborhoods and provide a shot to the economy.
The 40-year-old native of Buffalo’s West Side who is Community Beer Works’ president, envisions a network of urban gardens supplying hops for his brewery.
Q: You want to “embeer” Buffalo. What does that mean?
A: In my mind, and from my reading of history, beer drinking creates community in a way that I don’t feel other alcohols do. I think that the role beer has played in the beer-drinking cultures of the world, the historical beer-drinking cultures of the world, has been a really important cultural and sort of civic role.
Q: Why is Buffalo such a beer town?
A: Or maybe a shot-and-a-beer town. I think the working-class legacy, the blue-collar legacy, is a big one. We’re still pretty much a blue-collar town, even if we’re trying to figure out what to be next now that there are no longer manufacturing jobs. And that’s probably also why bars are open till 4. Night shift workers want to drink.
Q: Community Beer Works started as a group of friends who wanted to make beer on their own, right?
A: We’re all home brewers of various levels of experience and obsession with it. I learned to home brew one summer in my freshman year of college. I know that the first beer I ever made with this friend of mine was a stout, and it was from a kit. I’m sure that by my standards today it was not a very good beer, but we thought it was a success.
Q: Why did you decide to take it from your homes to a larger scale?
A: None of us were doing jobs that we thought were like what we really ought to be doing, so we were all open to the idea of changing careers.
Q: Who is your competition?
A: That’s a tough question to answer. There’s a sense in which everybody in the craft industry gets along real well and plays nicely because we pretend that we’re not actually competing with one another at all – that we’re competing with Budweiser and [Labatt] Blue and Molson. And to a certain extent that’s true. Those guys, their beer still accounts for over 90 percent of all of the beer in this country.
Craft is maybe 6, maybe by now 7 percent, of all the beer. This far into the craft beer revolution, now 30 years, that sense of brotherhood is finally starting to fray. There’s been a huge explosion in breweries opening up, and we’re competing with one another for the resources to make the beer, and we’re competing with one another to sell the beer.
Q: Are people in Buffalo willing to pay a premium for locally brewed, small-batch beer?
A: Some are, yeah. I don’t think it’s ever going to be everybody’s cup of tea. And I don’t have a problem with that. In fact, if everybody started drinking craft beer, who would I point to as being the awful alternative? It’s in my best interest: I need Budweiser around to pick on. I’m not dumb. So when it comes to who’s my competition, I have more to fear from the growth of Sierra Nevada than the 13th iteration of Shock Top that Budweiser is foisting on people, or whatever.
Q: You’re coming up on 12 months in operation in April. We know you’re having fun. How’s the profit side of it going?
A: Like any small business, it’s very thin to start. You really need to pour a lot of your sweat into it to get it to the point where it starts really making money. But the potential is certainly there. So as long as we can stay on track, grow without overextending ourselves, we should be fine.
There’s no real exact number but somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 barrels of year of production, when you get to that level you still need to grow but at least you can breathe easy. Our goal is to get there as quickly as we can.