By Nick Mendola
What did it take to get a brewery to open its doors in downtown Buffalo for the first time since the early 1970s?
“A really nice bucket.”
Those are the words of Matt Kahn, co-owner of Big Ditch Brewing Company. The brewery, zoning-approved for 337 Ellicott Street as of late July, is just one of several that have either recently opened or are set to open soon in Western New York.
Saving bucket stories for later, Big Ditch follows the lead of long-established Flying Bison and leaders of the new-guard Community Beer Works. Throw in budding breweries in Wilson, West Seneca, and Hamburg—let alone all of Buffalo brewpubs—and there’s the makings of a regional beer revolution.
There are different paths to commercial production for all breweries, but Community Beer Works’ success when it opened in April 2012 in Buffalo caught the attention of many budding brewers. While many would expect a closed-door competitive mindset in a start-up, CBW co-owner Ethan Cox and his partners were quick to lend advise to anyone on board with their mission to “Embeer Buffalo.”
“We had a need for more locally produced beer, that was clear, but we also had a need to grow the beer culture itself,” Cox says. “We needed to create more people who cared about beer and beer quality, the kind of people you buy your beer from, and whether you want your money going there. We wanted more appreciation of the beverage.”
It was a notion that motivated Kahn and his cohorts at Big Ditch. Witnessing CBW go from an online funding drive to in-person growler fills at 15 Lafayette Avenue served to inspire him and co-owners Corey Catalano and Wes Froebel to play a role in “embeering” their hometown.
“This is the only place we’d ever want to do this,” Kahn says. “If our company closed and moved us to San Diego or Portland, well, what’s one more brewery there? But right now, Buffalo needs more breweries.”
Conceptually, ad wizards should have little work to do in preparing television commercials for Big Ditch Brewing Company—owners Kahn and Catalano quite literally spend their days wearing white lab coats. The science side of brewing is where they had their “aha!” moment and they’re simply fascinated by the processes of making beer.
We’re almost back to the bucket.
Two scientists who love beer
Kahn, thirty-seven, met Catalano, twenty-seven, when the two worked together at a pharmaceutical production plant on Grand Island. Both were promoted and sat just one desk apart when Catalano, a North Tonawanda High School graduate, did something to catch the curious eye of Kahn, a New York City transplant.
“I came across a bucket that was gasket-sealed and really nice,” Catalano says. “Most people think of it as trash, but I rinsed it out and brought it to my desk.” As many would when faced with the appearance of a random giant bucket, really nice or not, Kahn asked Catalano what in the world he was doing.
“I told him I was going to make a fermenter out of this and maybe I’ll make beer,” Catalano recalls. “The very next day, Matt came up to me and said, ‘We should start a business.’”
They were scientists who loved beer, so why couldn’t they make it? It sounds a little cocky but it was true. “It’s a really good background to have,” Ethan Cox says. “They have a really scientific approach and that’s going to bode really well for them in consistency.”
So they brewed. Family tasted. They brewed more. Friends tested it. Then bar managers and bartenders weighed in. The response was strong, so they approached Cox and CBW for advice.
“It’s kinda dumb to encourage competition and I want to make my slice of the pie as big as possible,” Cox says. “But the best way to grow is to make the pie bigger and bigger. So we advise them. It’s a big part of what we do. When you start a business, you want to have some real greater purpose, ideally. You see a need that needs to be filled. I saw more than one need that needed to be filled.”
So how does Cox feel now that the “competition” is that much closer to being real? “It’s great,” he says. “Downtown is underserved in lots of ways. Anything that builds mass down there is good, whether it be another business or another loft. Whatever it takes to rebuild our somewhat-moribund downtown works for us.”
And so is added another push-pin to the map of Buffalo beer, one that featured dozens of open production plants before Prohibition brought it all to a a halt. Already open in Wilson is Woodcock Brothers Brewing Company and now joining the fray are Rusty Nickel Brewing Company in West Seneca and Hamburg Brewing Company in Hamburg.
The passion is catching
Woodcock Brothers is the first brewery in Niagara County to make beer onsite and serve it, but there’s much more to the 638 Lake Street business than the beer—they’ve incorporated a restaurant, moving the group into brewpub territory.
Hamburg Brewing Company earned plenty of Internet buzz once they announced a 2013 opening and ideal Boston Street location, right across from the Hamburg Golf Course. West Seneca’s Rusty Nickel is a direct byproduct of CBW’s “Embeer Buffalo” motto. In fact, credit is given directly by Rusty Nickel co-owner Scott Fiege in his bio on the brewery’s site.
“We have two missions,” Cox says. “As a brewery, it’s to make the best [expletive] beer we can and get it into as many mouths as possible. Secondly, embeering Buffalo and the beer culture is selfserving, obviously, but it moves people forward.”
Meanwhile, Big Ditch moves forward with a boatload of buzz, thanks to third owner Wes Froebel, who does his day work as a chief sales officer for another company. “Our intention was to build a following so by the time we were open, everyone was really excited,” Kahn explains. “People like to feel like they’re a part of something,” adds Catalano, noting that other people’s enthusiasm for Big Ditch spurs the brewery even further, “When they can follow our progress, they feel immersed in it.”
The passion is catching. Rusty Nickel scored over 700 Facebook likes in seven days once their location was approved by the Town of West Seneca. Kahn sees the population approving the ambition of the brewers. “Portland has twice the population of Buffalo and ten times the breweries,” Kahn says. “That doesn’t add up. Is there room for more? Is there demand for more? We think so.”
Big Ditch hasn’t settled on a flagship beer, but the guys note that Southern Tier Brewing Company’s powerhouse India Pale Ale wasn’t what the Lakewood brewers figured would be their giant, though Kahn hints at “something lighter and drinkable, something in the IPA range—and there might be something in the darker range, too.”
With their story continuing to generate buzz, Kahn is hoping the approvals and licenses move swiftly. “We’ve sort of felt pressure the whole time, but the window is now,” he says. “We still have fulltime jobs so it’s hard to balance all these things. It’ll go as fast as it can. We hope to be open by the end of the year, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it drifted into early 2014.”
Those in Buffalo beer have likely heard the tale of our nineteenth century city having a bar on every corner that sourced its beer from its own engine room. Perhaps it won’t be long before WNY has a brewery in every sector and suburb.
Nick Mendola writes about sports, beer, and more for Buffalo Spree.