Revitalized WNY Beer Week features more sites, new mantra: ‘Think about local first’

The backers behind the revival of Buffalo Beer Week hope to treat their regulars during the next several days, as well as disabuse those who think regional craft breweries would rather muck up a perfectly good brew with chocolate, fruit or loads of bitter hops – and charge more in the process.

“We’re looking to remind people about what we do and raise the visibility of all that goes into the craft beer industry,” said Matt Kahn, president and co-founder at Big Ditch Brewing Company.

You might love craft beer, or be unfamiliar with it, he said, “but think about local first.”

Western New York is now home to more than 60 craft breweries and brewery-owned taprooms, helping to make New York the fourth-largest craft beer producing state in America. The statewide economic impact exceeds $5 billion.

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Regional breweries employ “well over” 1,000 workers and contribute more than $500,000 a year to nonprofit groups, said Kahn, also operations officer for the Western New York Brewers Guild.

Beer Week starts Saturday and runs through Sept. 30.

Twenty-eight breweries had signed onto the event by Friday morning, as well as 16 bars, restaurants and retailers.

Rusty Nickel Brewing Company (copy)

Bartenders Sara Walter, foreground, and Joe Wright prepare to serve customers at the bar of the Rusty Nickel Brewing Company in West Seneca. The brewery is one of more than two dozen participating Sept. 23-30 in WNY Beer Week.

The Buffalo Niagara Brewers Association – comprising mostly homebrewers, retailers and beer aficionados – spearheaded Buffalo Beer Week before the pandemic, on the front end of the current regional craft beer revival, packing it with special events that took a program with dozens of printed pages to list and explain.

Brewers and brewery owners started the new regional brewers guild in the months before Covid-19 arrived, and strengthened the group as the pandemic waned, taking a new approach to related festivities after three years of dormancy.

The guild also changed the name to Western New York Beer Week, recognizing the spread of craft breweries throughout the region.

Guild organizers have asked breweries in seven counties – Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Erie, Genesee, Niagara, Orleans and Wyoming – to brew a special beer for the celebration.

They have also have asked participants to list related events – special or not – on the nonprofit group’s website,

“We’re not looking for it to be so event-based, but more inclusive and widespread,” said Katie Havens, general manager of Rusty Nickel Brewing in West Seneca and marketing manager for the WNY Brewers Guild. “We want local bars, restaurants and bottle shops to choose some locally made products and promote them. We want to encourage the consumer to ask what’s local and celebrate beer made here.”

Big Ditch Brewing Company (copy)

“There are so many different varieties of beer, and lagers have taken off, which is great,” says Matt Kahn, co-founder of Big Ditch Brewing Company and operations officer for the WNY Brewers Guild.

WNY beer trade matures

New York had 475 breweries at the start of the pandemic. It now has 535.

“I’m still seeing a handful of breweries and planning throughout the state,” said Paul Leone, executive director of the New York State Brewers Association. “There are more openings than closings and there are a number of breweries throughout the state that are looking to sell. It’s sort of a new reality and the natural progression of this industry, or any business for that matter.”

To be sure, big brands continue to dominate the national and regional beer industries.

“Per the mainstream beers, the players are still the players,” said Joseph Slomba, sales execution coordinator with Try-It Distribution Co., the major beverage supplier in the Buffalo Niagara region. “Bud Light, Blue Light, Coors Light, Michelob Ultra and Miller Lite top the charts for 2023 so far, in that order.”

Beer sales have plateaued at home and farther afield amid more competition in the market, including alcoholic seltzers and ready-to-drink cocktails, Leone said.

The pandemic, followed by inflation, also contributed.

“You’ve got a new generation of people that are getting into the alcohol space, Gen Z, and we haven’t really determined what their habits are going to be,” Leone said. “You have millennials who are getting older, some shifting trends to low alcohol, no alcohol. That combination of shifting trends, new demographics and more choice all factor into what’s happening.”

Katie Havens discusses the new approach to Beer Week.

The combination set the craft beer category trending downward about 5% this year, Slomba said, but that’s still better than the total beer category, which has fallen 6.5%.

“As a result,” he said, “craft is growing a bit of share in our market this year,” and represents about 11% of all beer sales in the region.

Hayburner, a Big Ditch flagship beer, supplanted Flying Bison’s Rusty Chain in 2018 as the region’s most popular craft beer.

“It’s held the crown ever since,” Slomba said.

Southern Tier Brewing sells the most regional craft beer, followed by Big Ditch, Ellicottville Brewing, Resurgence and Flying Bison, he said.

Hamburg, Thin Man, Black Bird (Cidery), 42 North and Community Beer Works brands lock down the top 10, in that order.

Rusty Nickel Brewing Company (copy)

(Cutline for this pic included in main centerpiece photo) Keith Wenzel has a drink on the patio of the Rusty Nickel Brewing Company in West Seneca on a recent Thursday night while he and his wife were in the area from Dudley, Mass., as part of a camping trip. 

“IPAs still dominate the category,” Slomba said, with hazy tropical-style New England IPAs at the top. Session IPAs, lighter in body and lower in alcohol, “have also carved out a nice niche,” he said.

Single-batch beers also bring joy for craft beer drinkers looking for some variety and fun. Those on tap for WNY Beer Week include Apple Fritter Amber Ale (Rusty Nickel); Strawberry Brewbarb Gose (42 North); Grumpkins & Snarks Pumpkin Dark Lager (Brickyard); Krupnik Barrel-Aged Blonde Stout (Windy Brew); and “I’m a Local” Grapefruit IPA (Pressure Drop).

“It’s always a challenge making beer stand out and then keeping up with trends or innovation,” Kahn said. “A lot of breweries focus on their research and development, trying new things like barrel aging sours. There are so many different varieties of beer, and lagers have taken off, which is great.”

Beer traditionalists and the uninitiated take note: For all the experimentation and special offerings, many brewers prefer to make – and drink – a good lager or pilsner because there is less room for error and it gives them a chance to show off their technical beer-making skills. They also happen to think the ones they make in small batches, without corn and other fillers more common in top-selling beers, is worth the extra cost to enjoy.

Rusty Nickel Brewing Company (copy)

Husband and wife owners Jason and Katie Havens pose for a portrait in the patio of the Rusty Nickel Brewing Company in West Seneca. Both play major roles in the WNY Brewers Guild and WNY Beer week, which runs Sept. 23 to 30.

Size, scope and resiliency

The WNY Brewers Guild estimates that more than 50 regional brewers now run more than 60 businesses, including at least eight taprooms away from their main beer-production sites.

One-third have opened since the start of the pandemic. At least nine others have closed.

The region also boasts five meaderies, four cideries and many new beer-centric taprooms including RationAles, which opened earlier this year in Williamsville as the first in the region almost exclusively offering beer and other beverages made in New York.

Diversity in these businesses is great, though one question is easily the most common when talk turns to their growing numbers.

When do they reach a saturation point?

“We were seeing double-digit growth for many years,” Kahn said, “but it’s starting to plateau a little bit, and that’s one of the drivers around that question. The timing was now to bring back Beer Week because of this plateau, and remind local residents, local consumers about the importance of our industry and what it does for employees, residents paying taxes and our work with nonprofits.”

Brewery diversity shifted during the pandemic as more restaurants added small breweries on their premises, Kahn said. They include Wayland Brewing and Johnson’s Landing in the Southtowns and Santora’s 1927 Brewing in the Northtowns.

The big producers plug along – with 12 Gates, Southern Tier and others from the Finger Lakes and downstate regions opening taprooms in Buffalo and other parts of the region.

The New York Beer Project in late 2015 dropped its first brewery and gastropub – which looked like it belonged in the downtown Denver brewery district – onto a quiet patch of land along Transit Road in the town of Lockport. Owners Kevin and Kelly Krupski have since opened locations in suburban Rochester and Orlando. They broke ground earlier this year on a fourth site in Orchard Park.

The WNY Brewers Guild works closely with the State Brewers Association and now handles Beer Week in much the same way other as established craft beer regions across New York, Leone said. The state association tracks participation in these and other related events and knows from its New York State Craft Beer app that the efforts spur tourism statewide.

“Every region is different, so having Beer Weeks like this to highlight their own beer scenes is a very positive thing,” Leone said. “When we have our annual festival at Canalside, a lot of the brewers from downstate love to come up to Buffalo because of the beer scene.”

Regional brewers have become more collaborative and community-focused as they navigate the industry and broaden their reach.

“That’s been a really strong focus of this guild group,” Kahn said.

Thursday nights at Rusty Nickel give a glimpse of that dynamic – and the resiliency breeds success in beer trades large and small.

“We have a huge community cycling group ride that goes out,” Havens said. “Then they come back and fill this place up pretty nicely.

“I think about the thousands of events that we must host as a collective, and I think it’s really cool that people are starting to make memories at breweries, those big, momentous occasions,” said Havens, whose husband, Jason, owns Rusty Nickel and serves as president of the regional brewers guild. “They’re bringing their families here, they’re bringing their friends here, and they’re celebrating life’s bigger moments: weddings, birthdays, retirements, all that stuff, and the day to day. The customer is our greatest strength. They support and promote our businesses as well as we do, sometimes better.”

Ukraine Resolve beer (copy)

The cooler at 42 North Brewing in East Aurora underlines the purpose of the revitalized WNY Beer Week, which runs Sept. 23-30.

WNY Beer Week special events

The Ridge: Brewer’s Cornhole Tournament starts Saturday at this West Seneca beer haven and features pours from eight local breweries.

Brewed and Bottled: “Ask the Brewer” Q&A – featuring brewers and owners from Big Ditch, Hofbräuhaus, Pressure Drop, and brewery-in-planning Hammer & Crown – starts at 6 p.m. Monday at this Lewiston village bottle shop.

Mister Goodbar: The Buffalo Beer Goddesses celebrate their 11th anniversary from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday with a special beer release and sampling at this Buffalo hotspot.

42 North: BOCKtoberfest, with live music by Captain Tom & The Hooligans, a Steinhoist competition and German fare by Fat Bob’s is part of the fun Sept. 30 at this East Aurora brewery staple.

Five & 20 Spirits: Haulin’ Oats Brown Ale is back and four tastings are complimentary at this Westfield beer- and spirit-maker.

Pod City Beer Labs at Pizza Plant Canalside: This Beer Week pioneer offers a free Pod City T-shirt, while supplies last, for those who buy a flight or two drafts of the house-brand beer for $20.


Twitter: @ScottBScanlon

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