by Brian Campbell
Before Community Beer Works and Resurgence Brewing, before Flying Bison even, Buffalo was once a hub, a thriving mecca for brewers and malters alike. With Buffalo currently in the midst of a craft beer renaissance, what better way to look forward than to look back, a tall task accomplished by Buffalo historian Mike Rizzo and CBW’s own Ethan Cox in their collaborative read, Buffalo Beer: The History of Brewing in the Nickel City
An undertaking of this ilk is nothing new for Rizzo, who owned Naked Buffalo Tours for six years.
“All of my books have been unique looks into Buffalo history,” Rizzo says. “Usually something that has not been done, such as retailing or crime. With Buffalo Beer, this was a book I was interested in for several reasons. First off, up until 2013 I was running a tour company and some of our tours involved Buffalo brewing history and tasting local beer. At the time there were only a couple breweries in operation. I had used Stephen Powell’s book Rushing the Growler for research and knew that it was thin in some areas and thought it might be a good book to update, so that’s why I chose it.”
Cox was also inspired by the Powell offering and felt that the timing was right for this new book.
“The direct inspiration was Powell’s work, which is the first real attempt to tell the story of Buffalo’s brewing history,” he says. “It’s a great resource, but it is also out of print and was always geared more towards the facts and figures than the stories. So, Mike and I felt the timing was very ripe for an update and expansion of Stephen’s effort.”
Powell is interviewed in Buffalo Beer, as is Buffalo beer historian Dave Mik, who also supplies a number of great photos of his vast collection of breweriana, which includes many rare trays, tap handles, bottles, brewer badges and signs. This comprehensive and thorough guide is chock full of an exceptional amount of dates, names and fun factoids, like, for example, many moons ago brewers would often use hardwoods to heat their brews, which produced a lot of ash, so they would run side businesses such as soap and candle making to supplement their income.
“The most surprising thing to discover, however, was that Buffalo’s malting history might be even more impressive than our brewing history—the number and size of the malting operations here vastly exceed the needs of local breweries, and so we now know that Buffalo malt probably fueled the rise of some of the companies that would go on to put our breweries out of business,” Cox says.
Buffalo Beer retells the history of malting and brewing in the Queen City in exhaustive detail, rich historical information laid out in easy to follow and easy to read chronological order, from the beginning in the early 1800’s through Prohibition, the rebirth, and up to the modern era.
“During the research I learned much more about some large breweries that operated in the 19th Century that have left little behind,” Rizzo admits. “Every time I would find another name tied to a brewery I would research that person which would lead to other findings. The Weigel/Weyand family has a long brewing history in Buffalo and it was interesting to see it all come together. Some of the stories that revolved around corruption and family squabbles were interesting to see also.”
Through it all, Rizzo and Cox each have different takeaways from the book.
“The one thing I hope that readers take away is that this was one of the industries that helped build Buffalo into the great city it became in the early 20th Century,” Rizzo says. “Let’s remember the primarily German men and women who built these breweries and brewed the beer. Many of their names grace city streets, but their history is easily forgotten. The German people did a tremendous amount to develop Buffalo in its heyday and there is not nearly enough to thank them.”
“The other big lesson is that you have to preach the importance of sustaining a local economy, and of paying a bit more for quality,” Cox adds. “We lost our breweries to bland, national companies because people became more price-than-quality conscious, in my opinion.”
Buffalo Beer: The History of Brewing in the Nickel City is available at all major online retailers, including Walmart, Barnes and Noble and Amazon (www.amazon.com/Buffalo-American-Palate-Michael-Rizzo/dp/1626196370). You can find more about Rizzo on Facebook (Facebook.com/Rizzomichaelf) and visit Cox during retail hours at Community Beer Works (communitybeerworks.com).