Spirited Entrepreneurs

A growing number of craft breweries and distilleries are riding the wave of Buffalo’s resurgence—many of them with UB alumni at the helm

A bartender pours a flight of beer at Big Ditch.

A bartender pours a flight of beer at Big Ditch.

Story by Rebecca Rudell | Photographs by Douglas Levere


The Rise and Fall, and Rise, of a Buffalo Industry

Around the turn of the 20th Century, Buffalo was a brewers’ and distillers’ paradise. There were many reasons for this. The Great Lakes offered clean, fresh water, considered ideal for brewing. Immigrants from Germany, Prussia and Alsace were pouring into the area and bringing their brewing/distilling knowledge with them. Buffalo was the largest grain storage and shipping center in the country—grain being one of the main ingredients in beer and spirits. And hydroelectric power from Niagara Falls made refrigeration (cool temps are key to the fermentation process) much easier.

And of course, Buffalo itself was a major success story—a thriving and wealthy metropolis, with a large and thirsty population. Between the late 1800s and early 1900s, when enormous stone mansions were rising along Delaware Avenue, there were at least 33 breweries and 55 distilleries in the city.

Then, on Jan. 17, 1920, came Prohibition. While beer and spirits still flowed freely (there were more than 8,000 places where Buffalonians could drink illegally), the city’s distilleries and breweries were forced to either shutter their doors or convert their machinery to produce nonalcoholic products like soda and malt extract. By the time the Prohibition era ended in 1933, many of these “new” businesses couldn’t afford to convert back.

Vintage Simon Pure label. Image courtesy of www.buffalobrewinghistory.com 

Those that could do so faced other challenges, both immediately after Prohibition and for decades to come. In the early 20th century, explains Matthew Pelkey (JD ’10, BA ’07) of Black Squirrel Distillery, “The [federal] government created a system that essentially helped form liquor monopolies for the intention of stomping out organized crime. This produced a high-barrier entry into the business for anyone without considerable resources.”

Soon mega-breweries and distilleries took over the industry across the United States, as they were the only companies that could afford to cut through all the regulations and red tape. Adding insult to injury, these beer and spirit monopolies launched massive advertising campaigns, overshadowing the brand names of the small-scale establishments. The little guys just couldn’t compete, and by the 1950s you could count the number of Buffalo breweries on one hand.

Finally, in the early 1970s, the last two breweries standing—Iroquois (1892-1971) and William Simon (1896-1972)—went out of business, ending an era. It was around this time that Buffalo itself hit a sharp decline, as major industries shut down or moved away, and people began deserting the city for the suburbs. For decades, the city and its brewing/distilling industries remained in a slump.

The brew crew at Iroquois. Image courtesy of www.buffalobrewinghistory.com

There were a few bright spots. The Buffalo Brewpub opened in 1986 in Williamsville, a Buffalo suburb, and Pearl Street Grill & Brewery opened about 10 years later in downtown Buffalo. Three years after that, the arrival of Flying Bison marked Buffalo’s first stand-alone brewery since Simon closed. The new craft beer captured the hearts of local beer drinkers and over the years its production soared to more than 2,500 barrels per year. Though it was sold to Matt Brewing of Utica, N.Y., in 2010, a stipulation of the sale was that production of the beloved brew remain in Buffalo.

By 2012, the city was doing much better with the adoption of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion initiative, which brought an influx of funds to regional industry. Breweries, too, were on the rise. In that same year, Cuomo signed legislation allowing brewers to serve beer by the glass without an additional permit, bolstering profits. In exchange, breweries were required to use a certain percentage of local ingredients, helping farmers to prosper as well. Recent legislation has also made it easier and less expensive to open distilleries. Pelkey likes to cite the fact that there were 10 distilleries in New York State in 2011. Today there are 107.

As Jason Havens (BS ’05) of Rusty Nickel Brewery says: “There’s a new life in Buffalo and the breweries and distilleries are a wonderful complement to that.” Looks like hoppy days are here again!

Matt Kahn with Big Ditch’s 40-barrel fermenters behind him.

Matt Kahn with Big Ditch’s 40-barrel fermenters behind him.

Matt Kahn (BS ’98)

Big Ditch Brewing Company, President

After college, Matt Kahn worked in the consumer products and pharmaceutical/biotech industries, but yearned to start his own business. Fast-forward to 2011, when a co-worker (Corey Catalano, now Big Ditch’s VP and head brewer) suggested using a plastic bucket as a fermenter. The pair started brewing beer in Catalano’s garage, with said plastic bucket. A few years—and several experiments—later, they opened Big Ditch.

Named after the Erie Canal, Big Ditch is the complete beer-lover’s package: They offer three signature beers, as well as seasonal and limited-release brews on tap and hearty food that incorporates the brewery’s beer. Just recently, they started selling canned craft beer in local stores, so fans can enjoy them anywhere, anytime. The brewery’s tagline, “Celebrate beer. Celebrate Buffalo,” is the perfect tribute to the city—and its citizens’ favorite beverage.

Big Ditch won the 2016 Best Craft Brewery in New York State award from TAP New York, the state’s largest craft beer festival.

Rusty Nickel partners Jason Havens (left) and Dave Johnson.

Rusty Nickel partners Jason Havens (left) and Dave Johnson.

Jason Havens (BS ’05)

Rusty Nickel Brewery, President

As a project manager for engineering firm Clark Patterson Lee, an adjunct professor in civil engineering at UB, president of the WNY Beer Club and president of Rusty Nickel Brewery, Jason Havens doesn’t get much rest. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” he quips.

Havens, partner Dave Johnson, and their brewer-bartenders (Havens has dubbed them “brewtenders”)—all women, by the way—concoct unusual beers like Chai Tea Milk Stout alongside more traditional offerings. And as the only farm-brewery in Erie County, Rusty Nickel can also sell locally made libations in its tasting room, including Matthew Pelkey’s Black Squirrel and selections from Niagara Craft Spirits, so you can enjoy a one-stop mini tour of the beers, spirits and ciders Western New York has to offer.

UB’s concrete canoes, used in the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) Concrete Canoe National Competition, now reside on Rusty Nickel’s patio.

Matthew Pelkey (JD '10), BA '07).

Matthew Pelkey at Black Squirrel Distillery

Matthew Pelkey (JD ’10, BA ’07)

Black Squirrel Distillery, Co-founder, Legal Counsel

In a business plan class at UB, Matthew Pelkey wrote up a plan for a brewery using only organic materials. “It was unique at the time,” he says. “And it laid the foundation for what was to come.”

After graduating, Pelkey dabbled in home brewing and did some legal work for a brewery before he was recruited by a couple friends to join them in another unique venture: a distillery focused on aged maple spirits. He joined the team as a co-founder, opening Black Squirrel in 2015.

Using maple syrup to make spirits isn’t a new concept. According to Pelkey, the colonists used maple syrup to make rum when the British cut off their supply of molasses and sugar leading up to the Revolutionary War. These early Americans took advantage of local resources to create a new alcoholic beverage. More than two centuries later, Black Squirrel is bringing it back, and Buffalonians are loving this delectable blast from the past.

Niagara Craft Spirits co-founders Joe Nardecchia, Todd Snyder and Keith Curtachio.

Niagara Craft Spirits co-founders Joe Nardecchia, Todd Snyder and Keith Curtachio.

Joe Nardecchia (BS ’03), Todd Snyder (ME ’94) and Keith Curtachio (BA ’87)

Niagara Craft Spirits Distillery and Tasting Room, Co-owners

Longtime home brewers Joe Nardecchia, Todd Snyder and Keith Curtachio were often encouraged by friends to open their own brewery. Indeed, Snyder and Nardecchia are both national beer judges with the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP)—two of only 830 people worldwide who hold the title of national judge or higher.

But when they were ready to take the plunge, the competition among craft brewers had already grown pretty stiff. So they decided to apply their beer knowledge to distilling, a very similar process. They opened Niagara Craft Spirits in November 2015.

In addition to working at the distillery, which is more of a hobby for these guys, two of the three alumni work at UB: Curtachio, as director of IT for the Faculty Student Association, and Snyder, who serves as an instructional support specialist for the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering. Nardecchia, who attended UB later in life, earned a degree in registered accounting and currently works as a revenue auditor for the State of Illinois.

“My education at UB definitely helped me understand the distilling process microbiologically, chemically, and from a standpoint of process control and energy use,” Snyder says. “It helps me figure out the best way to turn 250 pounds of corn into whiskey, while maximizing yield and keeping quality high.”

The men are especially proud to be part of an ecosystem. The corn of which Snyder speaks is sourced from farms that are just three miles away. When they’re done with it, they return the waste (corn mash) to the farmers to feed their livestock, who love the sweet taste. “Everything we use comes out of our local community and goes right back into it,” Nardecchia says.

A botanicals mix of juniper, fennel, coriander, cardamom, and lemon and lime peels gives Niagara Craft Spirits’ 1808 Gin its distinctive flavor.

A botanicals mix of juniper, fennel, coriander, cardamom, and lemon and lime peels gives Niagara Craft Spirits’ 1808 Gin its distinctive flavor.

Chris Sasiadek of Lakeward Spirits displays the company’s vodka.

Chris Sasiadek of Lakeward Spirits displays the company’s vodka.

Chris Sasiadek (JD ’16)

Lakeward Spirits, Vice President, Regulatory Compliance

Lakeward Spirits is a family affair, owned by Chris Sasiadek, his in-laws Steve and Andi Bystran, and his brother-in-law Adam. When working on the business plan for the distillery, the Bystrans realized that having a legal mind on the team would be a boon to the business—and who better to bring on board than your lawyer son-in-law?

The distillery is set in a recently restored 1903 barrel house located in Buffalo’s old First Ward, a neighborhood that has recently experienced substantial revitalization. Sasiadek aims to be a vital part of the Buffalo renaissance, noting how Lakeward will help keep money in the area. “If you buy spirits from a big distillery, you’re helping a CEO buy a second yacht,” he says. “But when you buy local, you’re helping neighbors send their child to Little League or helping to repair their house.”

When original machinery was removed from Lakeward Spirits’ facility, a giant hole was left behind. Now in its place is a 5,000-gallon reservoir that’s used as a heat exchanger to cool spirits during the distillation process and heat the building, helping to save money as well as the environment.

A Toast to Malting

Rootlets and acrospires sprout from barley grains.

Rootlets and acrospires sprout from barley grains.

When Bob Patterson (MBA ’79) retired as owner of a heavy industrial construction firm, he didn’t want to stop working. He and his son Adam (BA ’04), a real estate agent at the time, briefly considered opening a brewery, but then they had a better idea: malting. A new malt house would fill a void in the area’s growing craft beer and distilling industries, and take advantage of the state’s new legislation requiring the use of a certain percentage of locally grown ingredients.

So Adam learned the intricacies of the business through the Malt Academy, an intensive training course at the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre (CMBTC). In 2015, the father-son duo opened Queen City Malting in Rochester, N.Y. (UB grad Phil Gigliotti, BA ’09, also works with the family.)

“We’re reviving an industry that’s been dead for nearly 100 years,” says Adam, referring to the downfall of Buffalo-area malt houses after Prohibition. Queen City is one of four new malt houses in Western New York.

Malt, he explains, is both a product and a process. The process: cereal grain (in this case, barley) is steeped in water to hydrate the endosperm and activate natural enzymes that break down protein and carbohydrates. Next is germination, when the kernels grow rootlets and acrospires (sprouts), and the enzymes convert starch into sugar. The grain is then dried and heated—aka cured or kilned—to stop growth. This final step gives the grain a nutty, toasted flavor. You then have malt, the product, to use in beer and whiskey. Queen City’s finished malt is cleaned, bagged and shipped to breweries and distilleries across the state, from Buffalo to Long Island.

Next up for Queen City Malting? “We’re looking to work with brewers and distillers to create beer and liquor that is truly New York, with a taste you can’t find anywhere else.”

Sounds good to us!

Brewers’ Roundtable

Beer is essentially four ingredients: water, malt, hops and yeast. Which made us wonder: How do brewers create such a plethora of flavors? We threw the question out to four UB alumni involved in the chemistry of beer, and as you can see, their opinions are as varied as the beers they create.

Beer foam.

Derek Armstrong (BS ’11)

Senior Brewer, CB Craft Brewers, Rochester, N.Y.

Brian Barrows (BS ’00)

QA/QC Lead Analyst, 21st Amendment Brewing, San Leandro, Calif.

Jonas Locke (BA/BS ’07)

Lab Manager, Christian Moerlein Brewery, Cincinnati, Ohio

Jim Matt (BA ’88)

Head Brewer, Rhinegeist Brewery, Cincinnati, Ohio

Barrows: There are so many ways you can play with the four main ingredients to produce different flavors. For example, you can change the water chemistry to make beer sweeter or more bitter.

Matt: I think water can be played with the least. Unless you spend a lot of money you pretty much get what you get.

Armstrong: I feel it should be manipulated the most, since beer is 90 percent water. If your water is bad, it throws everything off. You can add or remove minerals to dictate how hard or soft your water is, which varies in accordance with the style of beer you’re making.

Matt: Then there’s yeast. Different strains of yeast produce different ester profiles [chemical compounds that give fruit, for example, its flavor] that ferment at different rates. A lager yeast ferments at the bottom of the tank at a cool temperature, which creates a neutral beer. An ale strain ferments closer to room temperature at the top of the tank and produces more esters.

Barrows: Yeast strains produce characteristics reminiscent of bananas, pears, cloves, coconut and more. You’re creating this alchemy—making it seem like there’s a banana or clove in hefeweizen because of the chemical compounds produced by the yeast.

Matt: There are also dozens of hop varieties available. So you can play with that to a very large extent.

Barrows: And depending on how long hops are in the boil, it can change the flavor immensely. They’re used for the bittering aspect early in the boil, and when kept in longer, add a resiny, citrusy or grassy quality to the brew.

Locke: I think the malt or grain is the component that can be changed the most. Even if we stick with barley malt—and most beer contains other grains like wheat, rye, corn or oats—the amount of variation you can get is spectacular. Small changes in the process, like the amount of water used on the grain, even the type of heat—electric vs. gas—changes the character of the final product. These variations are how we can achieve everything from a dark, roasty stout to a crisp pale ale. And when you start bringing other grains to the table, the possibilities are endless.

Rebecca Rudell (MA ’95, BA ’91) is a contributing writer for At Buffalo.

Kunal Basu

I am enlightened. Thoroughly researched article with a lot of information.I am happy to learn that Buffalo is rising again.