Widely acknowledged as one of the world’s leading beer writers, Stephen Beaumont is the author or co-author of 10 books about beer, including The World Atlas of Beer (2012) and two editions of The Pocket Beer Guide (2013 & 2014), all co-written with Tim Webb. His new book, The Beer & Food Companion, will be published in October 2015.
When you travel compulsively, as I’ve been known to do, it’s all too easy to sometimes overlook what’s sitting right in front of you. And when you travel for beer, it’s equally simple to miss the city of Buffalo, New York.
Simple, but not advisable.
It had been years since I last visited Buffalo, which sits a mere two hours down the highway from my home in Toronto, unless you count beer runs to the outstanding Premier Gourmet. In fact, my last proper visit to the Queen City likely occurred at the start of the millenium, when Buffalo had little of beery interest save for a small handful of bars featuring mostly out-of-state or out-of-country breweries.
So it was with more than a little interest that a few years back I began hearing good things were brewing in Buffalo. That the owner of the venerable beer bar, Coles, had opened the even better Blue Monk, for instance, which he has followed more recently with Allen Burger Venture and Moor Pat, each highly laudable in its own right. Or that Premier Gourmet, a fine foods and provisions store with an extensive beer selection, had moved east and gotten even better; or that Pizza Plant, which had combined pizza and craft beer years before it became cool, was finally heading downtown.
Or, pivotally, that breweries were opening up all over the place!
None of this, of course, is unique to Buffalo. Breweries and beer bars are popping up everywhere these days and there would seem to be no reason Buffalo should be an exception. Except that, besides a few exceptions, craft beer had pretty much ignored the entire Buffalo–Niagara region over the decades, to the point that in the late 1990s even brewery-poor Toronto had looked like a relative oasis.
Thankfully, that is no longer the case for Buffalo, which is getting its brewery groove on, as well as Toronto, which has ramped up its own game considerably, to the point that it now counts as one of the northeast’s better beer cities.
As I discovered over a pair of trips to Buffalo several months apart, while the Upstate town of 260,000 might not boast the cultural and culinary largesse of larger and more influential cities—of course, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the new seafood destination, Oshun, are nothing to sneeze at—anyone in search of interesting beer drinking is now practically spoilt for choice.
On the bar front, in addition to the establishments noted above, I was highly impressed by Ballyhoo in the city’s south end. The sort of place that emits a positive vibe from the get-go, this long and thin, second-floor joint near the Buffalo River boasts a drink list that ticks all the boxes: a dozen rotating tap beers, a wide selection of whiskeys, well-made traditional cocktails, and decent wines priced well. Add to all that friendly and efficient bartenders, sausages made in house, and a sharp music selection, and you have a place that I had a hard time leaving. Twice.
Far more significant, however, are the strides forward Buffalo has made in terms of its brewery count and quality. Of those breweries, three operations are key: Community Beer Works, Resurgence Brewing, and Big Ditch Brewing.
The first, Community, was the brewery that tipped me off to beer developments in the city when I bumped into the partners at Bar Volo in Toronto. Since then, the team, spearheaded by president Ethan Cox, has developed a loyal following for beers such as the herbal and quenching Frank Pale Ale—a session IPA from before the term grew popular—and The Whale, a slightly austere but highly appealing American take on a northern English brown ale.
Down the road a remarkably short way is Resurgence, a more elaborately financed operation with a large brewery and on-site beer hall. Only one year old, Resurgence quickly achieved “talked about” status with its bright and citrusy IPA, an espresso-esque Sponge Candy Stout, and a helles-like Bridge Lager, not to mention a host of seasonals and specialties including the peppery Blood Orange Saison.
Finally, the new Big Ditch Brewing typifies not just what is happening in Buffalo where beer is concerned, but also the ongoing renaissance of the city’s downtown. Just opened in large and imposing digs two blocks from Main Street, the brewery’s backers are obviously banking on the continued rehabilitation of the formerly moribund district. If this does indeed prove the case, and signs suggest it will, then Big Ditch, with its appealingly fruity, golden Low Bridge and spicy, raisiny Excavator Rye Brown Ale, will join such craft-beer luminaries as Wynkoop Brewing in Denver and Cleveland’s Great Lakes Brewing as operations that have become cornerstones of an urban revival.