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Good Things Brewing

Corey Catalano, left, and Matt Kahn of Big Ditch Brewing Company.

Big Ditch Brewing Company gets ready to join the microbrewing revolution

The line between homebrewer and microbrewer is made of red tape and good beer. The red tape, which used to be big and thick, is now thinner due to new legislation signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo this past July. The new legislation protects tax benefits for small breweries that produce beer in New York, exempts them from paying annual State Liquor Authority fees, and creates a new “Farm Brewery” license that allows craft brewers to extend operations by opening restaurants and selling other products.

It is by no means an over-night process to go from homebrewer to microbrewer, but this hasn’t stopped many former homebrewers from going pro. Buffalo breweries like Flying Bison, Pearl Street, and Community Beer Works all began as homebrewing endeavors. Now, a new duo of craft brewers is about to enter the game: Matt Kahn and Corey Catalano of Big Ditch Brewing Company.

“We got into homebrewing from the beginning, learning from scratch,” says Kahn who is 37 years old and works in the biotech industry by day. By night he and his 27-year-old business partner brew craft beer in Catalano’s garage. Kahn and Catalano decided to start Big Ditch, named after the Erie Canal, two years ago. “We both love beer, we love Buffalo, we have jobs in the biotech industry, and we had the aspiration to start a new business,” he says.

With the motivation and know-how, Big Ditch’s principals have the tools to make their Buffalo microbrewery work, as long as they have the patience to wait out all of necessary licensing procedures. This means you won’t find a Big Ditch IPA on any local shelves yet. They’re still a ways away from opening, but they hope to be running fully by the end of this year.

Though Big Ditch has just started down the path of microbrewing, you can still find their beer at local tastings. Their next tasting will be this Thursday, March 14, at 7:30pm at Cole’s, followed by another at Pizza Plant on Transit on March 24.

“We brewed a few test batches and wrote a business plan,” Kahn says. To the Big Ditch duo, brewing beer is important but writing a solid business plan was crucial. Starting a microbrewery is capital-intensive, and you need to sell a lot of beer to make money, they told me. “There are a lot of legal ramifications around selling alcohol. It’s not like opening up a laundromat,” Kahn says. “The best advice I could give to someone trying to open up a microbrewery would be to spend a lot of time on your business plan.”

Also, plan on it taking a lot longer than you think it’s going to take.

Before Big Ditch can open for business, they need to get their federal and state licenses, and to do those things they need to sign a lease on manufacturing space and make a down payment on some equipment.

“It’s not an easy business to get into, but on the flip side of that, there are more breweries opening now than in any other point in our history,” Kahn says.

Beer is perhaps the oldest prepared beverage on the planet. The industry has gone through some significant changes in the last several decades, though—changes that have opened the floodgates for craft brewers. The brewing industry was once like the film industry. Prior to the 1980s, a few dozen major brewers like Miller and Coors dominated American brewing. Similarly, before the American New Wave movement in film, a few huge studios dominated that industry. Then Easy Rider came out, which was essentially the first successful independent film. In the brewing world, the New Albion Brewing Company, formed in 1976 in Sonoma, California, by a homebrew enthusiast named Jack McAuliffe, is known as the first successful microbrewery in America. New Albion was the Easy Rider of brewing. It and other pioneering homebrewers-turned-craft brewers paved the way for young entrepreneurs and beer lovers like Kahn and Catalano to start their own businesses.

Now, according to the Brewers Association, there are approximately 2,000 microbreweries in operation in the United Sates, employing over 100,000 people. Many of those employees began as amateur brewers and are often part of homebrewing clubs like the Sultans of Swig, or the Niagara Association of Homebrewers. Keith Curtachio is the director of information technology for the Faculty Student Association at UB and has also been a member of the Niagara Association of Homebrewers for 18 years. The association has met regularly for the last 20 years to discuss the ins and outs of producing beer at home.

“New York State likes the microbrew business,” Curtachio says. “One of the things you’re doing in a local brewery type of scenario is supporting other local businesses. You’re supporting farms.”

Beer, wine, and spirits are also heavily taxed, so there is a financial benefit for New York State to support such business.

Home brewing has truly exploded in the last five years, Curtachio says. He has attended the National Homebrewers Conference for the last several years. Two years ago, he says, there were a record number of attendees, around 1,200, almost doubling the attendance of the year before. He attended again this year and reports that once again the attendance has more than doubled, this time to around 3,600 people, which was considered a sell-out. Tickets sold out in about an hour, he says. The conference allows brew lovers to taste beers from all over the country, browse equipment and ingredients, and is really at the cutting edge of beer. You’ll find beers there that are often the most experimental in the business and sometimes once-in-a-lifetime treats.

Big Ditch replicates this idea on a smaller scale at their tastings.

“When people come out to Cole’s this Thursday they’ll be able to try beers that only a handful of people have ever tasted before,” Kahn says.

People will also be able to give the brewers some feedback, which Kahn and Catalano thrive on. “The recipes are still evolving,” Catalano says. “We like to make our beers innovative, yet approachable and very drinkable.”

One example they gave is an American pilsner hybrid, which they described as low alcohol but very hoppy. They’ve also done a smokey black IPA, and are planning an apple-cinnamon amber ale for next fall. As often as possible, the ingredients for these beers come from local sources.

One source that Big Ditch has worked with and hopes to continue working with is a new local hops farm called McCollum Orchards in Lockport. The farm has been producing hops for about two years now and sells their product to local breweries and homebrewers alike. The orchard, run by wife and husband Bree and Richard Woodbridge, started small but now, with some experience growing the plant, they’re beginning to expand. With 100 acres of farmland, they could have focused on a variety of different crops but chose to look into hops after Richard’s second cousin, a homebrewer who lives down the street from them, planted some hops in his personal garden.

“They really took off. From there the idea really grew,” says Bree Woodbridge. “We just fell in love with it. Hops are so fun to grow.”

New York State is great for growing hops, Curtachio says. “We were at one point the number one hops-producing state in the US.”

Hops and grapes like the same types of soil, he says, and New York State ranks third in grape production after California and Washington.

“We have seen how well they take our good soils here,” Woodbridge says. “We’re really delighted with it.” Woodbridge also hopes to continue working with breweries like Big Ditch and Community Beer Works.

“Just because you’re a homebrewer doesn’t mean you can make commercial beer. There are a lot of different rules,” Curtachio says. “[Starting a microbrewery] really has more to do with New York State regulations, a lot of permits, a lot of filings, and a lot of insurance. You need some cash.”

In recent months, Big Ditch has solidified sufficient financing. They have big plans, which include, first, selling beer on draft to the many great beer bars in Buffalo, then bottling, and eventually developing a tasting room where they also intend to sell food. At this point it’s just a matter of moving things into place and cutting through that thin red tape.

“Then we make beer,” Kahn says. “We’ll be in business.”

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