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Good for What Ales You

John Coleman, left, and Phin DeMink of Southern Tier Brewery in Lakewood, New York. (photos by N. Arnone / Southern Tier Brewing Company)

Craft Brewers Turning the Rust Belt into the Beer Belt

This summer Buffalo became synonymous with two things: growth and great beer, the kind of beer that makes a place a destination. Our local brewery explosion has drawn the attention of craft beer lovers and craft beer writers. In only five years, we’ve seen Community Beer Works, Gordon Biersch, Woodcock Brothers, the Pan American, Hamburg Brewing Company, and Gene McCarthy’s open, and downtown Buffalo’s new Big Ditch Brewery beers are out and will be available at all of the Buffalo Beer Week Events. Resurgence Brewing on Niagara Street is gaining mentions in national media outlets. Rusty Nickel Brewing is on the cusp of opening their doors as are Barker Brewing Company in Barker and Four Mile in Olean. The injection of these highly touted craft beers into the marketplace reflects the growth of the city and the importance of the craft beer industry. Buffalo’s growth is closely tied to its burgeoning craft breweries.

Southern Tier Brewery will produce 125,000 barrels of beer this year.

All of these startups owe a debt of gratitude to Flying Bison Brewing Company, Ellicottville Brewing Company, and Southern Tier Brewing Company. These three stalwarts of innovative brewing are all enjoying their own expansions as the demand for craft beer grows in Western New York and nationwide. In 2013, EBC re-opened their expanded bar and restaurant and began brewery tours, which are sold out nearly every weekend. Flying Bison is moving to the re-invigorated Larkinville district and will soon open their new building. These expansions are harbingers of a better time in Western New York—the money coming into these businesses is being put back into the region.

Growing businesses mean bigger facilities and bigger facilities mean more jobs. It’s been nearly a century since the brewing industry in Buffalo approached this kind of success. The region once had about 20 breweries producing 600,000 barrels of beer and malt houses producing millions of bushels of malted barley; if projections carry out, this 600,000-barrel high-water mark seems in sight.

Southern Tier Brewing has had one heck of a September. Their new DeMunck’s Hard Cider is moving off the shelves at a rapid pace. Days after announcing a partnership with NY investment firm Ulysses Management, the brewery brought on 25-year veteran of beer, John Coleman, as CEO. Coleman had previously worked with brewing behemoths Pabst Brewing and Anheuser-Busch, and has spent the last few years working with craft distilleries. Recently, Coleman took the time to answer some questions for Artvoice readers.

• • •

Artvoice: Having previously worked with Pabst Brewing and Anheuser-Busch, what compelled you to get involved in the craft industry?

John Coleman: I was active in the craft industry, even while I was at A-B (Anhueser-Busch) and Pabst—more at AB than Pabst, because I had Oregon, I had Washington, I had all of California, where I would say there was a ton of craft beer being sold. I spent a lot of time competing with craft and came to understand craft, so when this opportunity came along it piqued my interest.

AV: What is it about WNY that drew you here, aside from the potential of Southern Tier Brewing?

JC: It’s a beautiful part of the country and I’ve always enjoyed the people here. They’re genuine and they’re not afraid to tell you what they’re thinking. It’s very refreshing to be back in that kind of environment.

AV: What makes Southern Tier Brewing different than the craft breweries that you dealt with on the West Coast?

JC: Most importantly are Phin and Sarah DeMink [owners and innovators at STBC]. They’ve really built it from the ground up. They are first generation brewers that started from scratch. To me, that is the American Dream. They had a passion for something and they’ve built an incredible company, and a first class brewery, and it all starts with their commitment to quality. It starts with the brand that we brew and it is evident in everything we do, down to the quality individuals that have been hired over the years. There is a really, really impressive group of individuals. I’d put our brewing team and our cellar team up against any other in the country.

AV: The other long-standing breweries—Ellicottville Brewing Company and Flying Bison in the area are also expanding their facilities—craft beer is experiencing a healthy growth in our region. How does a company continue to produce a craft-quality product while handling the increasing demand? Can there be a balance between quality and mass production?

JC: The beauty of it is that we’re still very small compared to the major players in the US. We’ll do 125,000 barrels this year, and that is considered fairly small. It is still a hands-on process, and Phin believes it will always be a hands-on process. He’s here walking the brewery every day, working with the brew-masters and innovating new products.

AV: Is WNY the next Ashville, NC? What are the advantages to operating here over other regions in the country?

JC: Ashville developed out of nowhere—and a lot of breweries selected Ashville—it’s an ideal location to expand into the southeast. I think WNY offers a great opportunity to give us access to a lot of very high-volume states: NY, OH, PA, IL, MI. It also gives us access to the Mid-Atlantic, and the southeast as we continue to expand and grow into those parts of the country. WNY has a group of individuals that are open minded and are willing to try craft brands. I’ve been amazed at the number of people who travel here—OH, PA, NJ, all of the New England states.

I was blown away at the broad demographic who are trying craft beers—I saw people of all ages; 21 to 70, men and women, people who represented different social structures as well; professional people and blue collar people. They all seem to want to experience great beer.

AV: Was it different on the West Coast?

JC: In California, it was largely men who were drinking craft beer; young men who came from a professional background. Here, it is great to see that women are really interested in craft beer.

AV: Phin’s already debuted the DeMunk Cider line, and there are plans for Southern Tier to develop a craft distillery within their brand. Will you also be involved with the distillery?

JC: We’ve already ordered a still—a beautiful still from Germany—it should be here soon and we’ll start using it in the next couple of months.

AV: Is there an opportunity for crossover products?

JC: There is a lot going on with barrel-aging beers, so of course, there will be an opportunity for crossover. We’ll actually be releasing our RumKing, which is our Pumpkin beer aged in rum barrels. It will be a very, very limited release, and will be available later this year.

AV: Expansion going to create more jobs, what skill sets would you like to see local schools providing to your brewery?

JC: We’re always looking for good people. There are a few positions posted right now: Quality Control, IT, & brewing. As we expand, there will be more job opportunities here. It’s important that quality control hires would have a background in biology and in chemistry. Brewing is an art as well as a science. The way that the different ingredients interact with each other, and what happens during aging and fermentation, as well as how different yeasts interact with different hops—there is a lot of science involved, so I think that would be important to us. It’s true of IT, as well—beyond the office and even in the brewhaus, IT is important in social media, as well as in the brewery itself.

AV: Companies like Great Lakes, New Belgium, and Sierra Nevada have placed a great deal of emphasis on environmental responsibility—what is Southern Tier’s commitment?

JC: Being environmentally aware and focused on sustainability is important. It’s something that’s important to Phin & Sarah, and we’ll have further initiatives going forward. We currently use recycled material for our packaging and recently installed our own waste water treatment system, which takes a bit of the strain off of the municipality. We treat our own waste water, and all of the spent grains we produce are sold to farmers for livestock to consume.

AV: What new products can we expect from Southern Tier?

JC: We spoke about the Rumking, which is exciting, and also, 2XMAS will come out in October. In November, we’ll be releasing Old Man Winter, Krampus, and Choklat—some of our best seasonal beers.

AV: Is there anything you’d like to say to WNY? Anything you’d like Artvoice readers to know?

JC: I’m thrilled to be here and thrilled to be a part of this team. It’s great getting involved with someone like Phin, who is so passionate about what he does, and passionate about producing great beer. He’s always innovating new products to be introduced to our loyal followers. I think that the readers will continue to enjoy our beers for a very long time because we’re bringing some exciting things to the market.

As Buffalo Beer Week wraps up, one would be remiss to ignore the economic benefits of growing the regional beer culture. Beer Week brought with it hundreds of events; it procured the spectrum of media coverage, and it gave to the city crowded outlets where great beer is sold by the barrel. These are the hallmarks of growth, in our city as well as our region as a whole.

Craft beer drinkers have become the new voice of a behemoth global industry. As the economy of craft brewing continues to grow, innovators like Phin DeMink and visionaries like John Coleman will certainly rise to the top, and given the communal nature of the industry, they’ll be bringing our region along for the ride.

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