There’s a giant Mogwai tour poster hanging on the office wall at Community Beer Works when I sit down to interview Ethan Cox and Rudy Watkins that serves as a reminder that these guys have great taste in music as well as beer – which is fortuitous because it was primarily the relationship between beer and music that first brought this young Western New York Brewery to my attention. The first of their brews that I tried was More Information, a special one-off batch that Rudy had made for a Swans show at Buffalo’s Tralf Music Hall (their first concert specific brew was Preacher Man, a Godspeed You! Black Emperor inspired American Black Ale). I love beer and loud music, and when a bartender is telling you about a new local brew made specifically for one night and one particular show, it’s hard to say no.
Community Beer Works is Buffalo’s first nanobrewery, which may be an unfamiliar term for some in comparison to the more widely used nomenclature of craft breweries, which are independently owned breweries producing less than six million barrels per year – or microbreweries, which are craft breweries that produce less than fifteen thousand barrels per year. A nanobrewery, though lacking an officially sanctioned definition, is most commonly described as a brewery that produces under three thirty-one-gallon barrels per production batch. The team behind Community Beer Works eschews the high-volume industrialized notion that many have of brewing at a national level (think the opening credits of Laverne and Shirley) in favor of a smaller, artisanal, and more agile company focused on creating a fresh product for its own community positioned market. Approaching the business of beer this way allows CBW to support a few consistent product lines while having the freedom to radically experiment and innovate with their recipes – and to be sharply focused on building their hometown presence. CBW president Ethan Cox put it succinctly as “think of a bakery. Buying fresh beer should be like that. I’d like to see people visiting a local neighborhood brewery to buy beer with the frequency and casualness that they buy fresh locally made bread.”
But being a small brewery with a local focus hasn’t stopped CBW from getting the accolades they deserve. recently taking second place in Brewing News’ National IPA Championship and being named by Business Insider as one of the ten best craft breweries in New York State alongside much larger operations like Brooklyn Brewery, Ommegang and Southern Tier Brewing Company – Good peers to be among for a brewery still in its first few years of business.
Originally envisioned as a loose co-op for friends with a shared home-brewing passion to share space, equipment, and knowledge – CBW (with the help of a successful Kickstarter) soon metamorphosed into a fledgling commercial brewery owned by the seven founding partners – with Rudy stepping into the role of Head Brewer and Ethan (previously a cognitive scientist and an award-winning home brewer himself) serving as President. Working out of a converted industrial garage in Buffalo’s slowly re-emerging West Side, the small CBW brewing team, led by Rudy, is constantly pushing to create high-quality beer in their 1.5 barrel (about 45 gallons per batch) brewery and meet the consumer demands of an ever-growing list of bars, events, and direct customers that they supply.
Because of the community focus that has been a guiding principle for the brewery since its inception, CBW has also been involved in a variety of partnerships with local farms and supports green initiative and local organizations like the Massachusetts Avenue Project – an urban agriculture program that turns vacant lots into usable green space to grow food for local residents. Ethan, Rudy, and their cohorts donate the spent grain from their brewing to the project so that it can be reused in an ecologically responsible way – rather than reselling it as most large commercial breweries do.
As Ethan said during our interview “It’s completely banal and cliché to say that a business needs to do more than just make money or protect shareholder interests, but we’re about being a socially responsible business. We’re actually some of the world’s most reluctant capitalists, and we come from a real punk/hippie DIY ethos. While we need to make money and understand how the real world works, we feel like the bigger mission of this brewery was to spark a resurgence of a larger craft brewing movement in Buffalo.” A movement that has strong ties to the history of both the brewing, and more importantly the malting industry of Buffalo’s past. “I caution people from living in the past, but I am absolutely proud of our brewing history, it’s not unlike the brewing industry of Cleveland, Pittsburgh, or any number of midwest and northeast cities with a strong German population, but what a lot of people overlook is that Buffalo had an enormous malting industry and that malting industry was supplying all of those other great brewing cities. In many ways the history of the malting industry here is more interesting. In fact, the building we brew in was once part of that Schaeffer Malting Company. A lot of those early Buffalo breweries focused on lager but they also made some interesting wheat beers and they made Berliner Weisse – and we’re the first brewery to make and commercially sell Berliner Weisse in this city in over a hundred years, which is pretty badass.”
The guys have a few regular brews available on a weekly/monthly basis like:
Frank – A lightly sweet American Pale Ale with pine and citrus notes
The Whale – A superbly drinkable and aromatic brown ale with a deep roasted flavor
De Maas – My favorite, a Belgian Amber with a floral and firmly bitter flavor
In addition to these year-round selections and both regular and double IPA offerings there is a whole host of seasonal beers like Ruterford B. Haze, The Soft Bulletin, and Stout Affective Disorder (you can see a pretty comprehensive list of their current and past offerings here, and bonus good news for vegetarian customers is that since CBW’s beer is unfiltered and free of clarifying agents its veggie friendly.)
Experimentation plays a huge role in how CBW moves forward, and the small batch sizes they produce allow them to have a lot more freedom in what they are producing and bringing to customers. “Everything has a potential fan, and at our size all we need are ten potential fans to make a batch of beer worthwhile. Other breweries have to work under a concern of not being able to sell 1500 gallons of a new recipe if it doesn’t work out.” Rudy told me “it’s inspiring to try and develop a beer from a certain mindset or emotional place. For instance, when I’m developing the recipes for the music associated beers like More Information or Preacher Man it’s not like synesthesia where I’m listening to music and I start tasting a beer, but there is a consideration of the experience of listening to a band and how it makes me feel and trying to develop a beer that might evoke similar feelings or qualities.” (As an aside, Rudy’s mention of synesthesia and beer sent us down a hilarious 10 minute rabbit hole of positing fictional beers for acts like a John Cage 4’33 beer and a Merzbow inspired recipe).
“I like good beer, if things taste good I WILL consume them.” Rudy continued – and to ensure the best taste while imbibing Community Beer Works brews Rudy and Ethan recommend drinking them fresh, because with the exception of a tiny minority that benefit from aging and the majority of mass produced beers that will likely survive the end times without much flavor change. Kept cold, a growler of beer will keep its freshness for 10-14 days, but Ethan suggests that ideally you want to be drinking fresh beer the day you buy it, he and Rudy, both scientifically minded, also suggested experimenting with the temperature at which you drink your beer, starting cold and exploring how the flavors develop as the beer warms. “Experimentation doesn’t end with just making beer, but also drinking it – experiment with how you serve it and the conditions you drink it in to bring out the flavors you most want from a beer.”