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Beer tourism is like wine tourism, but for the masses.
Batavia farmer Ted Hawley is hoping to cash in on the craft brewing boom.
Hawley’s plan is to turn a 2,400-square-foot barn on his family’s farm into a malthouse that can take locally grown barley and turn it into a vital ingredient for local craft brewers.
And these days, craft brewers are popping up all over.
Just two years ago, there were 88 craft brewers across New York. Now there are more than 150. Locally, Flying Bison Brewing Co. is building a new brewery in Larkinville. Resurgence Brewing Co. is gearing up for a grand opening later this month for its brewery and beer garden in a former engine factory in Black Rock. Big Ditch Brewing Co. is converting a vacant building on Ellicott Street into a brewery and tasting room.
Hawley sees them all as potential customers.
“My goal is to grow local grain, malt it and sell it to these fine breweries,” said Hawley, a fourth generation farmer who got the idea to venture into the malt business when he attended a farming conference three years ago.
Since then, his quest has taken him to Europe, China and Canada to learn about the business and the equipment needed to create the first brewery malting operation in Western New York in decades.
“The challenges are going to be growing the supplies we need,” Hawley said. “We just have an environment here that just isn’t friendly to these specialty grains.”
Hawley learned that firsthand. He lost 35 acres of barley that he planted last fall because of the cold winter. He had a good barley crop going last summer, but heavy rain in July prevented him from harvesting it in time.
If Hawley succeeds, he’ll be taking a significant step toward rebuilding the malt barley industry in New York. The state, back in the mid-1800s, was the nation’s biggest producer of hops and barley. But blight and a shift to Canada and the Midwest, where growing conditions were better, devastated the industry in New York. With new disease-resistant varieties of barley now available, Hawley is hoping to lead a resurgence in the malting business to serve the fast-growing stable of craft brewers.
“There’s a huge need for local suppliers,” said Hawley, who hopes to have his malting operation up and running this summer. “The key is trying to find a variety that works well in our region.”
There’s no question that craft brewing is red hot. Sales at the nearly 2,800 craft breweries that were operating across the country last year jumped by 18 percent, by volume, during 2013 — at a time when overall beer sales in the United States were dropping by 2 percent. Craft brewers’ share of the U.S. market has more than doubled over the past six years, rising from 3.7 percent in 2007 to 7.8 percent last year, according to the Brewers Association, an industry trade group.
“That’s a major cultural shift,” said Tim Herzog, the granddaddy of Buffalo’s craft brewers, who started making his own home brews in 1981 and now runs Flying Bison.
Herzog sees craft brewing as being about more than just making beer. He sees it as a tourist magnet.
“People want to be there. They want to see how their beer is made,” Herzog said. “They want to see the brewer moving the grain.”
And it could happen, especially as more craft brewers open across the Buffalo Niagara region, said Ethan Cox, the president and co-founder of Community Beer Works in Buffalo.
That’s partly because craft beer drinkers “are incredibly promiscuous,” Cox said. Rather than being loyal fans of a favorite beer or two, craft beer drinkers love to sample different brews. As more craft brewers open, Cox sees that as spurring the growth of beer tourism across the region, luring beer fans to town so they can hop from one brewer to another, sampling their wares.
Of course, that’s both a blessing and a curse for craft brewers. It’s a blessing because it can bring in wave after wave of new customers. It can be a curse, because it makes it hard to develop a loyal customer base when those consumers are constantly looking to try something different.
“Because drinkers are as promiscuous as they are, it forces us to constantly adjust our brewing schedules and go with more one-off batches,” Cox said.
“They really want new and interesting experiences,” Cox said. “We’re all sort of required to extend our portfolio.”
The craft beer boom is sending out ripples, too. KegWorks, a 16-year-old Kenmore company that sells everything from bar stools to beer dispensing equipment, has grown from 35 employees three years ago to 55 today.
“Buffalo has always been a beer town,” said Tom McManus, KegWorks’ chief executive officer. “There’s a lot of exciting things happening on the beer scene.”