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The Phoenix Brewery

This Friday is the first of a new month, and that means it’s time for The Session, the monthly gathering of beer bloggers around a common topic. This month’s comes to us courtesy of Tale of the Ale, and is “Local Brewery History”:

sessionIn Session 87, I want you to give your readers a history lesson about a local brewery. That’s a physical brewery and not brewing company by the way. The brewery doesn’t need to still exist today, perhaps you had a local brewery that closed down before you were even born. Or you could pick one that has been producing beer on the same site for centuries.

Stipulations?
The only thing I ask is that the brewery existed for at least 20 years so don’t pick the local craft brewery that opened two or three years ago. This will exclude most small craft breweries but not all. The reason? There’s not much history in a brewery that has only existed for a few years.

At first I was worried I’d have to recuse myself this month: history of a local brewery? Well, have you heard about those handsome rapscallions over at Community Beer Works? But history, ah, history I can do. I have a bachelor’s in it, actually, gathering dust as I moved on to library science and now beer.

Besides: Buffalo is absolutely rich in brewing history. It’s true that today there are only a few beer makers, all of them having started in the craft beer movement. The oldest we have is the Buffalo Brew Pub, founded in 1986. It was another decade until Pearl Street opened in 1997, and then three more years until Flying Bison became our only standalone brewery. That was the brewing landscape until we opened in 2012: now Western New York also has Old First Ward, Woodcock Brothers and Hamburg Brewing, with Resurgence just around the corner and Big Ditch not far behind (not to mention Rusty Nickel and a host of other breweries starting up).

But we’re all new jacks. 1986? Practically yesterday. You wouldn’t know it from the beer shelves now, but there were as many as 38 breweries in Buffalo operating at one time ((Ignore the erratic x axis there, please. At least it isn’t upside down?)). There’s plenty of history to be had here, if you know where to look.

The Phoenix Brewery

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In 1850 Albert Ziegele opened the eponymous Albert Ziegele Brewery on Genesee St by Fillmore Ave. Five years later he moved it to 821 Main St (at Virginia), where it operated until burning down in 1887, shortly after he had retired and turned the brewery over to his sons ((“My Reminances”: The Autobiography of Brewer Albert Ziegele, appearing in Rushing the Growler by Stephen Powell as Appendix B)). They reopened the brewery at the corner of Washington and Virginia as The Phoenix Brewery. It burned again in 1889 and was rebuilt once more ((There’s some confusion over the dates of the fires and when the brewery moved. The first fire occurred in 1887, but many places — including Buffalo Spree and Artvoice — say that it burned twice before being moved. Ziegele’s diary (see above) only notes one fire before moving, and the plaque on the building reads 1888, so either the second fire occurred at the Phoenix Brewery on Washington and not the Main & Virginia Ziegel Brewery, the second fire was earlier than 1889 or there was only one fire.)).

In the 1869-1870 year the Ziegele Brewery produced 9,306 barrels. Less than a decade later, in 1887-1888, the Phoenix Brewery produced 80,000 barrels ((Rushing the Growler 117)). By 1908 it was over 100,000 ((A History of the City of Buffalo 134)). This was incredible growth, but to put things in perspective the 1891 output of the Pabst Brewery was nearly 800,000 barrels ((Ambitious Brew 113)), and Phoenix still didn’t hold a candle to Gerhard Lang, the city’s largest brewery, which in 1908 produced over 300,000 barrels ((A History of the City of Buffalo 130)).

2014-04-28 07.43.10The Phoenix Brewery shared the same city block with Ulrich’s, which had been the oldest continuously operating bar in Buffalo from 1868 until its closure last year. Phoenix owned it as a “tied house” for a time, ensuring that only their beer was served. Ulrich’s was a tied house between 1885-1910, owned by the Christian Weyand Brewery and then Phoenix ((Ulrich’s Tavern History 1868-1998)).

Phoenix met its end at the same time as many other breweries: in 1920, at the start of Prohibition. Many other breweries were able to switch to pop ((For non-Western-New-York residents, yes, it’s called pop.)) or other businesses to tide them over, but Phoenix was hardly the only casualty: in 1910 there were 25 breweries in Buffalo, but by 1935, two years after the repeal of Prohibition, there were only five. It peaked at 10 in 1940, then dropped to 0 in 1972 as Simon Pure closed its doors ((See the spreadsheet linked above)).

Confusingly, one of the breweries that reopened after Prohibition was also named the Phoenix Brewery. References to Phoenix after 1920 are actually about the brewery that started in 1869 as the John M Luippold Brewery, became the East Buffalo Brewing Company in 1887, and was Phoenix from 1934 until 1959, when it closed and had its assets transferred to Iroquois ((Rushing the Growler 135-6)).

But what of the building?

For a time, the former Phoenix Brewery was a warehouse for La-Z-Boy. It was also used as a skate park, which seems like it’d have been fun ((Preservation Ready Sites)). The recent owner, Joseph Parlato, used it as a warehouse for his antiques business. Portions of it are currently devoted to a personal trainer and hairdresser.

2014-04-28 07.39.55If this were April’s Session, that would be all. However: just last week the building was sold to Nick Sinatra, who plans to turn the building into a mixture of hotels, apartments and retail space.

As with all renovation plans in Buffalo I remain cautiously optimistic (well, that’s a lie; sometimes I’m bitterly cynical), but I wish the best for the building. I drove down yesterday morning to take the poorly framed shots you see here ((seriously, Cf. The Buffalo News for a properly composed picture that wasn’t hurredly taken with an iPhone)) and it’s a beautiful building, even if the tallest part has been demolished. There are plaques indicating its history on the two street-facing sides of the building, plus a large sign at the top on the Washington St side, directly above some stained glass that caught the light as I looked.

A call to arms

There are periodic tours you can take that will bring you to all the old breweries in Buffalo as well as the new ones: if you can, I recommend you take one. Peter Jablonski also has a guide to a self-guided tour by car, though it’s a little out of date (Flying Bison will soon be moving, Ulrich’s is closed and hey, we exist!).

2014-04-28 07.40.38Buffalo has a rich brewing history, but most importantly we aren’t just celebrating the days of old. Celebrating our past isn’t an end to itself, it’s a means to an end. We were great then, but we are working to be great now. There are six breweries open in Buffalo, seven if you count Woodcock Brothers in Wilson. There are more breweries in Buffalo now than there were immediately post-Prohibition, and we’re approaching the record high of 10. None of us are as large as Simon Pure, Iroquois or either incarnation of Phoenix, but that just shows how much room there still is for growth.

Look to the past, and then use that as momentum to race to the future.