Craft Beer Brewers Hop to it to Meet Customer Demand

Owner Tim herzog holds up an empty growler bottle that customers can have filled at Flying Bison Brewing Company in Riverside (Buffalo area). Production is up nearly 100% over last year. Picture by Derek Gee, Buffalo News.

Small craft brewers are bucking the recessionary trend, increasing production to meet demand from thirsty (and discerning) consumers who are making room in their tight budgets for the specialty suds.

Business is booming at Ontario Street’s Flying Bison Brewing Co.

“We’re up close to 100 percent over a year ago,” said Tim Herzog, a founder of Flying Bison. “It has been absolutely amazing to watch.”

Flying Bison opened in 2000 with four 20-barrel tanks. As demand increased, tanks were added. The brewery now has seven 40-barrel tanks, two 20-barrel tanks and three conditioning tanks. They are always full, Herzog said.

Herzog said the beer drinking public in Buffalo is increasingly aware of craft beer and its quality. It started with Premier Group and Consumers Beverages’ eclectic offering of craft beers from around the world. It grew as Wegmans and Tops vastly increased their craft beer stock, adding special displays and educational marketing. Smaller specialty stores, such as the Village Beer Merchant on Elmwood Avenue, have also cropped up. Even Sunoco’s APlus convenience stores fill and sell glass growlers with craft beer.

“Everywhere you look craft beer sales are up. There are more varieties, more seasonals, more specialties,” Herzog said. “It’s a great time to be a beer drinker in the United States because you can get anything you want.”

Buffalo consumers are also more aware of their hometown brewery, which fell on hard times and had to halt production in late 2009. After partnering with Matt Brewing Co., the Utica-based maker of Saranac beer, Flying Bison was able to reopen, upgrade the facility and ramp up production.

Local beer drinkers rallied.

“As we reopened, people missed us and they were happy to show us by buying our beer,” said Herzog.

Flying Bison is now on tap at more than 250 accounts and on shelves at just about every grocery store, beer seller, gas station and convenience store in Western New York. It produces about 6,000 barrels of beer at its current capacity. Try-It Distributing will soon roll out a new delivery truck with Flying Bison graphics on the sides.

“It’s hard to go someplace and not see Flying Bison taps or six-packs,” Herzog said. “It’s very exciting.”

In fact, with just four employees here, Flying Bison may look to Matt’s larger capacity to take on some excess brewing.

“That’s something we’re looking at real hard right now,” said Herzog.

In Cherry Hill, N.J., Flying Fish Brewing Co. has paid $750,000 in deposits on equipment for a planned move to Somerdale, N.J., that will triple its maximum capacity from the current 14,000 barrels a year.

Sly Fox Brewing Co. is planning to triple its current 10,000-barrel capacity when it moves from Royersford, Pa., to Pottstown, Pa., next year.

And last week, Troegs Brewing Co., now in Harrisburg, Pa., was running tests at a new brewery in Hershey, Pa., that will double its capacity from 60,000 barrels, or 1.86 million gallons, a year from 30,000 barrels right out of the gate.

Echoing other brewery managers, Gene Muller, who founded Flying Fish in 1996 and is majority owner, said: “We’re beyond our capacity. We’re maxed out.”

In the first half of this year, sales of craft beer, made by the country’s 1,740 small breweries, climbed 14 percent, compared with a 9 percent gain in the first six months of 2010, according to the Brewers Association, a trade group in Boulder, Colo.

In the past five years, sales of craft beer — defined as the production of brewers with capacity of less than six million barrels per year — have climbed an average of 11 percent annually, Brewers Association data show.

By contrast, total domestic beer production was flat over the same period, according to the Beer Institute, a trade group in Washington.

Despite the gains by craft beer, it constituted just under 5 percent of total production last year. Big brewers such as the companies behind Budweiser, Miller and Coors still account for about 82 percent of U.S. volume. Imports had a 13 percent market share last year.

This report contains material from the Philadelphia Inquirer.