How Craft Beer Found a Home in America's Abandoned Neighborhoods

January 21, 2020

By Diana Hubbell, January 21, 2020

At the turn of the 20th century, Buffalo, New York was one of the wealthiest cities in the United States, with more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the nation. A booming titan of industry at the end of Erie Canal, the city was the largest grain port on the planet and a primary manufacturer of steel. Times were good and the city’s prosperity drew German, Italian, Irish, and British immigrants in pursuit of the American Dream.

By the time the 21st century rolled around, Buffalo would have been all but unrecognizable to those original settlers. Deindustrialization gutted the steel mills, just as it did the once-prosperous factories of the American Rust Belt. As the jobs went, so did the people. From its peak in 1950 to 2010, Buffalo lost 54.9 percent of its population. Many simply abandoned their homes as property values plummeted. To this day, it is possible to buy a house in Buffalo for a buck, provided you spend the tens of thousands of dollars necessary to renovate it. 

After its precipitous decline, however, Buffalo’s stock is finally on the rise again. For the first time in decades, its population is not only stable, but actually growing. Formerly dangerous neighborhoods have morphed into desirable ones as restaurants, cafés, bars, and most importantly, jobs, have cropped up in previously derelict buildings. And much of that transformation has to do with beer.

“Entire neighborhoods that are being rebuilt and starting to attract development, as well as money from the government to repave roads and fix things up, all because somebody started a brewery,” says Tim Herzog, owner of Flying Bison Brewing Company.

The brewery is more like the general store in a small Western town—it’s where people go to exchange news, whether it’s politics or beer in a glass.”

Buffalo has long been a blue-collar town fiercely devoted to its macrolagers. Because of its proximity to the Canadian border, Labatt Blue is on tap at every sports bar and something of a local obsession. Yet craft brewers like Herzog have been slowly but surely making inroads, bringing new jobs and life to their communities. Within a mile and a half radius of Flying Bison Brewing Company are half a dozen other craft breweries and brewpubs including Pressure Drop Brewing, Community Beer Works, and New Buffalo Brewing Company. In 2019, the city hosted the Shelton Brothers Festival in its abandoned, Art Deco train station. 

“People have to understand that beer made in Buffalo keeps money in Buffalo. Beer made in other places takes it out of town,” Herzog says. “If people put down the meganational brands and drink local beer, there’s room for all of us small guys to grow and maybe a couple more.”

The fact is, people increasingly do care about drinking local. Unlike macrobreweries, which can survive on retail sales, smaller brewing operations rely heavily on establishing relationships within their surrounding communities. Seventy-two percent of craft breweries reside in metropolitan areas with a critical mass of repeat-customers. By settling into those urban areas in the last couple of decades, craft breweries have dramatically reshaped them. 

Courtesy of Market Garden Brewery

“Now that you have these breweries coming in, people have good jobs that allow them to have health care and raise a family,” Herzog says. “A sampling room helps people to build a real connection with the brewers, which adds to the sense of community.”

Herzog says he was inspired by former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, who helped revitalize a neighborhood in Denver by building Wynkoop Brewing Company. The same narrative has been playing out in deindustrialized centers from Detroit to Pittsburgh to Cleveland. The cheap, ample spaces provided by former warehouses and factories are fertile ground for craft breweries. More importantly, once a successful brewery is in place, it has the power to leave a greater impact than, say, a trendy store might.

“With a retail store, people just go in and out,” Herzog says. “The brewery is more like the general store in a small Western town—it’s where people go to exchange news, whether it’s about politics or the beer in a glass.”

Sociologist Ray Oldenburg called these sorts of social hubs “Third Places,” and they are vital to creating vibrant urban communities. They have also attracted the attention of developers over the years. According to a study published in the journal The Professional Geographer, craft breweries tend to draw more craft breweries, whose customers attract restaurants, shops, and residential complexes. 

While the line between urban revitalization and gentrification can often run thin, for the most part, studies have shown that craft breweries are a net boon to their neighborhoods. Because of their need for space, brewers aren’t putting down roots in Lower Manhattan. Instead, studies have shown that they gravitate toward largely empty neighborhoods, which minimizes displacement.

My mom actually cried when I said I’d bought my first building over here. She said, ‘You’re going to get murdered!’ We worked really hard to turn it around.”

One prime example of this phenomenon is on West 25th Street in Cleveland. As a university student studying urban planning, Sam McNulty took an internship in the area. Walkable and packed with buildings dating back to the 1800s, he saw that the neighborhood was full of under-utilized potential. 

“As an 18-year-old intern, I got very familiar with both the challenges and the opportunities of the neighborhood,” McNulty says. “In the back of my mind, I figured I would love to live, work or play in the neighborhood. And just over a decade later, I was doing all three.”

Today, McNulty presides over a small empire of businesses, including a restaurant, cocktail bar, and distillery, all of which are located on West 25th Street. Bier Markt, which specializes in draft Belgian beers, Nano Brew Cleveland, a cozy brewpub, and Market Garden Brewery, a 500-seat brewery and beer hall, are at the heart of it all. 

“This neighborhood was very sketchy 10, 20 years ago. It was the kind of place you didn’t want to be after dark,” McNulty says. “My mom actually cried when I said I’d bought my first building over here. She said, ‘You’re going to get murdered!’ We worked really hard to turn it around. We were as much in the neighborhood revitalization game as we are in the development game.”

Thanks largely to the work of McNulty and his business partners, the neighborhood is thriving. In addition to the historic West Side Market, art galleries, coffee shops, barbershops, a bookstore, and a main grocery store line the streets. McNulty lives three minutes off the street on a piece of formerly abandoned land, which he converted into townhouses. 

“It’s kind of the opposite of the suburban American approach to their lawns where it’s a strict monoculture. In dense, lively urban neighborhoods, you want diversity at all times,” McNulty says. “Without question my urban planning background came into play. It was a beer-fueled renaissance we kicked off here.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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