Western New York Heritage

Buffalo’s Early Brewing Heritage: A Survey

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The Magnus Beck Brewery, at the intersection of North Division and Spring streets, from a company envelope.

Author's collection

At the turn of the 18th century the Niagara Frontier was a rugged and distant wilderness populated by Native Americans, and frequented by the occasional adventurer or trader. As Europeans became more frequent travelers, and eventually settlers, in the area that was to become the Village of Buffalo, it was perhaps inevitable that their preferred alcoholic beverages would follow. And as the population of the region grew, operations were established to produce these desired beverages locally. While the spirits produced would vary with time and purveyor, Buffalo would eventually be home to numerous brewing establishments. Though the earliest of these operations have long ceased to exist, the recent resurgence of breweries in and around the city is an appropriate homage to its proud beer heritage. In the same spirit, it seems appropriate to provide a brief survey of the early days of Buffalo as a brewing center, along with sketches of some of its earlier brewing operations and their descendants.

An embossed bottle from Beck’s brewery.

Private collection

What was likely the area’s first tavern was established on Buffalo Creek, near the Niagara River, around 1789 by a former slave named Joseph Hodge (sometimes spelled “Hodges”), who was locally known as “Black Joe.” Hodge sold and bartered alcohol to Native Americans, fur traders and travelers—probably whiskey and rum, as they were relatively inexpensive, easy to transport and had a long shelf life. Eventually, hard cider would also become a popular drink in the area and was probably the first alcoholic beverage to be produced locally, aside from the small and spruce beer produced for nutritional purposes by the British Army at Fort Niagara. Beer was scarce on the Niagara Frontier in these early years, as it had a short shelf life and was too expensive to transport. But by the early 19th century, when farmers began arriving in large numbers, and growing crops of wheat, barley, oats and corn, the brewing of beer began in earnest.

The first commercial brewing operation in the Buffalo area was the Black Rock Brewery operated by one Joseph Webb, around 1811. The only documented commercial brewery in the pre-canal period, the Black Rock Brewery relied on crops grown locally by the region’s farmers for its operations.

Little is known of Joseph Webb’s Black Rock Brewery, other than what can be gleaned from the ads he placed in 1811. Webb’s short-lived operation was likely burned by the British, along with the rest of the American frontier, in December 1813.

Courtesy Buffalo History Museum

Despite the limited amount of information available on Joseph Webb and his brewery, several clues to his operation can be gleaned from the advertisements he placed while in business. For one thing, the ads only appeared during the winter months. This suggests that brewing during the warmer months was considered impractical, since the beer would spoil too quickly. It also seems that Webb may have employed the credit and barter system in his business, accepting the grains required in exchange for the final product. There is no further mention of the Black Rock Brewery after 1811, but it is generally accepted that Webb continued to operate until December 1813, when the brewery would have fallen victim to the British burning of Black Rock and the rest of the American frontier.

Though there were probably several other tavern operations in Buffalo between 1811 and 1824, documentation of their operation has either been lost or never existed in the first place. According to the 1825 census of Buffalo taken by Captain Leonard P. Crary, there were two breweries operating in the village by that time. However, Sheldon Ball’s Buffalo in 1825, written that same year, states that there was only one. The disparity may center on what were considered the boundaries of Buffalo at the time.

This discrepancy aside, a second documented Buffalo brewery was operated as early as 1824 by Dennis Kane, P. Peacock and Charles Relay. The three men are listed in the 1828 Buffalo City Directory as brewers on Niagara Street. In addition, Crary’s 1828 map of Buffalo shows a brewery at the corner of Black Rock (later Niagara), Mohawk and Morgan (later S. Elmwood) streets.

This 1828 map of Buffalo shows the location of the Kane, Peacock and Relay brewery (marked with an “O” and red square) and the Eagle Tavern (marked with an “N” and blue square).

Courtesy Buffalo History Museum

Apparently this brewing operation was short-lived, however, as Crary’s second city directory, published in 1832, lists only Charles C. Relay as a brewer on Seneca Street. About this same time, the brewery property that had been operated by Kane, Peacock and Relay was purchased by John Moffat and his son, James, along with an adjacent shop and vacant lot. The 1836 Buffalo City Directory confirms Moffat as a brewer at that location. Three years later, James Moffat & Co. appears in the directory as a “brewery, Soap and Candle Factory.” This is not surprising, since the burning wood used during the brewing process left brewers with a supply of ash that was often used for soap and candle making. The Moffat Brewery continued in operation until Moffat’s son, James, died in the early 1860s. It was then sold to Arthur Fox in 1863, becoming the Fox & Williams Brewery. Thirteen years later it was sold back to the Moffat family and continued in operation at the same location until Prohibition forced its closure in 1920. After Prohibition, the Phoenix Brewery continued brewing “Moffats Pale Ale” through an agreement with the Moffat family.

One of Buffalo’s earliest breweries, the Moffat Brewery was located on the corner of Morgan (later S. Elmwood) and Mohawk Streets.

Courtesy Buffalo History Museum

This early 19th century German illustration shows a combined soap and candle making operation. Brewers commonly engaged in such trades during the warmer months, when brewing was impractical and the supply of ash (a by-product of the brewing operation) was plentiful.

Library of Congress

The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 connected the Hudson River and New York City to the Great Lakes through its western terminus at Buffalo. In just a few years, the backwater frontier village was transformed into the fastest growing transportation center in the United States. The canal offered a swift and inexpensive transportation route for lumber and grain, as well as finished goods and people, from the Midwest to the East Coast. In the year the canal was completed, Buffalo had a population of about 2,400, but five years later it had surged to over 8,000. While the canal transformed the village into a city, it also redefined Buffalo’s brewing from a cottage endeavor to an industry. Buffalo would develop into one of the country’s major brewing centers during the 1800s. In 1873 alone there were over 33 breweries listed in the city directory, producing 176,299 barrels of beer and ale annually.

As the opening of the Erie Canal allowed small businesses to become industries, the Cold Springs Tavern was making the shift from serving alcohol to producing alcohol. Located at Main and Ferry Streets, just north of what was then considered the village limits, the tavern was sited at a natural fresh water spring and was a major stopping place on the Niagara Frontier for soldiers and travelers before, during and after the War of 1812. Around 1826, the tavern was purchased by Swiss immigrant Rudolph Barr and two partners, named Russell and Lapp. Barr began a brewing operation about a year later, giving Buffalo what could be considered its first brew pub.

Rudolph Barr came to the United States in 1814 and has been credited with brewing the first strong beer in Buffalo. Strong beer, like small beer, utilizes a top fermenting yeast, though small beer is predictably lower in alcohol. This distinguishes the two brews from lager beer, which uses a bottom fermenting yeast that requires lower brewing temperatures. Both of Barr’s partners left the business and Rudolph eventually sold his tavern and brewery in 1834. James McLeish took over operation of the brewery in 1836 and later added a malting operation and distillery. By 1857 McLeish had stopped brewing but continued his malting operation for some time.

A successful commercial brewery was not a simple operation. This ca.1880 drawing of the George Roos brewery shows the operation taking up most of a city block. Clearly labeled elements of the complex include the brewery, malt house, ice houses, bottling works, stable, sales office and Roos’ residence.

Western New York Heritage collection

Other commercial brewing operations began showing up throughout the area in the 1830s. Most local brewers were brewing small beer that was low in alcohol and high in nutrients, but with a short shelf life. Brewing was generally only possible from October until March when temperatures were low enough to allow fermentation of the wort. For this reason, most Buffalo brewers at this time turned to other occupations during the summer months. Soap and candle making were common summer vocations for many of these early brewers, a practice that capitalized on the plentiful supply of ashes from the wood burned during the brewing process. Locally brewed beer began to grow in popularity as it became more readily available. It was safe to drink and was promoted as a preferable alternative to the high-alcohol distilled spirits, such as whiskey and rum, which were often the more common targets of the local temperance groups.

Of the various commercial brewing operations that sprung up during the early canal era, that which began as the Roos Brewery would arguably enjoy the longest history. Several newspaper accounts and a brewer’s convention publication from 1897 indicate that Jacob Roos was brewing beer as early as 1830 in Sandy Town, a neighborhood located on York Street (now Porter Avenue) near Lake Erie. At that time, Sandy Town was not considered part of Buffalo and thus was not included in the city’s directories. The first contemporary record of Roos’ brewing operation in Buffalo, however, appears in the 1836 city directory, which indicates a facility on Rock St. (later Canal St.), below Genesee St., near the canal district. By 1837, Roos had evidently moved his brewery to Genesee St., above Oak St., and the city directory for 1838-39 indicates yet another move, this time to the final location between Pratt and Hickory streets, near Batavia Street (later Broadway). Jacob Roos would operate the brewery until his death in 1867 when ownership passed to his son, George, who continued the family business until 1892. One year later, the next chapter in the history of the operation began, when Leonard Burgwerger purchased the Roos Brewery.

The Iroquois Brewing Company was one of Buffalo’s largest and most successful breweries, operating until the 1970s. The remnants of the impressive business still stand on Pratt Street.

Western New York Heritage photograph, 2014

Burgwerger built a new brewery on the site and called it the Iroquois Brewing Company. Here he continued to brew beer under the new name until the Volstead Act went into effect in 1920. Prohibition did not mean the end of business for Iroquois, however, as the company produced soda and near beer until the Volstead Act was repealed, at which time production reverted to beer once again. After several owner changes the company attempted in the 1950s to merge with several other regional brands to form the International Breweries, Inc. The merger showed promise at first, but ultimately could not compete with the mega-brewers who had come to dominate the market in the second half of the 20th century. When the Iroquois Brewing Company finally closed in 1971, it marked the end of one of Buffalo’s largest and most successful breweries.

The Iroquois Brewing Company brewed their products under several labels, including the popular “Indian Head Beer.” This “cone top” can dates from the mid-20th century.

Private collection

Buffalo’s earliest brewing operations were very small, producing only one to three barrels at a time. Brewing required knowledge, hard work, ingredients and three or four vessels: a copper brewing kettle, wooden mash tun, an optional cooling vessel and a wooden fermenting container or barrel. The brewers, as with many merchants, often operated under the barter system. Money was hard to come by on the Niagara Frontier and brewers would exchange beer for grain or other farm goods.

Grocer Sidney Burr took a unique approach to the brewing industry by utilizing something he had already established: a successful grocery store. Burr arrived in Buffalo before 1828 and started his grocery business on Seneca Street, below Washington, sometime after 1832. From 1837 until 1839 his business was listed in the directory as “Grocer and Small Beer Manufactory.” Whether Sidney did his own brewing or hired someone to brew beer for him is unclear, but he soon ceased that portion of his operation and began importing kegs of beer, porter and ale from as far away as London and Philadelphia via the Erie Canal. He then bottled it for resale to Buffalo’s residents.

In 1838, Levi J. Waters joined Burr as an employee and later became his business partner. In the Buffalo City Directory for 1839 they are listed as “Burr & Waters, beer, cider, vinegar & porter, vaults East Seneca below Washington.” Burr and Waters remained in business until 1854 as sellers of bottled beer, vinegar and cider.

Most brewers needed a second occupation, especially during the summer months when brewing was not possible. As previously mentioned, some chose to use the by-products of the brewing operation to engage in candle and soap making, but some evidently chose other vocations. Although John Benson is listed as a brewer at 202 Main Street in the 1832 Buffalo City Directory, he and Michael Benson were appointed watchmen (constables) of the triangle district (Canal and Main St.) by the district council in 1832. This suggests they may have been respected and established businessmen in the area as early as 1829. As watchmen, they would likely be most active during the non-brewing summer months when the canal and lake were open to traffic.

In 1836, the Bensons moved their brewing operation to the corner of Church and Genesee Streets, next to the Erie Canal. Michael Benson continued to operate the brewery until at least 1842, with John working at the brewery during much of that time, along with Robert Coombs. William Cronk, a milkman, was also listed in the 1836 directory as living on the Erie “canal near brewery,” most probably referring to Benson’s operation. Little else is known about the Bensons or their brewery.

In the late 1820s, the Buffalo Hydraulic Association was created for the purpose of constructing a canal that would provide a source of water power for a proposed manufacturing district in the city. Constructed between 1826 and 1828, this canal began at Buffalo Creek, near what is now Harlem Road in West Seneca, and ran westward towards the city, roughly parallel to Seneca Street. The “Hydraulics neighborhood” that grew up around the canal had grown to a population of about 500 by the time the city of Buffalo was incorporated in 1832. The City Directory for this year lists the area as having a grist mill, hat body shop, several factories and one brewery.

The one brewery listed in the Hydraulics at that time is believed to have been Alexander McCulloch’s, since he and his son John were listed as brewers on Seneca Street in the 1832 city directory. As mentioned previously, Charles C. Relay of Buffalo’s second brewery was also listed as a brewer at the Seneca Street location, so it is quite possible that Relay and McCulloch brewed together for a short time.

Alexander McCulloch had three sons with his wife Elizabeth: Alexander Jr., John H. and James. He turned the brewery over to his eldest son around 1836. Alexander Jr. and his two brothers operated their brewery located on Mill Street near the Hydraulic canal until 1843, when they relocated to Steuben Street (which later became part of Carroll Street). The Attica Railroad laid tracks into Buffalo down Mill Street in the early 1840s, which is probably what caused the relocation.

In 1847, the McCulloch’s sold their Steuben Street operation to James H. Barton and Matthew J. Gilman. The Barton and Gilman Brewery, in turn, operated for nine years before it was sold to William W. Sloan in 1856. Sloan, who had already established a successful brewery, renamed his business The Hydraulic Brewery. He demolished the building used by Barton and Gilman and replaced it with a new malt house. The location remained the same but he expanded the operation and the address changed to 686-702 Carroll Street.

While the McCulloch’s and Sloan found success in the Hydraulics, other brewers found Main Street to be the ideal location. Anthony Giesz is listed in the 1836 city directory as brewing on Main Street above Chippewa. Born in 1793 in France’s Department of the Lower Rhine, Giesz learned the cooper’s trade prior to leaving his homeland. In 1821, he immigrated to the U.S., landing in New York City and later moving to Buffalo.

Anthony Giesz remained at his Main Street location until 1840, when he moved his brewery to the Eagle Tavern on Main near Court Street. The Eagle Tavern was early Buffalo’s most famous tavern where many important guests stayed, including the Marquis de Lafayette in 1825. Moreover, the tavern acted as a government and business center with many important local functions and dinners held there. Giesz was probably brewing beer for the Eagle Tavern, creating Buffalo’s second brew pub. The relationship was short-lived, however, and by 1844 he had moved his operation to 42 E. Genesee Street and was listed only as a “wine cooper [cask maker], & distiller.”

The Eagle Tavern, located on Main Street, near Court, was one of Buffalo’s most famous establishments, playing host to a variety of dignitaries, including the Marquis de Lafayette. Anthony Giesz operated his brewery from here between 1840 and 1844.

Western New York Heritage collection

A few blocks north on Main Street from where the Giesz brewery started, near the corner of Virginia Street, Lewis Urban was listed in the 1836-7 city directory, along with Louis Kappler, Joseph Laux and George Urban, as brewers opposite the Literary and Scientific Academy. By 1838, Henry Moschel had joined the brewery. It is possible that these men all brewed together, however some may have just rented the location and equipment independently. In any event, Lewis Urban was the one constant brewer in the group.

In 1839, Urban and Moschel moved their brewing operation further up Main Street, the new location being on the east side of the street between Allen and North streets, opposite the recently completed Buffalo Barracks. Urban must have found a ready clientele among the artillery companies stationed at the barracks.

Sometime after 1840, the pair split up but stayed close to each other on Main Street. Lewis Urban moved his brewery south to a location across from St. Louis Church while Moschel returned to the location opposite the Literary and Scientific Academy, just to the north of his former partner. By 1844, Moschel was no longer listed as a brewer and by 1848 Urban’s city directory listing had changed to “wine merchant.”

Beginning in the 1840s, local brewers began to create cellars for the storage of their beer. When filled with ice harvested from Lake Erie, they extended the beer’s storage life. This practice also aided in the brewing of lager beers, which required lower fermentation temperatures.

Library of Congress

Just a few blocks away from Urban and Moschel’s Main Street operations, the Friedmans were laying the foundation for another of Buffalo’s long-running breweries. Ignatius Friedman is listed as a brewer in the 1837 Buffalo City Directory at Oak Street below Goodell Street (later Oak near Tupper). In 1840, he was joined in this endeavor by his son, Joseph. A souvenir pamphlet issued in 1897 by the Buffalo Brewers Association for the annual convention of the United States Brewers Association provided a brief brewing history of the city for convention attendees. Joseph Friedman, it said, “erected here a brew house, dwelling and restaurant, and while beer was sold in the saloons at that time for 5 cents per quart, he sold his product at six pence or 6 ¼ cents per quart, from which fact he was called ‘sixpence,’ which so advertised him that he did a lucrative business.” Though it would seem that business was good, Joseph either tired of the trade or experienced financial hardship, because in 1855 he sold his brewery to Magnus Beck and Jacob Baumgartner.

This ca.1890 view shows Magnus Beck’s Brewing Company at Spring and North Division streets.

Courtesy Buffalo History Museum

Business boomed under the new partnership, and ten years later a new complex was built astride the intersection of North Division and Spring streets. Baumgartner left the partnership shortly after the move, but Beck’s Brewery continued to grow and prosper. Less than five years after the move, Beck’s was selling over 14,000 barrels of beer a year. And by the end of the century, it had become one of the largest operations of its kind in the city, with a capacity of 200,000 barrels. Though Magnus Beck died in 1883, his brewery lived on. Like Iroquois, Beck’s survived Prohibition only to return to beer production with its repeal in the early 1930s. But competition from the Midwestern megabrewers proved to be its downfall, and the brewery closed in 1955.

In 1888, Beck’s Brewery sold over 40,000 barrels of beer. By 1897, the brewery was one of the largest in the city with a capacity of 200,000 barrels.

Author's collection

Numerous other brewing operations—some larger, some small—got their start in Buffalo in the pre- and early post-canal era. Some proved to be but a flash in the pan, while others went on—often under a new name or ownership—to become familiar names in the 20th century. As the 19th century wore on, these early endeavors were joined by other familiar names, such as Gerhard Lang and William Simon. Then, as elsewhere, the implementation of the Volstead Act in 1920 would have a significant effect on Buffalo’s breweries. Some successful businesses like Moffat’s Brewery were unable to recover, while others, such as the Iroquois Brewing Company, Beck’s and Simon, managed to stay alive in the post-Prohibition market before being driven out of business by larger organizations, such as Pabst, Schlitz and Anheuser-Busch. While Buffalo’s early breweries have long since ceased production, their legacy continues into the 21st century with the resurgence of Buffalo’s local brewing industry.

The full content is available in the Winter 2015 Issue.