Beer’s ‘delicious’ aroma: Meet Rusty Nickel Brewing Co. - PHOTOS
blog by Ben Tsujimoto • January 21, 2014 @ 1:32pm
Hawaiian Night at Colter Bay Grill isn’t often described as a small-business incubator, but for two partners in Rusty Nickel Brewing Co., a life-changing idea was hatched among leis, fake palm trees and tropical mixed drinks with mini-umbrella stirrers.
The meeting wasn’t the first between Havens (right-center, above) and Fiege (left-center, above), who attended high school together in Rochester before attending college in Buffalo—the former at UB and the latter at Daemen.
A shared interest in beer, however, brought the pair together again at Colter, and the chat about Beer Week quickly spiraled into greater, longer-term plans: their own craft brewery.
Bear in mind the timing of this meeting: while the craft-beer craze was raging in the West and Southwest United States in early 2011, the trend hadn’t found a foothold in Western New York, as craft-brewery pioneer Flying Bison Brewing Company had been saved from extinction by Matt Brewing Company just a year prior.
With the exception of pub-based breweries like Pearl Street Grill and Brewery and Buffalo Brew Pub, which reap the benefits of pushing their own brews through their respective bars—expenses and regulations discouraged the start of new breweries.
Ten-year-old Flying Bison’s narrow survival hinted at a lack of stability, and wildly fluctuating grain prices made entrepreneurship more of a dream than reality.
RUSTY NICKEL TEAM: ASSEMBLE
Because of existing connections in Buffalo’s then-miniature craft-beer scene, the trio of staunch beer advocates nevertheless began to assemble a team—Havens recruited Jim Ruppert, a dedicated member of WNY Beer Club, the following day.
When Tudisco opted to pursue his own entrepreneurial project—fortunate due to the neutrality demanded by his eventual position as vice president of the Buffalo Niagara Brewers Association—Ruppert reached out to fellow brewer Dave Johnson, his coworker at engineering company Nussbaumer & Clarke, to see if Johnson had any interest in joining the venture.
Johnson, incidentally, was close to raising his level of craft-beer dedication from home-brewing addict and beer competition judge into head farm brewer out of his Hamburg home.
When approached with the opportunity to share responsibility rather than undertake the whole operation himself, Johnson latched on with his engineering co-worker.
ALE HOUSE ARRIVAL
As the quartet began meeting more regularly—some on WNY Beer Club business, others to formulate a plan for the brewery—Havens, Fiege, Ruppert and Johnson chose a central location to gather.
With Havens in North Buffalo, Ruppert in Arcade, Johnson in Hamburg and Fiege in Elma, the group selected Ebenezer Ale House (pictured, left) at 4348 Seneca St, West Seneca.
Late in a meeting that began with the four aspiring brewery owners discussing a fundraiser for the Amanda Hansen Foundation to be held at the ale house, the four remained puzzled on how to implement their craft-brewery idea.
“Where do we get started?” Fiege wondered aloud, before asking Ebenezer Ale House owner Shawn Schweis how he opened the bar-restaurant with co-owner Nate Springer in 2011.
Intrigued by Fiege’s question, Schweis—after describing Ebenezer’s path to existence—mentioned the small building (see photo below, right) stationed behind the ale house, a former debt collections agency that the restaurant owners purchased.
“Want to go see the back?” Schweis inquired. The Rusty Nickel crew obliged, showed initial interest—despite the bizarre, vibrantly-colored walls—and eventually, on Nov. 1, 2013, leased the space from the Ebenezer Ale House.
Given the mounting local excitement about breweries moving into Larkinville (Flying Bison, perhaps), the West Side (Resurgence Brewing) and the Ellicott District (Big Ditch Brewing), Rusty Nickel’s location—while maybe not quite as sexy—could be equally, if not more advantageous.
Not only will Rusty Nickel immediately boast tap handles at the ale house bar, but the brewery will produce an exclusive Ebenezer Pale Ale for the bar.
The symbiotic relationship continues with a probable beer garden behind the ale house and adjacent to Rusty Nickel, as well as a place for the brewery’s involvement in Ebenezer Ale House’s expansion plans.
THE BEST STORY
If you’re an entrepreneur with trend-setting plans, presenting your aspirations in front of town or city administrators is a scary thought, especially in Western New York where—whether it’s deserved or not—these officials have a reputation of squashing progress.
Impressively, the Town of West Seneca was thrilled with the idea of introducing a new brewery, one of the first—along with Hamburg Brewing Company—in suburban Western New York (Wilson’s Woodcock Brothers would be considered rural).
The town board only had one concern, and it was a peculiar one. Would the scents emanating from the new brewery negatively affect the quality of life of nearby West Seneca residents?
“It’ll smell sweet and delicious,” Johnson said, grinning, to the board.
Regardless of whether or not “delicious” qualifies as a scent, the town approved of Rusty Nickel’s project.
THE LESSONS OF OTHERS
I feel like almost every industry makes this claim, but businesses in Western New York’s competitive food and beverage field are startlingly generous and supportive to well-intentioned newcomers with a vision.
Matt Brewing Company’s financial resuscitation of Flying Bison is an extreme and more regional example, but Community Beer Works received a swell of local support before and since its birth in April 2012.
Buffalo Business First reporter David Bertola passed along this quote from CBW co-founder Ethan Cox in December 2013: “[Craft brewing is] a very collegial industry. We all make beer and spend a lot of time drinking each other’s beer, and beer builds community. We defy the logic of capitalism by sharing information.”
Likewise, CBW blogger Dan Conley echoed the sentiment in his October 2013 blog rebuttal to the notion that Buffalo’s craft-beer scene is merely a fleeting bubble—but qualified his statement with a demand that entrants produce a strong product. Craft brewing is not an industry where you can simply ride the coattails of a successful predecessor.
“I still don’t think there’s a bubble. Maybe elsewhere, but not here,” Conley wrote. “I might be proven wrong, but after years of self-identifying as a pessimist I realized that in the end I really do think the best of everyone and every situation.
“Plan well, do your research, have a good product, and then join us in the ranks of professional brewers.”
It’s not shocking, then, that Rusty Nickel sought the advice of Cox (pictured, right), whose sterling reputation preceded him.
“I knew I wanted to start a brewery once I visited [Cox’s] Community Beer Works,” Fiege admitted, suggesting that Cox’s vision and follow-through on Niagara Street proved that more craft brewers could follow suit.
Still, Cox passed along a chief lesson that he learned, Fiege recalled. “Starting too small wasn’t a great idea in terms of volume,” Fiege recollected Cox saying. “[Community Beer Works] exceeded its capacity in its first day of business.”
All of a sudden, leasing a former debt collections agency became only the start of a formidable task that demanded both physical labor and a detailed vision for how the brewery could be best configured.
AN UNEXPECTED PUSH
To make matters a little more difficult, Janice Habuda’s Aug. 6 article in The Buffalo News forced Rusty Nickel’s hand.
What was expected to be a quiet City Hall meeting over a zoning variance evolved into a feature TBN story on the local craft-beer trend, which boasted a header graphic of Ruppert and featured Rusty Nickel as one of the craze’s appealing newcomers.
“[At that point,] We didn’t even have a website or a Facebook page,” Havens admitted.
The early media push set the fledgling brewing company in motion, as a website was constructed, a Facebook page was built and a merchandise line—which highlighted the graphic-design skills of Rochester’s jordannerissa—was developed.
The frenetic preparation came in handy, though, as Consumers Beverages and Pettibones Grille allowed Rusty Nickel to promote its brand and sell merchandise at the Ballpark Brew Bash at Coca-Cola Field on Sept. 22 [photos]—long before its first keg is tapped. Johnson (pictured left) and Havens (right) were on the scene.
In the meantime, the Rusty Nickel Brewing owners await the approval of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (often shortened to TTB) before submitting an application for a state permit.
Just because they’re in a waiting period doesn’t mean that the ownership quartet sits idly, guzzling exotic craft stouts under heated blankets while the rest of Western New York fends off Polar Vortex after Polar Vortex (though, for what it’s worth, Fiege has been patrolling San Diego, an American craft-beer haven.)
From rehabbing the building behind Ebenezer Ale House (glance at the photos to see how bare-bones the space is) to securing vendors to acquiring brewing equipment, there’s the expected work to be done when starting a brewery—but brainstorming Rusty Nickel’s future brews is an exciting prospect.
“We’re not going to be the guys who hand out the regular candy on Halloween,” Fiege said in our interview. “We’re going to rock seasonals, and there’s no shame in that.”
Rusty Nickel intends to produce three or four base beers, seasonal options and an indefinite series of one-offs.
According to the brewers, options include a Chai Tea-flavored milk stout, a chocolate peanut butter stout and an oatmeal cookie ale that’s brewed with toasted walnuts.
The other three owners trumpeted Ruppert’s Pale Ale, while cited Johnson’s Pumpkin Ale—an award-winning seasonal homebrew created from Eden pumpkins. Plans for a cider and an Oktoberfest are in the works as well.
The creativity of Johnson and Ruppert, who will handle much of the actual brewing process, seemingly knows no bounds.
“We’re willing to dabble in everything,” Johnson said. “I’m thinking of an All-WNY beer with Western New York hops and Western New York barley that’s allowed to ferment in the wild.”
His early returns on open-air fermenting at home weren’t great—his wife soon complained that a legion of fruit flies had invaded the kitchen—but that hasn’t stopped Johnson from investigating the brewing of sour beers, a trendy yet not easy to produce variety.
Because Rusty Nickel is a microbrewery, regulations stipulate that ingredients are sourced locally or at least regionally in New York State.
“The Finger Lakes, pre-Prohibition, was a big hop-growing region,” Ruppert explained. “And locally-grown cascade hops are fantastic—they give the beer a slightly different flavor.”
Fiege furthered that he’d visited Climbing Bines, a blossoming Finger Lakes hop farm that expanded into a farm brewery last August, and predicted that the trade of hop-growing is on the rise again.
One local hop farm that Rusty Nickel has its sights set on is East Prairie Hop Company out of Collins, NY.
As Rusty Nickel’s location transforms from desolate empty house to fully functional brewery, the owners will likely push a Kickstarter campaign in spring 2014 to help fund the business venture.
This strategy is not abnormal—crowd-sourcing is a very modern way of encouraging customers to support your mission with the promise of tiered rewards.
Fiege and Havens are psyched to dole out these incentives, as the two self-proclaimed beer maniacs have collected beer memorabilia like 1990s baseball trading cards. The interest of craft-beer fanatics will certainly be piqued.
(Also, Fiege and Havens claim to have a strong history of brewers in their family trees, but I’m too lazy to do any deeper research).
If you can smell a sweet, hoppy aroma wafting through the air, however, you’ll know that Western New York’s craft-beer movement is gaining steam.
(Another solid local craft-beer read is this Artvoice piece by Willard Brooks).
(Pictured in header, from left to right, is Dave Johnson, Scott Fiege, Jason Havens and Jim Ruppert. Photos of the Ballpark Brew Bash are courtesy of Matt Weinberg.)