Inspire, embeer: Meet Community Beer Works’ Ethan Cox - INTERVIEW
blog by Nick Mendola • September 19, 2013 @ 3:39pm
There’s always more you can do.
That’s the ethos for this weeknight’s drive and conversation with Community Beer Works founder Ethan Cox (pictured front, right, in header), whose nanobrewery has gone from captivating idea to renowned Buffalo beer business in an incredibly short period of time.
Cox is a well-traveled Buffalonian, thanks in large part to his keen intellect but also to the sacrifices of his folks who guided him to a strong Buffalo education at Bennett Park Montessori, Olmsted 56 and City Honors.
The hard work earned him a scholarship to the prestigious boarding school in Western Massachusetts, which led him to directionally Northeastern (Northeastern), Southwestern (Tucson) and Midwestern (Northwestern). Got all that?
It also lead to an all-too-familiar refrain. Cox was reading about all the positive things going on back home in Buffalo and he wanted to be a part of it. Frankly, it sounds like he needed to be a part of it.
“I was reading Buffalo Rising while I still lived in Chicago and I was reading Alan Bedenko’s blog while he was still an upbeat, positive guy,” Cox said, “And they together were both making me feel like, ‘Damn, people are feeling a different way about Buffalo than when I grew up there’ and I didn’t want that to pass me by. I knew I was coming back to Buffalo already and I wanted to be a part of it.”
After several years teaching psychology at D’Youville, he felt he had reached a crossroads. He knew he was helping the students grow, but was his impact as broad as he wanted it to be?
“I felt like I had more in me,” Cox said. “That sounds really immodest and not humble. It wasn’t really changing Buffalo. It was more one person at a time and they were going off to do whatever they’d do. Among the things that was gnawing at me was this desire to be a bigger part.”
He didn’t know exactly how to proceed. He could volunteer on boards while teaching but the latter part was stripped when D’Youville decided not to renew his contract. He had a year to figure out what to do and he, on his last day of teaching, remarkably and fatefully ran into his friend Dan Conley outside school.
Conley wanted to show Cox the perfect place to start a brewery and, while it did not turn out to be 15 Lafayette Ave. where CBW now lives and breathes, it started the proper journey to becoming one of the main voices of brewing in Buffalo.
What’s amazing is that that community Cox craved outside Chicago didn’t just turn out to be Buffalo, it was beer. The social lubricant, eh? CBW’s mission to “embeer Buffalo” sprung up. They weren’t just going to make beer, they were going to make beer culture.
This is perfectly captured in the help Flying Bison passed along to CBW when the upstarts ran into a major equipment problem.
“The brewing industry’s a little different than other industries,” Cox said. “I don’t think you’re going to find a steel mill that if their smelter is down, they can call a steel mill down the street and be like, ‘Dude can we use your smelter for a couple days?’ But when our mill died, Flying Bison was happy to say, ‘We have a mill. Come on down and mill your grains here.’ In the brewing industry, that’s not weird.”
“We know we’re technically competing with one another, but we also feel camaraderie. We make beer. We spend a lot of time brewing, but we also spend a lot of time drinking together, building relationships.”
Those relationships have grown with craft beer clubs and numerous pubs committed to craft including pioneers (Pizza Plant and Mr. Goodbar), dreamers (Blue Monk) and bartenders who now are forced to throw a rainbow of tap handles on their bar or face certain doom (maybe that’s an exaggeration. Maybe).
“I thought and hoped that opening a ridiculously small nanobrewery that can’t possibly do everything it wanted to do at its size, that not only would other players come on the scene but we’d be forced to keep going,” Cox said. “It was always a means to end and never an end unto itself. What exact end it’s a means to is still a little TBD because life is dynamic and plans that you made may need to be revised in light of current information. Welcome to science.
“Everything’s kinda going the way I was hoping. We’ve spurred lots of people into craft beer and local beer and fresh beer and good beer. We’ve spurred people into home brewing and into starting their own breweries.
“All of that means that, ‘What can we do now? What’s the next level?’ Continuing to do that is good but that’s a given. Our next move has to be inspirational like the last move was.”