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Beer Place: Big Ditch Brewing Company

Arguably the most impressive tap room to open in Buffalo has been that of Big Ditch Brewing Company.  After months of hype and a series of under-the-radar soft openings, Big Ditch Brewing Company unveiled their stunning and resplendent tap room in mid-May.  Big Ditch Brewing Company has cemented their reputation as a leader in an exploding Buffalo craft beer scene.

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Tap room photo courtesy of Cody Osborne.

Big Ditch Brewing Company ascribed their name from the Erie Canal.  A ginormous mural located on the tap room wall echoes the ethos of Buffalonians: “Strength.  Pride.  Ambition”.  And much like the people who worked on the Erie Canal project, co-founders Matt Kahn and Corey Catalano have moved earth and taken risks in order to carve their place in Buffalo history.

Strength. Pride. Ambition.

The Engineers of Beer

How did Big Ditch Brewing Company begin?  It began with two engineers, some buckets, and a vision.  In 2007, President Matt Kahn and Vice-President and Head Brewer Corey Catalano met while working together in the same manufacturing and chemical engineering facility.  At work, there were numerous food grade buckets laying around that were being discarded.  Matt and Corey looked at these buckets as an opportunity to brew beer.  So they picked up a book on brewing, and attempted to make their first beer: a foreign export stout.

Matt Kahn, President and Co-Founder

Matt and Corey’s first brewing experience, in 2011, was far from perfect.  They had read only so far in the instructional brewing book, and a critical stage in the process was overlooked.  Matt and Corey had to rush out to a nearby store to buy colanders to scoop out grains from their pot.  In his small studio apartment, Corey recalls brewing on a stove so small that his kettle could touch all four burners of the stove simultaneously.  And then there were the oak chips.  Corey bought a bag of oak chips and dumped the entire bag into the beer.

But the next batch they attempted was good, and even a bit historic.  They picked up some additional equipment and tried to make what would have been the first rendition of Big Ditch Brewing Company‘s popular hoppy golden ale, Low Bridge.  Soon after, Matt took a list of four beers to Corey and said “let’s brew these.”  The idea, from the start, was to never to do this for a hobby.

 It was never like we were just homebrewing, there was always the idea to open a brewery.

Focus on Quality

Their previous experience as engineers has undoubtedly aided Matt and Corey in many ways.  One very important tenet that is clearly manifested throughout the brewery and tap room is quality.  Matt and Corey are obsessive about quality.  Matt and Corey have taken the time to create Big Ditch Brewing Company one cautious and meticulously planned step at a time.

One concern about starting a new brewery is that, in order to survive, you need to produce a quality product.  But there is also a fair amount of public awareness and education that must be considered when your beer is made available.  Not all people will like your beer.  Matt firmly believes that breweries need to focus on quality to insure that most people will find your beer enjoyable.  If too many places do not focus on the goal of making high quality beer, that can create a problem for the entire craft beer industry.

Someone that is new to craft beer that tries something bad might never have craft beer again.

To this end, Matt and Corey have tweaked and developed their own computer programs and tools to use in the brewery.  There are standard tools and computer models used by brewers.  Based on empirical evidence obtained in the brewing process, Matt and Corey have made adjustments and tailored these programs to better fit their needs.  This is just one way that Matt and Corey ensure quality and consistency at Big Ditch Brewing Company.

We measure and write down everything we can.

Corey removing grains in the brewery.

According to Matt, making beer is all about subtleties.  The difference between an ok beer, a good beer, a great beer, and a world-class beer are not as disparate as one might imagine.  There are small variables in terms of balance or off-flavor that can raise or lower the quality of a beer.  Big Ditch Brewing Company is not rushing to make 100 world-class beers.  They would rather take their time and do what they do correctly.

The best beers to come out of this brewery probably haven’t even been thought of yet.

So how does Big Ditch Brewing Company take their beers to the next level?  Matt and Corey are still learning.  There is significant variation that can happen from batch to batch.  Any time the growing seasons change, the hops will change.  More complex beers are harder to duplicate than less complex beers.  Therefore, a beer like Hayburner IPA can be sensitive and difficult to repeat.  Lot-to-lot and seasonal variation in hops and grain, and yeast variation all play a role when attempting to maintain a consistent beer from batch to batch.  Big Ditch Brewing Company is still learning how some of these factors might affect the quality of their beer, and they are taking steps to produce consistent and reliable beer.

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Galaxy Red, a popular beer at Big Ditch.

In the meantime, their top seller, Hayburner IPA, averages around 30 barrels a week.  Their Galaxy Red disappears as fast as it can be made.  But Matt and Corey see this rabid demand as a very good problem to have.  Beers have been flying off the shelf as soon as they can be produced, and yet the tap room maintains an abundance of offerings.  Big Ditch Brewing Company‘s signature beers, Low Bridge (golden hoppy ale), Excavator (rye brown ale), and Hayburner (IPA) are all excellent flagship offerings.  These beers are rounded out by seasonal and limited release selections.

Available tap selection.

In addition to the brewery, the new tap room also maintains the high quality standards set forth by Big Ditch Brewing Company.  Matt acknowledges his energetic staff have been doing an excellent job over the first few weeks of opening.  General Manager John Robare runs the tap room, and Mike Conway is in charge of the kitchen.  Both have been integral members in making the guest experience such a positive one.  Quality is maintained in the tap room by the collaborative effort of many people.

The place looks good, the food is good, and the service is good.

Impressive tap room.

The Path Ahead

So what’s next?  The mantra of Big Ditch Brewing Company is simple but important: continue to please the customers. Big Ditch Brewing Company is already at the limits of their production capacity.  Assistant brewers have been added and are currently being trained.  The goal is to run brewery production non-stop in order to match increased demand.    And to give people what they want: high quality beer.

If people are requesting our beer, I want to be able to please them.

Recently, Big Ditch Brewing Company contributed to a 3-pack of cans in collaboration with Community Beer Works, Resurgence Brewing Company, and Consumer’s Beverages.   For this “summer ballpark” series, Big Ditch Brewing Company used Low Bridge, their hoppy golden ale.  And they actually received some criticism from the beer community about using Low Bridge for their representation in this 3-pack.  But Matt and Corey stand by their decision to choose Low Bridge for many reasons.  One: A can of Low Bridge is a drinkable summer session beer.  Two: This was an opportunity to reach out and recruit craft beer fans who still enjoy mainstream lagers.  Three: Low Bridge complemented the other two beer styles in the 3-pack well, a saison and an IPA.  There are still way more people in Buffalo drinking non-craft beers than there are people who are drinking world-class IPAs.

A lot of people still do not like IPAs.  They don’t like hoppy beer.

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Low Bridge was included in the 3-pack.

“Innovation Series” beers can be sampled at the brewery.  These are beers available in the tap room that are essentially trial beers that may reach production depending in part on public opinion.  Big Ditch Brewing Company wants the tap room to be a place for discussion of experimental and signature beers.  The future is exciting for Big Ditch Brewing Company.  A couple of fall seasonal selections will be available in a few months.  An “all local” ingredient beer is planned to be back on tap.  These are just a few things planned for Big Ditch Brewing Company in the near future.

Flight of Big Ditch beers.

The tap room and beer selections at Big Ditch Brewing Company are impressive.  Stop in to admire the artwork, explore a spacious drinking area, and eat good food.  But most importantly, stop in to enjoy a delicious high quality beer.

Website: Big Ditch Brewing Company
Location: 55 E. Huron Street in downtown Buffalo

 

 

 

 

 

About Buffalo Beer Biochemist

Buffalo Beer Biochemist
Born and raised in Western New York. Ph.D. in Biochemistry. Professor of Microbiology and Chemistry. And lover of beer.

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