Five Years Later: How It All Started
On Wednesday, October 14th, I visited Blue Monk to attend their 5th year anniversary party. It’s hard to imagine that Blue Monk has been open for five years. Seems like just yesterday I walked into Blue Monk for a fine Belgian ale for the first time. I remember eagerly anticipating their opening, and telling my friend “Buffalo needed a place like this”. Fast-forward five years. Blue Monk has not only put Buffalo on the map, but the establishment is recognized as one of the top beer bars in the world.
I had the chance to sit down with Blue Monk founder Mike Shatzel during their 5th year anniversary celebration. I wanted to know where the concept of Blue Monk came from, so I asked Mike about the experiences that led to their opening five years ago.
The Shatzel family has been doing craft beer for a long time. The family opened Brennan’s Bowery Bar in 1970, and Cole’s in 1973. So Mike was indoctrinated into the bar atmosphere at a very early age. Young Mike entered the scene as a busboy and emergency dishwasher at Cole’s in 4th grade.
The Craft Beer Movement Hits Buffalo
Mike moved to San Diego in 1997 and his interest in craft beer really began at that time. After moving back to Western New York in 1999, Mike remembers putting Sierra Nevada on tap at Cole’s, and ordering Southern Tier in bottles. In the early 2000’s, a distributor from Rochester convinced Mike to bring in more craft beer. The choices were Left Hand Sawtooth Ale, Otter Creek Copper Ale, and Old Speckled Hen. The following week a distributor from Syracuse sold Mike kegs of the first IPAs he ever tapped- Harpoon IPA and Stone Arrogant Bastard. Mike remembers watching people drink the IPAs and wondering how the beers would sell. At that point in time, tapping IPAs was risky business; IPAs were not the top seller they are today, and most people didn’t have a taste for them. But these new beers were met with surprising success in a fledgling Buffalo craft beer market.
Sensing opportunity, and under Mike’s guidance, Cole’s started expanding their beer portfolio, and their tap number increased from 12 to 24 and then to 36. From that point forward the craft beer scene was in motion. Mike recalls studying the beers (first-hand of course) and learning about different styles. As more beers from around the world became available in Buffalo, Mike ordered more adventurous styles and pushed the boundaries of his clientele.
But Cole’s had an issue. An older crowd, comprised of Buffalo State College professors and other professionals, were becoming regulars at Cole’s during the week. These customers were drawn to the new styles of beer being offered. But these same patrons shied away from the younger, more “wild” crowds on the weekends. There was business being lost. A trip overseas to Belgium’s Cafe Gollem really opened Mike’s eyes to the possibility of instituting a Belgian beer bar in Buffalo. The model was to build a place that would serve all age groups in a laid-back but refined setting.
From that moment on, Mike set out to buy space with the purpose of opening a Belgian-inspired beer bar. Merlin’s on Elmwood would become that location. Mike recalls stopping at a red light and looking over and seeing signs on the window that the bar was being seized due to tax difficulties. He called Kevin Brinkworth and said “let’s buy this bar”. And that space is where Blue Monk now stands.
Blue Monk Will Always Be “His Baby”
Mike has founded numerous other beer bars in the area since the opening of Blue Monk. There’s Moor Pat in Williamsville, ABV in Allentown, and Liberty Hound at Canalside. But Blue Monk will always be “his baby”. A baby that elevated Buffalo into the national craft beer spotlight.
Mike is still responsible for deciding which beers go on each and every tap in his establishments. And he’s just the well-traveled and self-proclaimed beer nerd to make sure those taps are flowing with the best beer available. Shatzel ensures that the beer offerings are rounded out with many different styles so that expert and novice beer drinkers alike will find a beer to satisfy their tastes. Mike acknowledges that keeping the critics happy is one of his primary concerns; a job that has become increasingly difficult as additional beer bars open. Competition for rare beers is growing, and availability of once “Blue Monk only” beers is becoming more widespread.
But Mike isn’t done yet, and remains dedicated to his mission, and more opportunity is on the horizon. Shatzel has recently purchased more property on Elmwood Avenue that he will convert into his own brewery. Construction of this project is expected to begin next year.
His obsession with beer has resulted in some of the coolest new beer spots in Buffalo, with Blue Monk still at the top of the list. Five years later, Blue Monk is still pushing the craft beer envelope stronger than ever. When asked what his proudest moment was for Blue Monk over the past half-decade, without hesitation Mike answered “Zwanze Day”. Zwanze Day is a once-a-year event whereby world famous Cantillon beer is tapped worldwide. Blue Monk was one of 26 U.S. beer bars to receive this distinction in 2015.
As I sat with Mike on the front patio, people began to file tin to Blue Monk. Brewers, distributors, business owners, locals, family, and friends all gathered to toast the man responsible for putting Buffalo on the beer map. People honked their horn as they drove by and shouted their congratulations. A neighborhood woman walking her dog stopped to say hi. Every person that passed by our table saluted Mike with kind words and a handshake. At that point you realize just how influential Mike Shatzel, and Blue Monk, have been in promoting the craft beer market in Buffalo.
So let’s all raise a glass of world-class craft beer and toast the Blue Monk. Congratulations on five years and best wishes for many more years of craft beer success.