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Beer Place: Pearl Street Grill & Brewery

In downtown Buffalo, nestled in the epicenter of a fervent downtown revitalization, lies Pearl Street Grill & BreweryPearl Street remains steadfast in a ever-changing Buffalo cityscape, and is easily observed from the highways that surround the building, even during a blizzard.  Whether heading to the First Niagara Center for a bite to eat before a Sabres game, or a pre-concert beer en route to a summer Canalside concert, Pearl Street is a frequent destination before any downtown event.

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Five stories filled with beer.

Pearl Street Grill & Brewery accommodates immense seating (and often standing room only), multiple floors of banquet space used for weddings and gatherings, and a outdoor patio seating area with an picturesque view.  And yet despite these remarkable logistic challenges, two brewers manage to satisfy the multitudes of customers with a full selection of beers.  A full repertoire of beers are readily available on tap include Trainwreck amber ale, Lake Effect pale ale, Street Brawler oatmeal stout, and Sabre’s Edge double IPA just to name a few.

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The Black Pearl, a seasonal Cascadian Black IPA.

I was privileged to be able to spend the day with Chris Herr, Head Brewer of Pearl Street, and his assistant brewer Brian Vaughn.  I observed them brew one of their best-selling beers, Trainwreck, an amber ale made with German style malts and hops.  Chris and Brian certainly know their brewhouse inside and out, but perhaps the key to their efficiency is the ability to complement each other during the brewing process.  A few nods and gestures at critical moments was all that was needed to keep the operation running smoothly.  Brewing ran like clockwork; a hose was whipped into place, a valve was turned, water was sprayed, and ingredients were added and removed from the kettle in a timely and precise manner.  In between bursts of activity and loud machine pumps, I was able to hear many stories about Pearl Street from Chris himself.

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Chris checks out a beer in progress.

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All Aboard!

Pearl Street has many stories to tell.  Opened in November of 1997, Pearl Street was established as a partnership between Wynkoop of Denver Colorado and local investors.  Wynkoop Brewing Company was founded by John Hickenlooper, the current Governor of Colorado.  In 1999, Wynkoop relinquished their investment stake to local Buffalo businessmen in order to focus on their original Denver brewpub.  Earl Ketry now owns Pearl Street, an investment that has certainly paid off in recent years in part due to booming popularity in the Buffalo craft beer scene.  And with the revitalization of Canalside, Pearl Street has gained more visibility and customers during concerts and events.

Trainwreck German Amber
Two cities colliding.

Trainwreck was a very appropriate beer to be making for historical reasons, as this beers highlights the history of the brewery.  If you look closely at the Trainwreck logo, you will see two trains; one labeled Denver, and one labeled Buffalo.  The name Trainwreck tauntingly plays off of the original Rail Yard Ale beer being made at Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver.  The white and black smoke of the trains show a colliding horse and buffalo- a clever logo depicting the history of Pearl Street.

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Brian Vaughn (left) and Chris Herr (right).

And at one point, Chris recalls that there were only three breweries in Buffalo for a few years: Pearl Street, Buffalo Brew Pub, and Flying Bison.  Despite numerous other breweries being established at a feverish pitch in Buffalo and the surrounding suburbs, Pearl Street has seen increased growth.  Head Brewer Chris Herr asserts that:

A rising tide lifts all boats.

Why does Pearl Street continue to be successful?  Some might think that other breweries would dilute the Pearl Street beer drinker crowd, but this hasn’t been the case.  In fact, just the opposite; Pearl Street has seen an increase in beer sales.  Certainly, new breweries have introduced more people to the craft beer industry in Buffalo.  And educated craft beer drinkers know where to find good beer.  And

Next Stop: Quality Craft Beer

Producing high quality beer is an area Chris focused on since obtaining the rank of Head Brewer a little over a year and a half ago.  Chris’ journey at Pearl Street began about 6 years ago as an assistant, but somewhere in the middle of those years he left the modest paying brewery gig to take a job at a crash car test company.  Chris was lured back to Pearl Street as Head Brewer in late 2013, and he has devoted considerable time and effort to become a student of his craft.

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A robust selection on tap at Pearl Street.

Just a few years ago, Pearl Street was receiving harsh criticism that their beers were all tasting the same.  Chris’ first task as Head Brewer was to revitalize and refine existing beer recipes in an effort to regain the respect of Buffalo beer drinkers.  The education level of the average beer drinker has become elevated as craft beer pervades the Buffalo market.  This being the case, the beer quality at Pearl Street needed to elevate as well.

Chris’ resolve was recently put to the test.  A recent batch of their popular beer Lighthouse came out tasting a little too different from normal.  In a true statement of allegiance, Chris dumped all 1,000 gallons of beer down the drain.  He received accolades by the Buffalo beer community for doing so, and rightly deserves credit for not attempting to pass off a subpar beer to customers.  Difficult decisions like this indicate to craft beer drinkers that Pearl Street beers are to be taken seriously and with respect.

Chris has reinvigorated beer quality at Pearl Street in many ways.  He hosts a local homebrew club meeting once a month, the Sultans of Swig.  Here, homebrewers bring in their homebrews to share and critique.  The Sultans of Swig meet in the bottom level of Pearl Street, called the Brawler’s Back Alley Deli.  This basement restaurant is one of the lesser known, but most impressive, levels of Pearl Street.  Patrons can enjoy a variety of sandwiches at breakfast or lunch while still enjoying a Pearl Street beer.  During homebrew club meetings, Chris himself passes out a new beer, an experimental beer, or a quality control trial.  Advice and samples are exchanged between novice and experienced homebrewers.  Advanced topics such as the effect of water treatment on beer quality are discussed, accentuating Chris’ thirst for knowledge.

Sharing a pint after a long day of brewing.
Brian and Chris share a pint after a long day of brewing.

In addition to being the Head Brewer at Pearl Street, Chris and his crew are also in charge of brewing operations at the Pan-American Grill and Brewery located in the Hotel Lafayette and also the recently opened Buffalo Riverworks on the waterfront.  Pan-Am is stand-alone with their own brewing equipment, and Riverworks plans to have their system up and running in early 2016.  While it may be tempting for Chris to repurpose recipes at the other breweries, that is not the case.  Pan-Am boasts such beers as Roosevelt Red, an Irish Red Ale, and Terminiator India Pale Ale, a traditional pale ale named after partner Rocco Termini.

Pearl Street will continue to be met with great success as long as Chris Herr is conducting this train.  This Pearl Street is not the same Pearl Street it was just a few years ago.  This Pearl Street might surprise you with a beer you don’t recall tasting quite so good.  Because if the beer doesn’t taste right… it earns a one-way ticket down the drain.

Pearl Street Grill & Brewery
76 Pearl St, Buffalo, NY 14202
Web Site: Pearl Street Grill & Brewery

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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