By Layne Kasprzyk
Edited by Kevin Wise
Here in Buffalo, we have been undergoing a new age of brewing for both our city, and our region. From Mayville to Wilson, and just about every town between, craft breweries are popping up faster than most people can get around to visiting them.
Just a short drive, and you can visit a hip urban beer garden at Resurgence, eat incredible food alongside your just as enjoyable beer at Big Ditch and taste the roots of Buffalo’s beer renaissance with the classic styles found at Flying Bison… all without leaving the city limits.
Without having to travel out of the county to get our fill of quality beer, we don’t have much of a need to go further. However, there is actually an entire blossoming craft beer scene that many of us have barely heard of (much less tasted) just as close, albeit in another country.
I’m speaking of course about our neighbors to the north in Ontario. They are only a bridge away, and yet many of us do not take the time to explore what they have to offer, despite the ease of getting there. I had the pleasure last year on a sunny Sunday morning in March of taking the short 35 min drive to Brimstone Brewing Company- a small brewery located in the Ridgeway area of Fort Erie. While my visit was brief (explaining to the US border that I had gone to Canada for an hour or so to have a beer was a great time) I liked what I saw, heard and tasted there.
So I decided to take the trip again last Friday to have a talk with their owner Jason Pizzicarola about Brimstone, the blossoming Ontario craft beer scene and how we can bridge our two communities together.
Brimstone Brewing is a 15 hectoliter (or about 13 barrels) operation located in the basement of an old church in Ridgeway, just a short distance from the Crystal Beach that so many Western New Yorkers have visited all throughout their lives. Best known for loganberry juice and memories of rickety wooden roller coasters, as well as for being a hot spot for thirsty Buffalonians during the dark years of prohibition, this little village contains a gem of a little brewery.
I asked Pizzicarola to give me a quick background of how Brimstone came to be.
It all started with The Sanctuary, which is a concert venue and event center. I’d say about a year into it we discussed having a craft brewery come into play, just because it’d be good dynamic between a music hall and a craft brewery.
The Sanctuary, a 250 person or so multi-use venue is upstairs from the brewery, and hosts everything from concerts, to Zumba classes, to weddings and kid’s birthday parties. Seeing the calendar filled essentially everyday with some sort of event or another really drove home to me what a lot of us already know to be true: breweries can serve as major community building points, especially in small places like Ridgeway.
There just needs to be someone to take the reins and make those spaces a reality, and Pizzicarola and his partner Rod Daigle filled that role at Brimstone.
We’re a small little town, and we just needed something to draw people in. The Sanctuary started to be an anchor of the downtown area. A craft brewery worked well with that. My wife and I moved here and said well this is gonna make this community better for us to live here too, right? So that when we started doing all this stuff.
I asked Pizzicarola to touch on the craft beer culture in Ontario, as I have found it odd recently how Buffalo can have such a thriving craft beer scene, while the only Canadian beers most Buffalo residents could name would be Molson or Labatt. Surely the love for craft beer didn’t just dissipate over Lake Erie, swept out to water and down to bigger craft beer loving cities like Cleveland.
According to Pizzicarola, the craft beer scene in Ontario is on the rise.
It’s growing greatly, by leaps and bounds. I’d say within the last two years we’re at 500% growth in Ontario for craft beer. The States tends to lead the way- like in most things in the world. Ontario is following it, just slightly behind.
So Pizzicarola and Brimstone have taken it upon themselves to educate their community about craft beer, and make their brewery a place people want to come be educated at.
Besides the aforementioned Sanctuary space, Brimstone also boasts an in house restaurant, CRAVE LOCAL FRESH which features the tap room staples of cheese plates and spent grain pretzels, as well as heartier fare like perch and ravioli on its always changing menu. CRAVE LOCAL FRESH is also Feast Ontario certified, meaning that their ingredients come from within a 100 mile radius, utilizing mostly Ontario suppliers.
We buy from a local farm, so our grain goes to the local farmers, who feed it to their pigs. We buy meats from them, so it’s a kind of full circle farm to table thing. All the vegetables mostly come from Lattimerlane Farms which is down the street- they’re organic farmers. So we’re trying to bring all those different aspects to the business too.
Brimstone’s obvious attention to quality in matters like this show why they can survive the winter months when tourism wanes and the craft beer loving American seasonal residents head back home- and keep its local neighbors coming back.
So great news for us! I’m sure most beer lovers in Buffalo have no issue with more breweries opening up not more than an hour or two away. I asked Pizzicarola to name a few other local breweries that I should know about. A few that he mentioned are Silversmith Brewing and Oast House, which are both located in Niagara-On-The-Lake, Kame & Kettle Brew Works in Fonthill, Niagara Brewing Company in Niagara Falls, and Brothers Brewing Co in Guelph. If you’re curious to try a bunch of them out in one day, most of them will be included in the 29 breweries that can be tasted at the Albino Rhino Brew Fest that Brimstone will be hosting on Saturday May 14th in Ridgeway.
Another big reason for the increased exposure for craft beer to the Canadian public is the increasing cooperation of the state run LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario), and retail giant The Beer Store. Both of these organizations have started to feature more craft selections. Pizzicarola said:
Now The Beer Store, which typically wanted nothing to do with craft, is opening up to craft breweries. LCBO has opened up, they’re starting a growler program so you can bring in growlers to fill. I think soon you’re going to start seeing craft beer at farmer’s markets hopefully. So, exposure to craft beer is happening, finally, which is good.
Hearing how these establishments are just now getting on-board with craft beer, I realized how much I take for granted the accessibility of great craft beer in our area. Hell, you can even get growler fills at gas stations here nowadays!
Unfortunately, increased exposure of craft breweries has led to some local casualties to the big beer companies of Canada much as it happens in our country. Toronto-based Mill Street Brewing was recently acquired by Labatt. While that has allowed Mill Street to get newfound exposure in US markets unlike some of its still developing Canadian peers (it can now be found at Wegman’s and other local retailers), Pizzicarola said that an unfortunate result is “the true craft places dropped Mill Street right away.”
So how can small Ontario Breweries get their name and product to Americans without selling out to the likes of Labatt or Molson? According to Pizzicarola the best method of getting the word out lies in collaboration with local breweries here in Buffalo. Due to the legal difficulties of exporting kegs over the border (ironically when the product is coming from a closer distance than some “local” brands) a more hands-on approach would work best.
The way we would do it is for a collab. We would go there and brew a beer- they would come here and brew a beer. So you brew a beer and keep it on your own side- but the recipe stays the same.
Luckily for us, customs agents have yet to find a way to stop ideas from spreading across our borders, so this method may be to go to for the time being.
For the second time, my trip to Brimstone was brief (in and out of Canada in less than 2 hours!) but incredibly informative. I’m excited to see this community continue to grow and interact with our own. And like our own, it seems to only have one direction to go- up!
I think that the best thing we can do as Buffalo beer lovers is just get over there and check it out for ourselves, and maybe sneak a few bottles back with us for others to try as well.
Brimstone Brewing Company is located at 209 Ridge Rd N, Ridgeway, ON.
This is an interview in a series of guest entries by students in the Practical Brewing class at Erie Community College. Students were asked to conduct an interview with a person of their choosing in the brewing industry.
Layne Kasprzyk is currently an intern at Resurgence Brewing Company as part of his requirements for a state certification program in Brewing Sciences and Services at Erie Community College.