By Matt Matuszewski
Edited by Kevin Wise
New brewery Thin Man is set to open its Elmwood Avenue doors to the public this weekend following a series of friends and family events. Food service, captained by head chef Bruce Wieszala, will be available. But don’t expect any in-house beer for at least a month or two. When brewing does begin, however, there are high expectations.
The reason for excitement at Thin Man Brewery is a man called “Rudybob.” Robert “Rudybob” Watkins’ reputation precedes him. He is regarded as one of the best brewers in town based on his previous track record. Watkins, a founding member and former head brewer at Community Beer Works, accepted an offer from founder Mike Shatzel to become Thin Man’s inaugural head brewer.
Watkins began brewing back in 2001 when his parents purchased him a homebrew kit. He met Community Beers Works (CBW) founder Ethan Cox at Elmwood beer spot Mr. Goodbar. Here, the two bonded over mutual interests in music and beer. Cox and Watkins worked together on a project called the Buffalo Homebrew Collective. The project never manifested, but did provide the impetus that eventually evolved into CBW.
Opening in April of 2012, CBW was one of the first breweries to spearhead Buffalo’s beer revival. When CBW started, the only other breweries were Flying Bison, Pearl Street Brewery, and the Buffalo Brewpub. CBW was Buffalo’s first- and still remains the only- nano-brewery, a term used to define a brewery that brews on a 3-barrel or smaller system.
At CBW, Watkins worked with a 1.5 barrel (roughly 45 U.S. gallon) brewing system along with several 1.5-barrel fermenters, 3-barrel fermenters and 3-barrel bright tanks (used for carbonating and clearing of the beer). This means that Watkins and his crew often brewed the same recipe twice in one day in order to fill their fermentation vessels. Watkins said that not only would they “double batch” in a day but sometimes they would even triple or quadruple batch depending on the demand for more product.
In addition to brewing, Watkins’ other duties included development of new recipes, experimenting with new ingredients and determining when and what to brew in order to keep the taps flowing in the CBW taproom as well as across city-wide accounts. After three productive years at CBW, the next chapter in Watkins’ life is as Head Brewer of Thin Man Brewery.
Thin Man houses a 15-barrel Prospero steam-powered brewhouse- 10 times the size of what Wakins used at CBW. Aside from the obvious result of producing more beer, adapting recipes to a larger system can have several side-effects. For example, hop utilization is different on a larger system. Watkins acknowledges the impact a larger system may have on his recipes.
“I know the first batch won’t be perfect, nor will the second, or probably even the third.”
Watkins does have some experience scaling up recipes from 1.5 to 10 barrels. A partnership between CBW and Woodcock Brothers Brewery afforded Watkins the opportunity to brew several recipes on Woodcock’s 10-barrel system.
And although a larger system awaits Watkins, he has been busy homebrewing new Thin Man recipes in his driveway.
“I’m brewing 4-5 gallons at a time trying to figure out the ingredients I want to use and the flavor profiles I am looking for.”
Another challenge facing Rudy with the opening of the Thin Man is acquiring the ingredients needed in order to brew. It has become increasingly difficult for brewers to obtain the type and quantity of hops they desire. In order for brewers to pay a reasonable price for hops and not $2.99 per ounce like a homebrewer, a contract with a hop supplier is needed. Hop suppliers are contracted out years in advance, making it difficult for a brewery to get started.
Thankfully there is a sense of community and camaraderie among those in the brewing industry. Local breweries often end up with extra hops that were purchased in order to keep contracts active. With a surplus of unneeded hops around, brewers will often trade or sell excess inventory to others.
That being said, Watkins vows to not let hop availability interfere with his recipe development.
“I’m going to brew what I want.”
The question everyone wants answered is: what will Rudybob brew at Thin Man? While there will be approachable beers for everyone, Watkins intends to explode a wide variety of styles and ingredients.
“Some Brett beers, weird super hoppy stuff, lambics, sours, Belgians and more.”
The initial plan is to produce six beers: two IPAs, two kettle sours and two Belgian-style beers. The Belgian-style beers are projected to be a pale ale containing Brett yeast and a Saison.
Until Watkins’ beer is ready, Thin Man will have guest beers on tap.
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.
Matt Matuszewski conducted this interview as part of his requirements for a state certification program in Brewing Sciences and Services at Erie Community College. Matuszewski currently works at 42 North Brewing Company in East Aurora as an Assistant Brewer.