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July 16, 2010

After trying times, Flying Bison is back on tap

BUFFALO — Tim Herzog is a do-it-yourself kind of guy.

Ten years ago, Herzog came to Buffalo from his native Rochester with an idea that began as a joke. His wife gave him a home beer brewing start-up kit as a gag gift for his birthday, but it was only natural for him to take the idea and run with it.

“I just loved making beer, and one thing led to the other,” he said.

Herzog, who has been brewing since 1981, doesn’t just make the unique taste he loves for himself anymore. Now the beer enthusiast concocts barrels of it everyday for the residents of Buffalo.

As the founder of the Flying Bison Brewery, which sits tucked away behind a warehouse buildings on Ontario Street in Buffalo’s Riverside neighborhood, Herzog and his four employees work around the clock seven days a week, filling shelves at local Wegmans and Consumer grocery stores — in addition to 90 bars and restaurants — with a brand that many loyal Buffalonians have grown to love.

But it wasn’t always easy.

Secret recipe

The smell of hops consumed the air of the small brewery on a rainy Thursday afternoon, as the team resumed production of one of their most popular brands, Buffalo Lager, for an event that was recently held at the Buffalo Brew Pub. Herzog is use to the smell as chef of his own kitchen.

“Hops are added during different points (of production), like adding spices to a soup or stew,” Herzog said.

The process of beer-making is more complex than one might think. It’s all a science to the brew master and his team. Batches of beer take weeks to brew. The boiling and cooling of ingredients, as well as the cracking of grains and fermentation by yeast are all included in the process.

55 lb. Malz Barley bags stacked one on top of the other and barrels of beer take up much of the brewery floor. 11 stainless steel tanks that pump and drain all day long take up the rest of the space.

Brewing is a 24-hour industry. Herzog arrives to work early at about 7:30 in the morning and leaves sometimes only when the sun sets, but it’s all in a day’s work for Herzog and his employees.

“It’s a half-day--just twelve hours — a joke in the brewing industry,” he laughed. “The other guys work really hard.”

Herzog and his men have been working even harder these past few months trying to get back into gear. A spike in the costs for beer’s raw ingredients combined with Herzog’s desire not to raise prices for customers brought production to a standstill. The company’s staple brands, Buffalo Lager, Rusty Chain and Aviator Red were unavailable for about five months.

Protracted neogtiations with Flying Bison’s investors had taps running dry until a deal was struck last month to let Utica-based Matt Brewing Co. take over the sales and marketing of the Flying Bison brand. Herzog’s Ontario Street brewery will remain open as part of the deal.  

With the brewery’s fate no longer in limbo, Herzog is ready to move forward under new ownership, Matt Brewing said customers can anticipate the return of their favorite flavors to shelves in September.

Demand increases

The Flying Bison is soaring to new heights. Last year, the brewery produced 2,500 barrels. This year, they are on pace for producing about 6,500 barrels, and with an additional three tanks that the brewery will be receiving, Herzog plans to produce beyond 8,000 in the future.

Herzog considers himself fortunate to continue doing what he loves and takes any complement or critique with a grain of barley.

“(Matt Brewing Co.) is tremendously helpful. They’re big on community participation, and that’s one thing that brought us together,” Herzog noted. “Everyone’s sick and tired of hearing how jobs are going away, but four guys get to keep their jobs because they’re helping us.”

The brewer with the memorable moustache and sincere laugh has helped to make the Flying Bison Brewery a strong presence in the Buffalo community. The company has partnered with Green Options Buffalo in making the Rusty Chain brand, a flavor created to help raise funds for bicycle parking throughout the city. Flying Bison is also a strong supporter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Ronald McDonald House.

Flying Bison has also left a lasting impression on Herzog’s son, Colin, who started working there as part of a “happy accident,” according to his father.

Colin, who was looking for a summer job, was offered a temporary position at the brewery in 2007 after a former employee left to work at another brewery in Rochester. After learning more about the beer-making industry, Colin stayed on board, turning his summer job into a living and a passion.

“The craft beer community is unlike any other,” Colin said. “It’s one part art, one part sweat and hard work and three parts satisfaction.”

In 1962, there were fewer than 60 small operating breweries in the United States. Now, there are over 1,500 succeeding breweries, and the Flying Bison is one of them. Herzog believes a major reason why the brewery is still thriving is because of the people who support it.

“People here want you to prove to them that you’re in it for the long haul,” Herzog said. “It makes for a tougher start-out, but if you can tough it out, then you have friends for life, and we are very fortunate to have friends for life."

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