Friday, March 11, 2016

The Schaefer Malthouse and Buffalo Brewing

Written by Mathew Shoen, Associate Architectural Historian at Preservation Studios

Buffalo loves beer. SURPRISE! We all knew that however. Buffalo is the city where people get drunk, fling themselves on burning tables, and then use more beer to douse their burning clothes. Also unsurprising, Buffalo was historically one of the great beer cities in America. The city’s current explosion of craft breweries and brewpubs is really more of a revival of traditions started back in the 1840s. Before Flying Bison, Ellicottville Brewing, and Resurgence were brands like Schlitz, Iroquois, and Phoenix.
Advertisement for Iroquois Beer from

Breweries were one of the city’s largest employers and the Buffalo Brewers Association was one of the more important city organizations during the 1890s-1910s. Beer was frankly important to the city, it was a way of life for the German-American immigrants who dominated the city’s brewing industry. 

For a recent project called the Schaefer Malthouse on Seventh Street I was asked to look into the city’s history with beer and brewing. The Schaefer Malthouse really illuminates Buffalo’s past as a brewing mega town and a drinker’s paradise. Given that and the coming of St. Patrick’s Day I felt it would   be good to share some tidbits from my research.                                                                                       

Phoenix Breweries Another Buffalo Classic from
I should quickly qualify my statement about Buffalo being a drinker’s paradise. Buffalo was a light beer drinker’s paradise. Brewers in the 19th century had a strict belief that beer should be about 5% alcohol. Beers any more potent, like the 7-8% porters I enjoy, weren’t palatable to Buffalonians. Another interesting fact, in 1902 a barrel of beer sold for $6 and cost about $3.17 to brew. There was a massive fight between saloonkeepers and brewers that year about a proposed hike to $7 barrels of beer. In case your curious a barrel equates to 42 gallons and beer was sold by the glass for between 5 and 10 cents, well below the current going rate for a glass of Coors Light or Natty Ice.

Even while saloonkeepers and brewers fought over the going rate for barrels of beer there was no ebb in production by the major breweries and pubs. In 1894 Buffalo produced over 600,000 barrels of beer. This beer was considered a quality brew, popular around the East Coast and in Washington D.C. Some of the city’s beer was even exported to Europe, an inversion of our current relationship with brands like Stella Artois and Guinness.

In an interview about the beer crafted in Buffalo the head brewer of a major brewery said,

It is more necessary to have good water than good barley or good hops in the successful brewing of beer. It is difficult to describe the process, but as I said, good water is the chief ingredient. The water which is most suitable should contain plenty of salt, sulphate of lime and carbonate of lime, and Lake Erie water is always ahead of the water used in St. Louis, Rochester, Cincinnati and other great beer brewing cities.[1]

The assertion of good water being the key to quality beer makes me wonder how different the beer of 1890 tasted when compared to our present day concoctions. With our water filtered of all the carbonates and sulfates he mentioned, along with the poisons we’ve dumped into it, its probably that the taste of Iroquois and Schlitz are lost to the long decayed taste buds of our ancestors. What remains however are the buildings which supported Buffalo’s brewing industry.

One of these buildings is the Schaefer Malthouse. This brick building was built in 1880 on Seventh Street near Front Park. Here, the Schaefer Brothers, Gustavus and Henry, crafted malt for the city’s breweries. Malt is one of the key ingredients in beer. Cereal grains, usually barley, though any cereal can be used, are submerged in warm water until they start to germinate. The germination process is cut short and the grains are dried and later roasted. The roasting process imparts flavor, and the length of time malt roasts determines the taste and style of beer brewed. By 1881 a year after the Schaefer Bros began working they joined 60 individual malthouses in producing over 3,000,000 bushels of malt. Sadly, like much of the city’s brewing industry, the Schaefer Malthouse went down in 1919 when Prohibition started. The building subsequently became a chocolate factory.

The Schaefer Malthouse
Prior to Prohibition however the malthouse was an important link in the city's massive beer industry. The four-and-a-half story building reflects both the needs of malting and the sensibilities of the German maltsters who built it. The Schaefer Bros erected their buildings in the Rundbogenstil style, a hard to pronounce North German building mode which influenced H.H. Richardson's architecture and was popular with German brewers and maltsters. The Schaefer Malthouse's Rundbogenstil stylings are very noticeable particularly around its sharp pitched roof, and the arched windows along its primary facade. Inside the building Rundbogenstil melds with malting design as the building feature vaulted ceilings which provided temperature control to the germinating barley. The malt produced inside the Schaefer Malthouse went into beer brewed by Germans in similar Rundbogenstil style breweries which dotted the city, particularly the East Side. Consumption of the beer was a particularly German endeavor as well and up until Prohibition Germans dominated the beer industry in Buffalo, a fact reflected in the names of many local brands and in the architecture of breweries and malthouses like Schaefers. 

I'll leave off with this, the question of Prohibition and how it began. Beer in America was a German arena. Even conventions for the Brewers Association of American were held with German as the primary language. When the convention came to Buffalo in 1901, opening ceremonies were held in the German-American Hall with the slogan “Hopfen Und Malz Gott Erhalts” inscribed above the entrance. That translates to “In God’s Preserve be Hops and Malt.” For over eighty years Germans were able to brew in peace with only occasional nagging from the various temperance leagues to curtail their activities. This changed in 1917 when America entered World War I on the side of the Allies. Suddenly Germanness, the German language, and German culture were suspect, dangerous to the nation. Advocates of Prohibition helped pass a wartime act which suspended American brewing to ensure all grains went to the trenches. German brewers couldn't protest and those who did were branded traitors, secret allies to their 'murderous kin' in Germany. Though other factors were at play, there were significant elements of anti-German sentiment which fueled the successful passage of the 18th Amendment. The German brewers and maltsters who'd celebrated their heritage through beer and Rundbogenstil styled buildings were without defense, the unity of their culture was suddenly their greatest weakness. Even after the 18th Amendment was repealed the culture of German brewing was forever lost as German-Americans began to assimilate more completely into American culture, abandoning the use of German as a conversational language and a language of business. Beers of the future would bear German names like Budweiser and Busch but they would be American corporations rather than local products manufactured in a particular setting for a regional market.

The loss of German brewing in Buffalo is sad, but we can take solace in the city's current revival of local craft beer. Though its unlikely that Buffalo will hit the 600,000 barrels a year marker it is good to see the city's spirit returning along with the froth of a local beer.

[1] “A Big Sized Drink, Over 600,000 Barrels of Beer Made in Buffalo,” The Buffalo Courier, September 27, 1894.

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