A History of Brewing and Drinking in Buffalo

By Stepehen R. Powell

Chapter 1: The Pre-Brewery Era(1789-1811)

It was cold. The kind of cold that makes you feel vulnerable and isolated. The sun was just setting and darkness was moving in, a total darkness, like the kind you get on a cloudy, moonless night. All the leaves had fallen off the trees and they made a colorful quilt of reds and yellows on the ground. The wind kicked up, whipping through the bare branches and making Joseph Hodges feel the cold down to his bones. Although he knew it was probably getting too late in the year to venture into this desolate region, he decided to make one more trip. He knew he was running the risk of getting stranded in this uncharted region, but he pressed on. At times when the wind was right, he could hear the falls at Niagara roaring even though he was some twenty miles to the South. "Just one more mile--they’ll be there, you’ll see," he kept repeating to himself. Finally, after hours of hiking through the thick forest he came to a clearing by a creek, not far from the shore of the lake called Erie.

As Hodges stepped into the center of the clearing, he reached into his pack and brought out a brown clay jug. With his eyes straining in the failing light, he peered into the forest and could just make out some man-made dwellings at the edge of the clearing. He straightened up, took a deep breath, and called out a greeting in the language used by the Seneca Indian Nation. Before long a few men appeared at the edge of the thicket and strode forward to greet him. He noted that despite the cold the men, who were Seneca Indians, were not wearing any sort of wrapping on their chests and showed no sign of being cold. Hodges held out the jug to them. The Senecas, in turn, wondered how any man could have such dark, almost-black skin. One of the Senecas stepped forward holding a pile of furs in his arms and exchanged them for the jug of rum Hodges was holding. To seal the deal they each took a drink from the jug, and parted company. This symbolic gesture was as good as signing a contract in Western New York’s first industry, fur trading. The system used was barter and the currency was liquor. The year was 1789 and the men were standing along the Buffalo Creek just south of the headwaters of the Niagara River (now part of Buffalo).


After many trips into this sparsely settled region, Joe Hodges decided to stay in the area and build himself a cabin, making him possibly the first permanent non-Indian settler in southern Niagara County (which included all of what is today called Erie County). Hodges eventually ran a tavern out of his house. By 1795 there were a few families settled at Buffalo Creek, the main industry being in fur trading and tavern keeping.

The origin of the word "tavern" dates back to the Latin word "taberna" meaning "shed" or "hut." By the seventeenth century it also referred to a place to drink and became synonymous with the term "inn." Taverns were "semi-public" places where both town folk and travelers could drink, get a meal, or stay the night. It didn’t matter if it was a shabby little cabin in the wilderness or a fancy establishment in Boston; the taverns played a very important role in society.

Even before the American Revolution taverns were centers of social activity. In many Northeastern villages they were the first public structures built. They were often the site of town meetings, if there was no hall available for use. Travelers both rich and poor stayed the night in these inns for lack of any other accommodations.

Taverns were the first public institution in the area and a natural complement to them was the brewery. Patrons wanted more than whisky, rum, and cider; they wanted ales and malt liquors. In those days, the only way to maintain a steady supply of ale was to make it yourself. To do that you needed a brewery, but the establishment of a frontier brewery-tavern was dependent on the availability of grains. In Niagara County the first crops were cultivated around 1811, making possible to brew ales and malt liquors. After the first harvest, it was just a matter of time before someone would come along and start a brewing operation, the question remaining was where...





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