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“True Fermentation few workers understand,
That secret therefore I will expound to you…
For like as flour of wheat made into a paste,
Requires ferment, which we call leaven of bread,
That it may have the kindly taste,
And become cordial food to man and woman,
So you shall ferment your medicine,
That it may taste of the Ferment pure,
At all assays for ever to endure.” – George Ripley, The Compound of Alchymy
The quest to create a philosopher’s stone, which, according to alchemical lore, “had the power to transmute base metal into gold and confer longevity, immortality and ultimately redemption on the possessor,”* provides excellent fodder for the imagination (Full Metal Alchemist, anyone?), but doesn’t have much to do with real life or science as we know it today. Except that one of the most famous alchemical texts, George Ripley’s The Compound of Alchymy, describes the steps in creating a philosopher’s stone as the twelve gates of a castle, one of those gates being Fermentation.
The original scroll(s), composed in verse during the Renaissance, seem to be lost, but there are plenty of copies and adaptations to be found in museums and odd corners of the Internet. One of Buffalo’s newest breweries, 12 Gates Brewing Company, takes its inspiration from the ninth of Ripley’s twelve alchemical gates: Fermentation.
December 1, 2015
Reluctant to waste a spur-of-the-moment trip to Buffalo, we start looking for a brewery to visit, leveraging the power of Google while having lunch at the Indian Falls Log Cabin Restaurant, in Corfu, NY. I wind up ordering one of the more nondescript entries on the menu, and the craft tap list is small (though I definitely don’t complain about getting the Warsteiner Helles on tap, in a 12 oz. frosted mug). But the restaurant’s real charm lies in its enclosed porch-like dining room, which affords a relaxing view of the small-to-medium-sized falls, and insulation from the television in the bar area. The service is friendly, if not beer-centric. I have to suppress a chuckle when I overhear another patron ask for an IPA, and the waitress says, “We have the Genesee Salted Caramel Chocolate Porter.” It works out though, because the guy orders the porter.
Ben finds a brewery that sounds interesting, so I contact the owner to see about visiting. Within a few minutes, William Campbell gets back to me with an invitation to stop by 12 Gates Brewing Company later in the afternoon.
Tucked away in the back corner of a business park not far from the airport, 12 Gates isn’t much to look at from the outside. Inside, it’s an entirely different story. Stepping into the still-under-construction taproom, we make ourselves known to Rob Haag, the operations manager, and Kevin Lalock, the taproom manager. While contractors wander around doing contractor-like things, Rob shows us the brewing area, which is visible—via windows—from the fairly sizable taproom.
Speaking of sizable, 12 Gates is not your usual microbrewery; they’re not even open yet, and already they’ve installed a 30 barrel system, complete with 60 barrel fermenters. As-is, they’ll be able to produce about 9,000 barrels per year, and in their current space, they can easily expand to produce 25k or 30k barrels per year. Also unlike most of the area’s microbreweries, 12 Gates is going for a distribution-first model; the taproom will probably account for around 20% of their sales, with the rest going out to area bars and pubs.
When I ask Rob about bottling or canning, he says that they’ll probably start canning in 2017 or ’18; “Canning is where the industry is going,” he remarks. I can’t argue with that; both cans and bottles are fine by me, but since canning is cheaper and the package itself weighs less, it is quite a practical option for breweries not already heavily invested in bottles.
The head brewer, Shawn Kerr, was not there for us to chat with, likely because the brewery isn’t quite finished. If you want to read more about Shawn, the 12 Gates website includes a short bio and some of his blog posts. He’s a funny guy; go check out his stuff. Also, he’s actually been west of the Great Divide, which bodes well for his knowledge of the (beer) craft.
Like most professional brewers in the U.S., Shawn and Rob started as homebrewers. Rob has been homebrewing for about six years, though since March, he’s been too busy helping to start a commercial brewery to do any homebrewing. With major obstacles to surmount, such as a too-short door that necessitated a 10” hole in the floor just to fit the mash tun in, who can blame him for being too busy to make beer at home?
In addition to a love of beer, Rob brings a corporate background to the 12 Gates team. After ten years or so in wireless sales, he became a victim of “downsizing.” That’s an incredibly stressful position to be in, but he seems pretty happy now; “this is my dream job,” he says with a smile.
Unlike many newer breweries that I’ve seen, 12 Gates is neither a one or two-man operation, nor a “we just want to make money” kind of place. The business has two majority partners, and six smaller owners, all of whom have some amount of business know-how, or so I understand. A love for beer is vital to the craft of brewing, and a solid financial strategy is necessary for commercial success. As far as I can tell at this point, 12 Gates has both.
Not a Philosopher’s Stone…yet
Wrapping up our conversation in the unfinished taproom, just before a board meeting, Rob explains how the space will look when construction is done. I’ll have to go back when they’re open, so I can see if the brewery lives up to its ambitious moniker, but for now, it sounds like the tasting room will be frickin’ sweet; the bar is supposed to look like a massive pair of gates, and the furniture is being handmade from reclaimed materials by Sean Wrafter, of Wrafterbuilt. I look forward to seeing that, for sure.
The original version published on December 3, 2015, mentioned that 12 Gates Brewing Company would be launching their beers at several locations in Genesee County. That was incorrect. Starting at 12 pm, on 12/12/2015 (this Saturday), 12 Gates beers will be on tap at the following locations in the Buffalo area:
Pizza Plant (Transit Rd.)
Santora’s Pizza Pub & Grill (Transit Rd.)
Santora’s (Millersport Hwy.)
Brickyard Pub & BBQ (Lewiston, NY)
Griffon Gastropub (Niagara Falls, NY)
Public House of Buffalo (an addendum on this one: I called to confirm the location, and spoke to Frank Tefta at the Public House. He said they will have all four of the beers that 12 Gates is debuting; “The head brewer is a local native, and we’re very proud to have their beers on tap.”)
World of Beer (Walden Galleria)
As of Friday, 12/18/2015, the 12 Gates taproom is open. According to their website, they should have five of their own beers on tap, plus two guest taps.
All photos by Benjamin Wilson
* “George Ripley and the Philosopher’s Stone.” Bodleian Libraries. Accessed December 3, 2015.
McLean, Adam. “Ripley’s Ninth Gate.” The Alchemy Website. Accessed December 3, 2015.