Flying Bison Brewing Company’s Aviator Red. What else can you say about this Irish Red Ale? Not only is it one of the founding fathers of this beer scene, it’s a true pioneering brew in Western New York, one that helped paved the way for so many beers that followed, a beer that belongs on the Mount Rushmore of Buffalo Beer. A beer so classic that, up until now, you could only find it in bottles, or on draft at your neighborhood corner watering hole. Up until now you ask? Yes, Aviator Red is now available in cans at the brewery.
After over two decades of filling glasses throughout Western New York, Aviator Red finally has a home in aluminum. The beer, which Flying Bison’s patriarch, Owner Tim Herzog, first brewed with business partner Larry “Red” Mrozek in 1995, originally as a cask ale (“it still works on the pull,” Herzog says), is now available in cans for a very limited time. It sounds like an infomercial gimmick, but supplies are limited.
For the uninitiated, Aviator Red pours ruby red in color, with a strong malt flavor, medium body and spicy hop signature to balance everything out.
Herzog began homebrewing in 1981 after receiving a
Aviator Red was born out of Herzog and Red’s mutual appreciation for Smithwick’s Barleywine, which the two drank plenty of during their time in Toronto. While Red, a man large in stature, was a fan of bigger beers, Herzog’s Irish Red Ale, which he brewed for an annual summer party, ‘passed the mustard’ with Red. And thus, Aviator Red was born. When Flying Bison first sold their beer, May 1, 2000, Aviator Red was one of the launch beers.
Tragically, Red was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1997. Aviator Red continues on as a living tribute to one of the true forefathers of the WNY craft beer scene.
“Red and I were both homebrewers. I was a very thin guy, Red was a very big guy, so a lot of the beers he made were bigger beers, like 8% imperial stouts, doppelbocks, and things like that, whereas I was always into beers like kolschs, Newcastle Brown, Anchor Steam, those kinds of beers – lighter, more drinkable beers. One beer we had always agreed on, and we had been up to Toronto a couple of times to McVeigh’s New Windsor House, was called Smithwick’s Barleywine, a 6% version of what you can now get in the states as Smithwick’s. We both said, ‘wow, we like that, that’s a good beer.’ When we had designed two beers to open the brewery with, and then when he was killed, I took one off, ironically called Erie County Ale (now 20 years later, Erie County wants me to make a beer called Erie County Ale), that’s how Aviator Red started. I had brewed a beer for Red’s annual summer picnic, an Irish Red Ale, which passed mustard with him, and I liked it, so that’s kind of where Aviator Red came from.”
While Herzog and Red knew they had to have a beer such as Dawn Patrol Gold in their quiver in order to appease beer drinkers at the time who only knew beer to look a certain way, it wasn’t before long that Aviator Red, a beer those very same beer drinkers scoffed at because it looked different because it wasn’t a fizzy yellow brew, became their best selling beer. That is a testament to this beer, one able to literally change the minds and palates of beer drinkers around the area during a time in which it was difficult to do.
“Red and I knew that we would have to come up with a yellow beer with white foam, because we knew we were going to have hand sell craft beer and craft brewing in the Western New York market, because there was very little awareness at the time. There was Buffalo Brewpub and Pearl Street, but you had to go there. We were looking to distribute. We didn’t have enough tanks to make a lager beer, and I had made a kolsch beer a few times successfully as a homebrewer, so we knew Dawn Patrol Gold would be one of the beers. And when we had Aviator Red, people weren’t sure about it, because it was a dark beer. Our response was, ‘hold it up to the light, it’s not really all that dark.’ Then, after about eight months to a year, Aviator Red started to sell more than Dawn Patrol Gold, which continued at a solid pace until we came out with Rusty Chain, which just seemed to unite everyone. As much as we had our doubts about a dark beer being our best seller, that’s exactly what happened.”
While Herzog admits he still isn’t full on board with the whole ‘craft beer in cans’ movement, he says that the vessel presents a lot of opportunities for beer, which he couldn’t be happier about. He says he is even starting to come around on cans.
“Releasing Aviator Red in 16oz. cans is something I never thought would happen. I’m old enough that the can thing to me seems a little bit like a fad, but as it digs in, I’m starting to see Germans lagers and hefeweizens coming over in cans. Some English specialty beers are coming in cans and now they are able to do nitro cans. There are some really cool aspects to being able to do cans. Thankfully at the brewery, we can do draft, we can do bottles, and we can do cans, so whatever the best format is, we can do. And I’m really, really happy about that.”
The ability to can Aviator Red has seemingly breathed new life into the beer, giving it new legs to stand on in our robust craft beer market here in the Buffalo-Niagara region. It’s a way to appease diehard fans of the brew, and also a way to continue getting into the hands of those craft beer enthusiasts that crave it. Especially in some area bars and restaurants, where Herzog says that if they didn’t carry Aviator Red, they wouldn’t carry a Flying Bison beer on tap at all.
“It’s a throwback. Throwbacks are cool. People ask us all the time for this beer. There is a strong and loyal following for Aviator Red thankfully. They like that beer, they want that beer. Once we got the canning line, every now and again, one of us would look at the [Aviator Red] logo banner we have hanging on the wall at the brewery and say, ‘that would look good on a can.’”
Cans of Aviator Red are available now for a limited time at the brewery. While at the brewery, you can also get kegs, growlers and crowlers as well. You can also find the beer on tap at select bars and restaurants around Western New York.
Grab a can of Aviator Red and raise a toast to a beer that helped shape our beer scene and make it what it is today. Cheers.
For more information, visit http://www.flyingbisonbrewing.com.
***Photos courtesy of Flying Bison Brewing
Brian Campbell is co-founder and Brand Manager of the Buffalo Beer League, and writes the weekly Buffalo Beer Buzz column. If you have beer news that should be included in the Beer Buzz, Brian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter (@buffbeerleague), Instagram (@buffalobeerleague), and Facebook (@thebuffalobeerleague).