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Paul Dyster: The mayor of homebrew

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Beer and politics go down easy in Niagara Falls, where independent-minded Paul Dyster made an easy leap from lauded homebrewer to beloved mayor.

by Dave Seminara

Paul Dyster may be the only politician in America with a half dozen references to homebrew on his resume. The two-term mayor of Niagara Falls, N.Y., is an active homebrewer, a nationally certified beer judge and the owner of Niagara Tradition, a homebrew supply store that’s been in business for 20 years. Dyster’s convinced that his experience as a beer judge and entrepreneur has helped him win votes.

“It’s been helpful at some level for people to see that I make beer,” Dyster says. “I have a Ph.D., and you would think people would view that as an important qualification for public office, but voters are also concerned that someone who has a high level of education lives in an ivory tower and isn’t a regular guy.”

Dyster developed a taste for good beer while living in Europe as a diplomat near the end of the Cold War, but he couldn’t find or afford the beers he wanted when he returned to the States. So he ordered a homebrew kit he saw advertised in the back of Field & Stream, and tried to duplicate the beers he fell in love with.

“When I first started homebrewing in the ’80s, I’d offer people my beers, and they were afraid they were going to get sick if they tried them,” admits Dyster, whose wife, Becky, and son, Bert, now run Niagara Tradition. “They’d say, ‘You made this yourself and you want me to drink it? Beer comes from big breweries; you can’t make it at home.’”

Dyster turned his homebrewing hobby into a career after he left academia in Washington, D.C., to return to his hometown of Niagara Falls, only to find that there were no jobs there for a guy with a doctorate in international relations. He invested in a homebrew supply business started by his brother and sister-in-law; when they divorced, he took over the business, first running it from a stand in a flea market and eventually opening the retail store his family still owns and operates.

“What we did was pretty crazy, and it was risky,” admits Becky Dyster. “We took a big financial hit leaving D.C., but things are going well now in the business, and who would have predicted we’d end up in the political world?”

Dyster became a Niagara Falls City Councilman in 2000 and was elected mayor in 2007. Now in his second term as mayor, Dyster is still doing things his own way. He lists his home phone number and address on his website, and entertains calls from constituents who want to complain about streets not being plowed or a missed trash pickup. Dyster was an early, vocal supporter of Nik Wallenda’s plan to tightrope across Niagara Falls, and has spearheaded a plan to attract young people to the city by offering to pay a portion of their student loans.

Each year, Dyster taps the kegs at the city’s Oktoberfest celebration, and doesn’t just show up for a photo op, but rather to enjoy the beer. Dyster’s still brewing—last summer, he crafted a “bastard ale” with a bunch of leftover brewing ingredients; he says it tasted surprisingly good—and still judges the odd beer competition in order to maintain his BJCP certification.

“He has a very astute, very sharp palate,” says Tim Herzog, founder of Flying Bison Brewing, a Buffalo-area craft brewery. “You would think that someone with that kind of palate would be a chef or a wine steward, but probably not a politician.”

But Dyster thinks homebrewing and politics go hand-in-hand, and he says he’s proud to be a homebrewer.

“Homebrewing started out as a revolt against the mass consumer economy, Madison Avenue dumbing everything down and trying to sell us identical products that none of us really wanted,” he says. “So you were a rebel if you wanted to brew your own beer. It almost has its own ideological element to it that cuts across party lines.”

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