F.X. Matt looks ahead

By Donald S. Gosselin

One may count on one hand the number of American breweries that were founded in the nineteenth century, survived over a decade of closure during prohibition, and still brew today. The F.X. Matt Brewery in neighboring Utica, New York is one such brewery.

It is said that F.X. Matt, the founder of the brewery, was the first brewer in the country to receive a brewing license -- exactly one hour after the 21st Amendment had been signed into law. In what may be described as the fastest fermentation in history, the Utica brewery delivered kegs of fresh lager within a day of receiving its license, where one might imagine that it was very well received.

After several decades of prosperity, Matt's Brewery struggled to survive into the 1980s. By then, nearly every American brewer produced a bland, fizzy-sweet beer -- generically similar to that of Bud, Miller or Coors. In fact, about the only noticeable difference between beers was the fact that Bud, Miller and Coors were much better marketed and distributed throughout America. Falstaff, Schlitz and Schmidt's, all much larger than the Utica, New York brewery, became assimilated by much larger brewers. Narragansett of Cranston and Carlings of Natick had long since closed. As F.X. Matt's prepared for its one hundredth year of brewing, many believed that the brewery faced imminent assimilation, or worse - closure due to its steadily eroding market share.

If not for pluck and determination, Matt's may have gone the way of the once mighty Schaefer Brewing Co. of New York -- existing in name only. F.X. Matt II, the son and namesake of the founder, traveled to Germany in search of inspiration. He returned a short time later with an idea of producing an authentic German style pilsner beer, using only traditional ingredients. Matt's plan was to return to the style of brewing that his father had practiced many decades ago. The beer was to be called Saranac.

I first discovered Saranac in a Corning, New York package store in 1985, very shortly after its debut. At about twelve dollars a case, it was priced just above Bud and just below Michelob. After trying one beer, I immediately returned to the package store and bought the remaining four cases of the hoppy, amber lager. When Saranac eventually made its way into New England some years later, the price had gone up a bit. Thankfully, the quality had remained the same.

One could say that each of the three generations of Matts has left its mark on our regional brewing scene. The brewery's exterior illustrates this perfectly -- high atop the plant, "West End Brewing Company", the inaugural name for the brewery, is spelled out in ornate stonework. Still higher, a neon "Utica Club" sign represents the heyday of the 1950s and 1960s. Nick Matt, current president of the brewery and grandson of the founder, asked not to be photographed in front of the aging symbols, preferring the colorful backdrop of cases of Saranac. Why not the perfect photo depicting three generations of Matt enterprise?, I asked.

"Because Saranac is our future," came the plucky reply.

© 1996 Donald S. Gosselin