Matthew Reich, an executive on the business side of Hearst Magazines in Manhattan, had an idea: start a brewery in New York City, the first, in fact, since Rheingold closed a few years before in Brooklyn in 1976. He hired Joseph Owades, a biochemist turned consultant, to help him. Owades was most famous for devising the starch-reducing formula for light beer (for Rheingold originally, as it turned out).
Owades heard his client out and then disabused him of the notion of starting a brewery in one of the world’s most expensive cities. Reich simply did not have the funds, or enough of it—even with roughly $350,000 in 1982 money lined up. Owades instead suggested that he start by contract brewing, or renting the equipment and labor of an existing brewery to make his beer.
Owades had the perfect brewery in mind: the F.X. Matt Brewing Co. in Utica, New York, one of his clients.
Reich called the brewery’s president, F.X. Matt II, who had in 1980 taken the helm of the brewery his grandfather and namesake, a German immigrant, founded 92 years before. Reich explained the idea of F.X. Matt contract-brewing his New York City brand, which he planned to call New Amsterdam, after the metropolis’ Dutch roots.
“That is the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard,” Matt replied.
Matt had developed a reputation for bluntness as well as quality control, both of which turned out to be essential for the era in which he found himself. He began each workday with a two-hour tour of the brewery, notebook in hand for suggestions and reminders of what needed his attention; and he immersed himself in the minutia of day-to-day management.
Thirty-five years ago, F.X. Matt was one of the nation’s last great family-owned regional breweries. Several had fallen before the distribution, production and marketing might of larger national operations, such as Miller and Anheuser-Busch. It very much looked like the Utica operation would, too.
The company would be losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in operating costs by the mid-1980s as bigger brands ate into its consumer base, which, to Matt’s dismay, proved extraordinarily fickle. In one well-told tale, the local Republican Party served Miller at a fundraiser for Utica’s mayor (Miller had a plant 80 miles to the west, in Fulton). Matt took out newspaper ads criticizing the move.
Pretty soon, the brewery was operating at less than half its capacity. That left it plenty of room to contract-brew brands such as New Amsterdam, which it did beginning in the summer of 1982, after Owades smoothed things over between Matt and Reich. F.X. Matt went on to contract-brew for a number of startups, including the Brooklyn Brewery, Pete’s Brewing Co. out of the Bay Area and Philadelphia’s Dock Street. (It had also briefly brewed Billy Beer in the late 1970s, the awful lager named for President Jimmy Carter’s kid brother.)
The contract-brewing, however, never filled the void that Miller, Anheuser-Busch and the like created. F.X. Matt, despite increased efficiency and introduction of new products such as a light beer in 1982, still seemed doomed. A February 1989 headline in the Syracuse Post-Standard said it all: “Miller, Bud to Boost Production; Matt Hopes to Survive.”
Salvation arrived in the form of the brewery’s Saranac line.
F.X. Matt began rolling out the line in 1985, with an all-malt lager it called Saranac 1888, after an upstate New York lake and the brewery’s foundational year. Another Saranac beer, originally called Amber Lager and now known as Adirondack Lager (mountains this time), took the gold in the American Premium Lager category at the 1991 Great American Beer Festival.
Sensing an opportunity and seeing little to lose, Matt and his family swung the brewery firmly behind the Saranac brand. Cheaper wares such as its longtime Utica Club flagship, which Miller and Anheuser-Busch were slowly drowning anyway, were out, or at least pushed to the margins. More flavorful and complex brews were in; the brewery beginning in the early 1990s even helped pioneer the sampler, with various Saranac styles sold together in a single pack.
F.X. Matt II died in January 2001 at age 67. His brother, Nick Matt, and son, Fred Matt, now run the brewery, which breezed past its 125th year in 2013.
Its late president and CEO, who had done so much to see it to that milestone, never mind the century mark in 1988, had studied the humanities at Princeton and wrote poetry as a hobby. In 1982, when Matt unveiled that forgettable light beer, F.X. Matt read a short poem of his that started with a warning to the bigger breweries then existentially threatening the concern his grandfather started. It ended thus: “Shove over, you guys—your monopoly stops.”
Tom Acitelli is the author of The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution. His new book, American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story, is available for pre-order. Reach him on Twitter @tomacitelli.