How to Succeed When Trouble’s Brewing: A Historical Perspective on Prohibition and Craft Beer

Written by Ken Carman for

Like any business, brewing beer has ups and downs. And sometimes changes in society can cause a lot of trouble; especially when a business is unwilling to adjust: go with the flow. This is the story of one brewery and how it survived times when brewing beer hit major crossroads: Prohibition… and a steadily changing market: skewing towards craft beer. Not just “survived,” but did so “with ‘style.'” And “styles.” (Pun intended.) This is also the story of a family business; a family business willing to change, experiment, alter and innovate their business plans. And the story of a brewery that went with the ever-increasing nationwide flow of craft beer; go with the flow instead of against it. And go with that “flow” in a bold, aggressive, way.

Thanks to Fred Matt and a very special thanks to Meghan Fraser of Saranac for help with this article. Images courtesy Meghan Fraser and Saranac, except High Peaks Imperial six pack image courtesy

All across America breweries were going out of business. Surviving breweries were trying to find some way, any way, to stay in business.

Their product had been outlawed.

Recently there has been a spat of Prohibition stories in the brew-based press, and mainstream media, due to the anniversary of its repeal. But a question sometimes left unasked is, “How did some survive?” And these stories rarely, if ever, talk about how Prohibition wasn’t the only historical beer-mageddon traditional, older, long-lived breweries have had to face in America…

… and, in some way, maybe not even the hardest.

This is one story of success and survival among the smaller, regular, old time, large production breweries. A brewery, if you count from the beginning of the brewery itself rather than by who owned it, or what it was called, that is the oldest surviving brewery in America. Yes, using that criteria: older than Yuengling.

F.X. Matt II
During Prohibition it took a positive, determined, outlook and the ability to adjust to survive. A business needed products to sell that can be made with the equipment, the resources, that company already have. Then “simply” wait until demand wakes politicians up and… repeal. Now, when I typed “simply” I didn’t mean it was “simple.” Many breweries went under, so there was nothing easy, or “simple,” about it. If you fail some considered the mere attempt foolish. After all: the company had been based on a product that was now illegal. But if you succeeded you might be considered by some to be a forward looking genius.

And the Matt family has made sure their brewery has survived: more than once.

During Prohibition they made ginger ale: which was the first use of the name “Utica Club;” the name eventually used for their first beer the day Prohibition was repealed. They also made a non-alcoholic Lemon Lime Rickey, soda and a malt beverage which had instructions on it to help children to get to sleep using one tablespoon before bed. There was a warning: “Do not use to make beer.” This had a very, very low abv, or alcoholic content; but they stopped making it because it was “frowned upon” by the authorities. The warning on the bottle told customers not to make beer out the product. Of course no one ever did, end of discussion, right?

Walter Matt

F.X. Matt Brewing was the first brewery to be licensed to brew beer in America on April 7th, 1933, when Prohibition was repealed, and also sold the first beer on that same date. That day Utica held a parade to celebrate, starting at the brewery, to the Utica Hotel where the first Utica Club was served.

“We were lucky: we had an employee in Washington the day Prohibition was repealed,” Meghan Fraser told me over the phone.

The name they pirated from themselves for their first beer, post-Prohibition: Utica

F..X. Matt
Club, became a very, very popular brand name for many years; competing well with the likes of Bud, Miller, Rheingold, Schaffer, Peals, Schlitz, Gerst, Blatz, Koehler, Ballantine: many of whom wound up either going out of business, being brewed as a contract beer or sold. The Matt family still owns Matt Brewing and, of course, Saranac.

But back to Prohibition: 1919-1933. Saranac beer exists today because of a willingness to be creative, insightful and adjust: today and back then. As a business owner myself I understand this is what good, even brilliant, business owners do: they see demand and do what they can to serve it in the best way they can. If demand changes, or the law changes, you look at what talent you have on hand, and your equipment, then adjust again. Find another markets to serve. Sell other products, or services. And… if you really think laws will change in your favor: it’s a matter of waiting and “what do we do until then?”

That was Prohibition.

Obviously the brewers of Utica Club, and eventually Saranac, survived Prohibition. Which made folks in Upstate and Central New York very happy, like firemen; Utica Club being one of their favorite quaffs.

They not only survived, but survived with wages intact for their employees who all stayed on the job: even keeping their raises. All through some very clever marketing, using brewery equipment for other purposes and adapting… always adapting. Likewise they survived the craft beer influx through creativity: like brewing beer for brewery start ups. They have contract brewed for Newman Brewing, New Amsterdam, Sam Adams, Magic Hat: mentioning just four. And they still do a lot of contract brewing. According to Meghan Fraser Fred Matt says: “We’re the incubator for craft beer on the east coast.”

But to survive real change was needed…

In some ways the late 80s and on were as problematic for brewers as Prohibition. Your product certainly wasn’t illegal, but the market had already started to radically change with pioneers like Fritz Maytag, and his Anchor Brewery, planting seeds of

The first Saranac.
change back in the 60s. Though a few of those seeds grew; many died. Then, as if their demise simply fertilized that growth, even more micros, brewpubs and eventually nano-breweries were started. Like the tide this pattern repeated; the waves washing away some growth, but then the “tide” returned: reaching further inland, more and more craft breweries. So what may have seemed to be insignificant ripple at first: of little concern to the biggest brewers, grew into a movement that has challenged how the industry brews and packages its product.

The smaller, older, big breweries had a few choices: become pioneers too, half heart-ed attempts to appear like they’re craft brewers, or resist. Like those who tried to fake it, many of the smaller breweries who resisted are gone now, and some of the real big brewers have been sold several times, and/or faced a gradual, but steady, shrinking market. Meanwhile craft beer sales slowly, steadily, increased.

It’s not surprising some resisted, after all: years of post-Prohibition brew-tradition were being challenged by what, I’m sure, many bigger brewers considered “upstarts.” Many smaller, older, already established, traditional, brewers, didn’t understand that to survive perhaps the better path was to view their product differently: use different malts, yeasts, offer many different styles and rethink packaging… and show real dedication to the concept of craft beer.

Just rethinking packaging wouldn’t make it.

They just had to start by looking further back in time towards older American brewing tradition than the domination of American Lager as a style.

This is what the owners of Saranac/Matt Brewing did. They jumped into brewing craft beer.

Saranac was born.

The challenge: brewing a quality, profitable, product that would appeal to craft beer lovers who weren’t willing to accept just one or two styles of beer. Many of whom had a growing thirst for exotic styles and styles rarely brewed in America. Appealing to those who enjoyed extreme brews, experimental beers. But image needed a change too. For example, “Utica Club Chocolate Orange Porter,” might not cut it since Utica Club already had an established image. The same image, style-wise, as other American lagers. Craft beer lovers were also seeking beer brewed with less adjuncts like corn or rice: more malt, more hops and more styles. While corn and rice were mostly “out,” odd yeasts, a multitude of malts and hops, chocolate, spices of all kinds, oatmeal, heather tips, coffee, orange, banana: both yeast driven and actual banana, were all “in.” And not just the styles these additions had been used in the past.

That was the very, very short list of what was, and is, “in.”

The craft beer movement wasn’t just a fad. We weren’t going to just “go away,” as I’m sure some of the biggest brewers probably hoped.

Craft beer lovers were more educated, as were their taste buds. Some beer drinkers had started brewing their own because they couldn’t find the type of beer they wanted, or wanted to try. Some went even further, becoming beer judges and cicerones, studying all the styles in great detail. So just slapping on a craft beer-like label might help for that first purchase, but wouldn’t create steady demand in the craft beer market. In fact, it’s worse than this: most craft beer lovers and home brewers I know are pretty quick at spotting attempts to appeal through packaging, and not much else.

And that’s exactly what the Matt family didn’t do.

Saranac was F.X. Matt Brewing’s answer, and what an innovative and well-brewed answer it was. The first Saranac product was Saranac 1888 Adirondack Lager: named in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Adirondack Railroad that skitters from Utica: home to F.X. Matt Brewing, through scenic woodland ports like Old Forge, Lake Placid, Beaver River, Big Moose and forgotten, lost Adirondack railroad towns like Brandeth and Moulin. Or “Molin,” depending on which Adirondack old timer spells it.

If the Saranac brew-train had just stopped at those two beers there probably would be no need for this story to be told, unless perhaps it written as a dirge. The brewery complex that dominates the corners of Varick, Court and Edward streets, in Utica, NY, would be as empty as those “lost Adirondack railroad towns.” I’m guessing Saranac would be a past tense brand, and the Matt family doing something else. But it didn’t stop at those two “stations.” The brewers and the Matt family have both followed, and led the way, as craft beer has changed, expanded and with blended styles. “Blended,” perhaps, like when the branches of the Moose River merge in the Adirondacks. Or even stop just to brew a great version of a standard: American Pale, like Big Moose Ale.

OK, I admit it: guilty as charged. I had to type that. I’m from Big Moose, NY, originally.

Since then they have brewed and bottled little under 50 different styles (this is counting sub-styles of beer), plus the High Peak series. Six new brews will be added this year. Examples of beers that will be, or have been, brewed and bottled this year include Chocolate Orange Robust Porter, Lemon Ginger Saison, Wet Hop IPA using locally grown Cascade and a “Heritage” hop: a hop that has been growing in this area since the 1800s. Meghan Fraser, spokesperson for Saranac, said they weren’t sure what was first planted back then, and we both agreed it could be referred to now as essentially a “wild hop.” They will also be doing a Shandy and hard cider.

(Hmmm… could it also be called “Wet and WILD IPA?”)

The Matt family and their brewers had been here before. Pre-Prohibition products included Stout, Porter, Stock Ale; just to mention a few. In many ways this was a return to what they brewed pre-Prohibition coupled with experimental brews, extreme beer, tasty low abv beer like what’s driven by yeast with a Belgian funk, and one offs. All this was exactly what lovers of craft beer were looking for.

I interviewed Fred Matt about 10 years ago. After he mentioned that Saranac saved the brewery, Fred told me about how F.X. Matt was on the autobahn in a Mercedes at high-speed in the 70s: driven by the owner of a German brewery. F.X. looked around the car car and said, “I wish we could make fine cars like the Germans do,” and the driver said: “I wish you made beer like we do.” F.X. took that as a challenge. And that was the start of Saranac. “Saranac:” an old Adirondack name that brings to mind the crystal clear, pure water of the Adirondacks where I partially grew up. Utica sits at the foothills of this massive mountain range: an vast expanse featuring mile after mile of nothing but pristine, untouched, wilderness.

A perfect name for the new product line.

Nick and Fred Matt (3rd and 4th generation)
I remember this time very well. I started homebrewing right after Jimmy Carter made it legal, and frequently visited the Utica area where my in-laws lived. Of course we had to visit the brewery where I had a habit of harassing tour guides with homebrewer type questions… “do you save your yeast?” “…how do you clean it?” …and absurd comments like, “‘BBL? Who counts the bubbles?”

The tour guide said, “So you’re a homebrewer? I have some people you might want to meet…”

I believe it was Fred and Nick Matt I met in the tasting room that day, though to be honest the picture of F.X. looks very familiar. They were sampling the first Saranac brews: what was called Amber, which became Adirondack Lager and Golden Pilsner… or “Pilsener,” as in “of (or from) Pilsen.” (Origins: the city Plzeň.) I told them, “Not quite my palate, but they’re clean, tasty and a lot closer to what I think we’re (craft beer lovers) looking for.”

But what I love the most about the direction Saranac took the Matt brother’s business is that I can explore the full spectrum of brewing. It’s like a one stop label shop for what I love to drink, and one of my favorite adventures in life: exploring brew-world. This can be seen in my Nashville, Tennessee home where, when I had to replace the walls or cover them, I covered them with well over 2,000 empty bottles of beer. I admit I’m guessing: I’ve never actually counted. On one very long shelf there are 30 bottles of Saranac, and above that a short shelf with my beloved High Peak series where the brewers have kept up with my love for extreme beer. And I know that’s by no means all of the Saranacs that have been brewed. This year I missed the Orange Chocolate Robust Porter.

Sniff, sniff.

I have been observing, and commenting on, the brew industry for a long time and I can’t think of one of the old time major brewers of America during that time who made this much of an effort to push the envelope, brew so many styles and sub-styles, and add to the ever-expanding specialty beers brewed in America. In fact, I would willingly bet that Saranac has brewed more styles than many breweries in America: even from many smaller micro and nano breweries.

Including brewpubs, today there are a lot more breweries in America since I started drinking beer in the 1960s. And a lot more brewing multiple styles and sub-styles of great beer; beer nirvana compared to what little variation was available in America during the 60s and early 70s. The Matt family and their brewers have contributed many, many times to my ever-expanding list of loved brews: more than most, and certainly more than what’s left of the older, larger American breweries. This, rather than sticking to the same old, same old, style most breweries in America made back post-Prohibition: American Lager. This was back when some thought the introduction of “Light,” or “Lite,” beer, or malt liquor, was about as “radical” as brewing would get.

This is why I’m not only a proud drinker of Saranac, but promote Saranac to my fellow homebrewers and craft beer lovers during my beer tastings I do in the Adirondacks during the summer and the fall… and when I go to Pensacola every September and help supply beer for Big Bob’s Barleywine Bash. From Prohibition to the ever expanding, contracting, then expanding again craft beer brewers, F.X. Matt, Matt Brewing and Saranac have not only kept pace, but brewed beers that challenge other brewers.

The Matts will be celebrating the end of Prohibition with a Prohibition Party on Friday April 27th at the brewery: 830 Varick Street, Utica, NY. Those who attend are encouraged to dress in prohibition attire. The party will be in the gift shop, the tour center, and the 1888 tavern. More information can be found on their website. This is also a fundraiser for local St. Elizabeth’s Hospital.

Out of hard times can come wonderful things. And better beer. Here’s to the hope that one day there will be also be a parade, a grand celebration, for the introduction of the first Saranac. For I feel the first Saranac was as crucial to the survival of a great brewery into this century as the first Utica Club was to the previous one.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: