Like a good pint, there have been notes of sweetness — and some bitterness — over the years.
“They haven’t always been rosy,” is how Fred Matt, president and chief executive officer of F.X. Matt Brewing Co., describes the past 125 years.
The family run brewery has encountered near-fatal setbacks, including Prohibition, competition from the Big 5 brewers, and a devastating fire.
Yet, prompted by the continuing growth of the national craft brewing movement, the brewery has poised itself for the future. It produces about 350,000 barrels a year, compared to the 12,000 when it first opened in 1888.
“We’re thriving now,” Fred Matt said.
Several improvements have put the 120-employee-strong West Utica company on the path toward a more stable outlook, including expanding and experimenting on its beverage line, promoting environmentally sound practices, and making the most of technology born from the ashes of a 2008 fire.
“The believers in this company survived in hard times. This family is stubborn,” Fred Matt said. “This is our legacy, and we’ll do what it can to keep it.”
What does a beer company do in a state famous for its wineries?
Make a malt concoction with wine grapes, of course.
Brewing a test batch of Vintner Saison is one of the products born from a new pilot brewery, installed about three months ago.
The pilot brewery – a 2.5-barrel miniature of the 500-barrel system in the regular brew house – allows experimentation in small batches, a boon for a company invested in the craft brewing movement that favors traditional brewing styles with unique flavors.
“We’re brewers that always try to be innovative, that try to come out with new stuff all the time,” Brewing Manager Keith Miller said. “If we want to tweak a recipe or use a new hop, we’re able to do that now.”
For the brewery, trying something new became a necessary evolution.
In the 1920s and ’30s, Prohibition brought the gears of most breweries to a grinding halt. Just shy of 1,200 breweries were open before the 13-year dry movement, and only 703 recovered. The West End Brewing Co., as the brewery was known then, created a soft-drink line to keep trucks moving.
“It became 80 percent of our business,” Fred Matt said.
Another lean time came in the 1970s when the Big 5 – Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Schlitz, Pabst and Coors – dominated the beer scene. After attempting lighter competitive beers, F.X. Matt gained a foothold with the start of the craft-brewed Saranac line in the mid-1980s.