Crafting Tradition

Fred Matt ’81, president and chief operating officer of F.X. Matt Brewing, the producer
of Saranac Beer, stands in front of one of two large copper kettles inside the Utica,
N.Y.-based facility.

by Steven Bodnar

Craft beer has exploded in popularity over the past decade. But for Fred Matt ’81, it’s not a particularly new phenomenon. It’s a family tradition.

“We’ve been brewing craft and fullflavored beers before ‘craft’ was ‘craft,’” says Matt, president and Chief Operating Officer of the F.X. Matt Brewing Company, the producer of Saranac Beer and one of the largest craft breweries in the country.

Founded in 1888 and based in Utica, N.Y., the F.X. Matt Brewing Company is still going strong after more than a century (and Prohibition). And it’s that history – and the continuity of the Matt family – that sustain it. Saranac’s new release, Legacy IPA, for instance, is a recipe fashioned in 1914 by Fred Matt’s great-grandfather, company founder F.X. Matt I.

“You’re not in business this long unless you’re giving the customer a product they truly enjoy, and,” Matt adds, “our employees are second to none.”

With Fred Matt and his uncle, Nick Matt, chair and CEO, currently at the helm, Matt Brewing offers more than 60 products, including Saranac High Peaks Imperial IPA which was named world’s best at the 2014 World Beer Awards. They also produce a highly popular series of soft drinks, with their famous root beer recently taking home gold in a non-alcoholic category at the 2014 U.S. Open Beer Championship.

Part of the brewery’s history of success is due, Matt says, to a tradition of innovation and adaptation.

In the 1950s and ’60s, the late comic legend Jonathan Winters was the voice of Schultz and Dooley, the infamous talking beer steins featured in the company’s television commercials for its Utica Club brand. In 1979, Matt Brewing rolled out the first beer ball on the market – a plastic “party ball” that holds the equivalent of 55 12-ounce beers. Matt was the first to launch the mixed 12-pack, now a ubiquitous staple on grocery store shelves.

Fast forward to today: F.X. Matt Brewing Company facility – with the oldest part of the structure built in 1853 – has hydrothermal wells, uses anaerobic digestion to generate electricity, has a strong focus on recycling and is exploring ways to reduce its dependency on oil. Experimentation with new products and flavors takes place in a new pilot brewing room. To diversify their business, they’ve developed a sales and distribution agreement with the Lake Placid Brew Pub, and more recently purchased Flying Bison Brewing Company in Buffalo, N.Y.

Good business relies on that innovation but, as Matt explains, it’s also dependent on strong community engagement. “We as a company are always looking for ways to give back and that’s remained a priority for us,” he says.

Matt Brewing’s Saranac Thursday and Saranac Summer Concert Series events, which were launched in 1999, give a portion of proceeds to the local United Way, raising more than $600,000 to date. The company is also a sponsor of the nationally-known Boilermaker 15K Road Race, one of the largest of its kind that annually awards four scholarships to high school runners who exemplify the best in their sport.

At Hobart and William Smith, Matt has hosted beer tastings during several Reunion weekends and has supported other campus events, including donating brewery tours to Geneva Scholarship Association fundraisers.

Matt, who earned a degree in economics at Hobart, says his experience at the Colleges marks a time he holds dear and finding unique ways to give back is easy.

“Hobart and William Smith gave me a really great balance between the liberal arts education and the social experience,” Matt says. “The people are great, the professors are terrific and there really is a great pride there. That has always been a strong part of HWS.”

But even when Matt was a student, he always knew he wanted to be part of the family business. “Beer just runs in the family,” he says.


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