Beer: In Utica, N.Y., a Prohibition Survivor Is Still Running Strong

By Greg Kitsock
Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Few present-day U.S. breweries can boast that they survived Prohibition, an event whose demise 75 years ago we celebrated Dec. 5.

Fewer still can boast that they're owned by the same family that ran them in 1933.

Yuengling, in Pottsville, Pa., is one. The Matt Brewing Co. of Utica, N.Y., is another.

"A lot of people think this was the first beer brewed legally after Prohibition," said Chris Quick, Matt's Mid-Atlantic rep, as he clutched a bottle of the brewery's Utica Club brand at a Repeal Day party at RFD in Chinatown.

Actually, it's a bit more complicated.

Beer was re-legalized eight months before the 21st Amendment was ratified, rescinding the 18th. Soon after taking office, Franklin D. Roosevelt had urged Congress to get the breweries back into operation to put more Americans back to work. On March 13, 1933, Congress passed the Cullen Act, which tweaked the definition of "intoxicating" in the Volstead Act to allow 3.2 beer (4 percent alcohol by volume).

According to brewery lore, company founder F.X. Matt happened to be in Washington when the deal went down. He rushed over to the Treasury Department and received the first brewing license issued since 1920, then phoned his brewery to get the machinery in gear. As a result, West End Brewing (as Matt Brewing was then known) was one of fewer than 30 breweries nationwide to have beer ready when the Cullen Act took effect at 12:01 a.m. April 7.

At midnight on "New Beer's Eve," the Matt family stationed a ring of police around the brewery to discourage would-be hijackers. It was a wise precaution. That same day, a truckload of Yuengling Winner beer, dispatched from Pottsville as a gift to the White House, arrived 75 cases short.

Utica Club is a quaffable pale lager in the Bud-Miller-Coors mold, lightened with a little rice. The brand is perhaps best remembered for the Schultz and Dooley TV ads that the company ran in the 1960s featuring a pair of talking beer steins voiced by comedian Jonathan Winters. Matt still sells replicas of the steins as well as Schultz and Dooley shot glasses, salt and pepper shakers and bar towels at its online brewery store (

Since the late 1980s, however, Matt has been de-emphasizing Utica Club to promote a new line of fuller-flavored, 100 percent barley brews under the Saranac label. The flagship brand today is Saranac Pale Ale, flavored with a blend of American and English hops for a subtler flavor than West Coast interpretations such as Sierra Nevada or Stone Pale Ale.

With its Saranac line, Matt has explored almost every traditional beer style and created a few new ones. (How many breweries offer a pomegranate wheat beer?) The brewery's Web site lists 30 year-round, seasonal or occasional brands under the Saranac name.

In May, a fire ignited by a welder's spark destroyed the top two floors of Matt's bottling plant and crippled operations during peak selling season. Most of the damage has been repaired, and the blaze hasn't ruined Christmas for Saranac drinkers. Matt's 2008 12 Beers of Christmas variety pack contains three new brands: Saranac India Brown Ale, a hybrid combining the citrusy hop character of an American IPA with dark, roasted malts; Saranac Bohemian Pilsener; and Saranac Vanilla Stout.

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