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It's all too easy to talk about Utica, New York as the industrial town past its prime. Where have all the jobs gone? Where's the new culture? What's keeping this place alive?
It's true, Utica's hardly the manufacturing hub of central New York that it used to be. But asking those questions as condemnatory rhetorical remarks ignores some truths. It ignores the locals who've developed small businesses to revitalize the community they love. It disregards the people who've moved to the area to start new companies (more on them in later posts). And it forgets about those who never left, like the 124 year-old FX Matt Brewery, the home of Saranac and Utica Club beers and the second oldest family-owned brewery in the U.S.
Francis Xavier Matt began the brewery in 1888, when it was one of about a dozen in the city. When Prohibition hit, the brewery switched to producing products like soft drinks to stay afloat, which wound up saving the company. Of all the breweries in the city, only FX Matt lasted through Prohibition to continue production. (They were also the first brewery to sell beer once it ended.)
Following Prohibition, the brewery produced the Utica Club line, a beer not unlike PBR. The brewery became a local business icon, a jobmaker for the community and a rally point for Utica pride. Come 1985, the company positioned itself in a more craft beer direction with the launch of their Saranac line, for which they're best known today.
Thanks to its huge facility and high-volume equipment, the brewery also does a fair amount of contract brewing for other companies. Though the company doesn't disclose details of which contracts they brew (and how much), one of their clients includes Williamsburg's Brooklyn Brewery, whose small New York City space can't accommodate demand.
FX Matt's success has become something of a bellwether for the craft beer movement that's gotten a new shock of life around central New York—breweries are springing up left and right, and farmers are starting to grow hops in what used to be the hop-growing capital of the U.S. Utica's industrial heyday may be behind it, but thanks in part to local businesses that refuse to quit, it's coming back fast.