Saranac maker toasts 125 years with a free beer

Source: F.X. Matt Brewing Co.

Think of it as a baker's dozen, craft-brewing style.

F.X. Matt Brewing, the eighth-largest craft brewer in the United States, is celebrating its 125th anniversary by giving customers a gift that beer drinkers can often only dream about: free beer.

The brewery, now in its fourth generation of family ownership, is giving consumers 13 beers for the price of 12, adding a can of its new Legacy IPA into variety packs of the Saranac brand.

"As a family, the legacy that we have is beer. We've passed it down from generation to generation," said Fred Matt, president and chief operating officer. "So we thought, let's share this gift as a kind of thank you to all those loyal customers who've helped us get to 125 years."

Given its ability to survive decade after decade, F.X. Matt has a unique perspective on the current craft beer boom. According to the latest figures, more than 2,500 breweries are in operation, with 1,000 more planned.

Nick Matt, chairman and CEO, left, and Fred Matt, president and COO of F.X. Matt Brewing
Source: F.X. Matt Brewing Co.
Nick Matt, chairman and CEO, left, and Fred Matt, president and COO of F.X. Matt Brewing

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Getting to 125 years was no small accomplishment for the Utica, N.Y.-based brewery, and the Matt family often had to be resourceful to withstand the historical ups and downs of the industry. The difficult times included Prohibition, of course. During that period, the Matts produced a soft drink line to keep the business going.

Then there was the massive consolidation of the 1970s, when conglomerates such as Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Pabst dominated the beer market. Seeing the need to differentiate itself from its much larger competitors, F.X. Matt created the Saranac brand in 1984, which became its flagship and positioned the company for the craft-beer era.

"At some point or another, there are going to be too many breweries," said CEO Nick Matt. "If you go back to pre-Prohibition, I think there were 300 breweries in New York state. There are now a little over 100. So there still may be room for more breweries, but this [growth] can't go on forever."

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While F.X. Matt celebrates its heritage this year, it also can claim a legacy of helping many of the pioneers in the current craft beer movement get off the ground, especially in the Northeast.

In addition to brewing its own beers, F.X. Matt is one of the largest contract brewers in the country. The list of breweries who have contract-brewed with the company at one time or another reads like a brewing industry all-star team.

"In the early 80s we started with New Amsterdam, which was really kind of the first craft beer on the East Coast," Nick Matt said. "Since then, we've done Sam Adams, Harpoon, Brooklyn and [MillerCoors'] Blue Moon. Magic Hat, Long Trail—almost anyone on the East Coast that has been successful has come through our brewery."

While the brewery has managed to successfully navigate the economic turbulence of the beer industry, one of its biggest challenges was of a different kind: a fire in 2008 that caused $10 million in damage and halted production for weeks. Though it was a major setback, he said, it left the brewery better positioned long term.

"From a physical plant point of view it really has turned out to be a good thing because we had a good insurance settlement and we basically reinvested that money back into our plant," Matt said.

Management upgraded the decades-old facility, including building a new warehouse and updating the bottling operations.

Though some of the physical assets may be new, history is pretty much always top of mind at F.X. Matt. So when it came time to determine what style of beer to brew for its anniversary, the family searched its archives and found a recipe for an India Pale Ale written by its founder in 1914. Though now the most popular style of craft beer in the United States, IPA isn't believed to have been common back then.

For the Matt family, its Legacy IPA is a perfect way to bridge the past and present.

"It's really cool we're on our fourth generation—not many companies make it that long," Fred Matt said. "The likelihood you make it to a fourth generation is about 3 percent. Our objective is for the company to be around for another 125 years."

—By CNBC's Tom Rotunno. Follow him on Twitter @TomRotunno.