Live Long and Prosper: How Two Family Breweries Continue to Compete Generations After Opening

Feature by | Nov 2017 | Issue #130

A school friend of mine lives in a house his family has occupied since it was built around 100 years ago. Because no one has ever moved out, it’s full of stuff. Stuff from 40, 50, even 80 years ago. Family breweries are like that. Houses where the occupants never change and full of charming old crap no one could be bothered to throw away.

One of the great treasures of British brewing—even if it’s not always appreciated by beer geeks—is its long-established history of family-owned breweries. Places that keep centuries of heritage alive. But they aren’t unique to the UK. The US is lucky to have a few breweries of this type, too.

In the last few years I’ve been fortunate enough to visit two of America’s oldest brewing companies: New York’s F.X. Matt and Minnesota’s August Schell. How have these two companies managed to survive when the majority of their contemporaries have disappeared? And what does their survival mean for American brewing heritage? Are they still relevant in the highly dynamic age of craft brewing?

To learn how they compare to British family brewers, I’ve paired these American breweries with a brace from the UK: Fuller’s in London and Harvey’s in Lewes, a town about 60 miles south of the English capital. And while Harvey’s is smaller, both companies have a similar sense of continuity and tradition.

F.X. Matt Brewing Company
Talking to American beer enthusiasts, I’m often surprised at how little known F.X. Matt is and how unaware most are of its important role in the first days of craft. Many of the early East Coast craft brands were contract brewed there, giving aspiring brewers the chance to produce beer without a big initial investment. F.X. Matt is still busy with contract brewing today, producing a large percentage of Brooklyn Brewery’s beer, for example.

In 1888, Francis Xavier Matt, a German immigrant who had learned to brew in southern Germany’s Black Forest region, founded the company in Utica, N.Y. The founder’s grandson is currently chairman and CEO, while his great grandsons, Fred Matt and Nick R. Matt, are president and brand manager. Ownership is shared by a group of Matt family members.

Nearly 130 years later, the Matt family shows no sign of releasing control anytime soon. The same is true at Fuller’s, where a member of the Turner family (the full name of the brewery is Fuller, Smith, and Turner) is chairman. The Turners have been involved since the current company was formed in 1845. Such continuity gives both F.X. Matt and Fuller’s a longer term view than companies obliged to dance to the stock market’s tune.

The brewery itself is a strange mix of the antiquated and the modern. Stretched across several buildings, dating in age from 1853 to 2012, it’s filled with a mix of both old and newer equipment liberally sprinkled around. Pride of place goes to the Lincoln tanks, so called because they were installed when Abraham Lincoln was president (beer has been brewed here since 1853). Amazingly, they’re still in use, though no longer for beer.

Rather uniquely, F.X. Matt still uses shallow rectangular fermentors. They used to be open, but for safety reasons—CO2 is a real danger—have been fitted with lids. No such changes have been made at Harvey’s, where they still ferment in open squares, eschewing the conical fermentation tanks that are nearly universal throughout the industry.

As for all American breweries, Prohibition was a challenge. And, like all those that came through that dark period, F.X. Matt survived by diversifying into other products, such as soft drinks. Since they already had a bottling line it made sense, and the company produces six varieties of soda today.

After WWII, regional breweries on both sides of the Atlantic were under increasing pressure. In the UK, mergers and the rise of national brands made trading difficult for Fuller’s. What’s more, the growth in popularity of lager, a type of beer they weren’t equipped to produce, began to impact the sales of their more traditional ales. In response, the brewery planned to drop cask beer in the early 1970s and concentrate on keg, the type of beer the big breweries were pushing hard. The decision turned out to be a pivotal one.

The biggest threat to F.X. Matt in recent history came from a major fire in the packaging department in 2008. The upper two stories of the building were totally destroyed after the fire became so intense that the structure’s steel girders buckled. The disaster prompted panic buying of their beer by locals in and around Utica, who feared that it spelled the end for the brewery. Luckily, that wasn’t the case and within 31 days it was back up and running, though some packaging had to be moved off site while equipment was replaced.

“What kept us afloat was a single-minded focus to rebuild and provide great products that the customer can enjoy,” explains Fred Matt, adding that the fire caused over $10 million of damage.

Nick and Fred Matt, who returned to the family business after working at Procter and Gamble and Grey Advertising in New York City, have responded to the modern craft boom with pragmatism. First, by grasping the potential of using spare capacity to contract brew for new upstarts and more established companies alike. Secondly, by modernizing its offerings, introducing the Saranac range of specialty beers to complement Haus Lager, its original flagship Helles, and Utica Club, a regional favorite that was the first licensed beer for sale following the repeal of Prohibition. It’s a policy that has left the brewery, currently the country’s 26th largest, in a strong position to survive for another century.

“Staying relevant is about giving the customer what they want on a regular basis,” Fred Matt says, noting the importance of adaptability. “I think the customer always sets the course—when you exceed the customer’s expectations, you win.”

So why has F.X. Matt been able to survive when so many other regional breweries have disappeared? According to the current president, it’s quite simple. “We have been brewing great beers for over 129 years, giving the customer what they want, providing a great place for our brewery team to work, and, at the same time, giving back to our community.”

August Schell Brewing Company
Jace Marti, who brews alongside his father at Schell’s in New Ulm, Minn., is the sixth generation of his family to work at the brewery and a direct descendant of founder August Schell, who immigrated to the US from Germany in 1848. Today, the company brews around 130,000 barrels a year. Large for a craft brewery, but well short of the millions of barrels churned out by giant industrial breweries.

To say that Jace and Ted Marti weren’t happy when the Brewers Association put them on a craft blacklist in 2012 would be a gross understatement. The reason behind the ejection especially bothered them: Schell’s wasn’t deemed traditional because it used corn in some of its beers. What’s ridiculous about the situation is the fact that the company has brewed with corn for over a century. The Martis are proud of the quality of their product and their continuation of an American lager brewing tradition that has almost disappeared. Schell’s has since been restored to the craft fold, but it’s clear that the experience has been a source of frustration and anger.

But craft or not, Jace Marti maintains that the family connection has been vital to the brewery’s survival.

“I think there are a lot of advantages to running a family owned brewery,” he says. “There is an unbelievable amount of pride and sense of satisfaction that we all have continuing on our family legacy. We have the advantage that we are completely family owned and can make some decisions that might not be the best from a strictly financial point, but are what is ultimately the best decision for the long-term health of the brewery. We all put in extremely long hours, but it doesn’t seem like work because we all enjoy it so much.”

Like F.X. Matt, the brewery has lived through some very hard times, but managed to cling on and finally prosper.

Prohibition, obviously, was difficult for everyone in the brewing industry. Schell’s survived by making soft drinks, candy, and near beer, with a little illicit moonshining on the side. In fact, in the brewery museum there’s the battered remnants of a still, which George Marti attacked with an ax for fear of getting caught by the feds. Schell’s managed to struggle through, which is more than can be said of many of its rivals. Of the 1,345 beer companies operating in the US in 1915, only 756 were still around in 1934.

The darkest hour for Schell’s, however, came in the 1970s, when it was a fight to find money for the payroll.

“By 1978, there were only 42 breweries left in the US,” Jace Marti explains. “We struggled during that time, no doubt. It was that same year my grandpa cut down a huge black walnut tree in the gardens at the brewery and sold it to make payroll. He didn’t take a paycheck for years, but always found a way to pay our employees.”

One of the oddest challenges the brewery faced was in its very early days. During the six week Dakota Conflict of 1862, southwestern Minnesota was badly hit. “Pretty much the entire city of New Ulm was burned to the ground,” Jace says. “Although the brewery was spared, that I’m sure was a very difficult time.”

The sense of history and tradition is palpable at Schell’s. The entire brewery is littered with old pieces of equipment and signs remain in German. I was particularly impressed by an ancient Linde ice machine that was installed in 1898. There’s something similar at Fuller’s where an old copper mash tun and a dropping fermentor have been left in position after being replaced by more modern equipment. Clearly, both breweries are keen to retain their connection with the past.

Continuity is a recurring theme at family breweries on both sides of the Atlantic. Harvey’s still has a family connection in the brewing department, though it isn’t the owning family, as at Schell’s. Miles Jenner succeeded his father as head brewer in 1986 and also has a son working at the brewery—a fact that makes brewing not so much a job, but a way of life for the Jenners.

But family connections and a sense of history aren’t enough to keep a company going. So how has Schell’s managed to stay in business when the vast majority of breweries founded in the 19th century have long since disappeared?

“Well, there are probably a lot of different reasons, but I think more than anything it comes down to sheer stubbornness and making a good quality product,” says Jace Marti.

A similar determination and pride has kept Fuller’s and Harvey’s independent. Everyone at these breweries, from the chairman to the drayman, believes in the beers that they produce. And everyone knows everyone else by name. They are friendly and welcoming places.

Jace Marti can’t say if his children will work at the brewery. He doesn’t have any yet. At 34, he’s a young man with decades of brewing ahead of him. It looks like the brewery will be in family hands for some time to come. Whether or not his own kids do want a career in beer, Marti doesn’t plan on giving them an easy ride.

“I think I will do what my dad did with us growing up, and that is to have us around all the time in the brewery,” he says. “We got to know everyone that worked there and learn how everything works from an early age. But when the time came that we wanted to work there, we had to start at the bottom and work our way up—no free passes.”

As is usual in British family breweries, Jace Marti learned brewing elsewhere. Miles Jenner, for example, served an apprenticeship at Greene King in Suffolk. Marti, a graduate of the University of Minnesota, Duluth, earned a Brewmaster Certificate from the Versuchs und Lehranstalt für Brauerei in Berlin and interned in Europe before returning home.

“My dad told us all that if we wanted to work at the brewery, that we had to work somewhere else first. I worked at two different jobs in high school and while I was in college, before working at the brewery full time. I also interned at two different breweries after brewing school in Germany and Austria,” he explains.

And Marti is already taking the company in new directions. He’s started a sour beer program at Star Keller on the other side of town where creative twists on Berliner Weisse age in cypress fermentation tanks. But even here there there’s a connection with the brewery’s past. The giant foeders now used for aging were once fermentors in the main brewery. Disused and derelict for decades, they have been refurbished and repurposed.

The US should cherish its small number of old family breweries, keeping alive as they do well over a century of brewing tradition. Because once they disappear, it’s gone forever. I’ll happily raise a glass to their survival. Here’s to old homes, and old breweries, too.