“Our Utica proclaimed at birth that she was here to stay.” So goes the alma mater of Utica College, in the heart of the Mohawk Valley, in the heart of New York State. (And once billing itself as the Knit-Goods Capital of the World!).
SARANAC: THE BRAND
The F.X. Matt Brewing Company — the maker of Saranac Ginger Beer — might also have proclaimed at birth that it was here to stay. Because this regional, family-owned brewery has been successfully negotiating the ups and downs of the beer business since it began producing suds in 1888.
And remember — that swath of time includes some pretty serious ups and downs. Two World Wars fought against Germany seriously dinged the cultural cachet of Teutonic-tinged enterprises like this one, founded by F.X. Matt, who arrived in Utica by way of the Black Forest. And don’t forget that between 1920 and 1933, Prohibition cashiered scores upon scores of breweries like this one.
During those Dry Days under Harding and Coolidge, the F.X. Matt Brewing Company had to get into the soft drink business just in order to survive. Notoriously nasty, el cheapo party beer Utica Club (a flagship product of F.X. Matt Brewing Company) began its run as a “rejuvenating Malt Tonic” — a beeresque beverage made from malt and hops but with only 2% alcohol. This miserly morsel of intoxicant made Utica Club legal even under the Volstead Act’s stringent prohibitives.
F.X. Matt Brewing apparently began making root beer in-house, as a novelty — and as something to serve kids accompanying their parents on brewery tours. Ten years after saving itself from another series of economic downturns with the creation of a new premium craft beer brand, Saranac, the company in 1995 began bottling and selling this root beer under the same name.
“Soft drinks aren’t exactly a walk in the park,” groused Nicholas Matt, the company president, four years later in 1999. But Saranac’s line of specialty sodas have done well enough to spawn a whole array of flavors, including an orange cream, a black cherry cream, and a Shirley Temple.
SARANAC: THE EXPERIENCE
Saranac makes a decent ginger beer. It is fairly sweet, but doesn’t go overboard. The ginger flavor is its strongest feature: this is bright and powerful, and distinctive by being considerably less “mellow” than the flavor of most large-production ginger ales. On the other hand, Saranac’s offering does not bring the heat. The chemists must have done torturous things to the botanical original to extract so much taste with so little accompanying spice.
This is a good, drinkable, refreshing, ginger beer that will deliver you an experience with slightly more zing than a Seagram’s or a store brand, but which contains nothing to intimidate a meek palate — along with nothing to tempt an adventurous one.
Let’s call it “entry level.”
POSTSCRIPT: In my review of Idris Hot & Fiery Ginger Beer I spoke about “barley waters” — soft drinks that combine splashes of fruit juice with barley flour — and which at least in some cases may be a brewery’s thrifty repurposing of some of its by-products and leavings.
I speculated about whether or not barley waters ever had or ever could make it as an American beverage — be they specialty health products or otherwise. As it turns out, F.X. Matt Brewing Company tried its hand with this very thing.
The makers of Saranac Ginger Beer introduced their supposedly vitamin-packed “Barlee Farms” line of drinks to grocery store shelves in the early 1990s. Acupoll, a “marketing intelligence service” that surveyed consumers about new products, came up with bad news for barley waters. “Barlee Farms” received Acupoll’s highest negative rating of 1992. So beverage entrepreneurs, be bearish on barley water: it’s probably as bad as it sounds.