UTICA – If you remember Schultz and Dooley, you’re old enough to drink the two free pints offered guests at the end of a tour of the Saranac Brewery in Utica. Heck, if you remember Schultz and Dooley, it’s possible your grandkids are old enough to drink the two pints.
Even if you don’t remember the most famous talking beer steins in history, touring the brewery is worth the trip.
The tour begins in the Brewery Store, which sells T-shirts, sweatshirts and lots of other stuff that says Saranac on it. It also sells steins that look like Schultz and Dooley, although they won’t talk to you. They did that only in TV commercials that ran from 1959 to 1964. Their voices were supplied by Jonathan Winters, and they were designed by Bill (sometimes spelled Bil) Baird, among the most famous puppeteers of the mid- and late-20th century.
Without a lot of trouble you can find samples of their commercials on the Internet. Look especially for the one where they are the first beer steins on the moon.
They advertised Utica Club beer, which at the time was the main product of the F.X. Matt Brewing Co. Today the main product is Saranac beer; the steins in the Saranac Brewery Store sell for less than $50 or more than $100; if you have an original you should be able to get at least $1,200 for it.
The tour is a delight. It takes about 45 minutes to an hour, not counting the time at the end you need to consume the free drinks. The tour costs $5. And that’s less than the cost of the beer (or of soft drinks if you’re not old enough to know who Schultz and Dooley are; kids under 12, by the way, get in free; I think the place feels sorry for anyone who doesn’t know Schultz and Dooley).
From the store you enter a large room of what used to be a mansion where the tour guide is likely to ask if you know what the ceiling is made of. It looks like an old-fashioned tin ceiling, but – and a little girl, maybe 10 years old, guessed right – it’s actually cardboard. Fooled me.
The guide told us that Saranac is the 12th largest brewery in the country (various websites rank it 15th or seventh, but these things can be measured a bunch of different ways). Then she smiles and adds, of course, the largest produces as much beer in a day as Saranac does in a year.
She later tells us, without noting the connection between the two facts, that about a quarter of the beer produced by the Matt Brewing Co. is for other brewers, craft brewers. F.X. Matt has produced, under contract, Brooklyn Lager, Pete’s Wicked Ale, McSorley’s and a bunch of other well-known brands. (They can make it, but are not allowed to sell it, our guide says.)
The connection is this: As more and more of the American beer market was taken over by two giant brewers, Anheuser Busch (Budweiser) and MillerCoors, there was a reaction, a demand, among beer aficionados (sometimes called beer snobs) for more variety and more interesting alternatives. That created the micro-brewery and brew pub phenomenon that grew in the late 20th century. The development was a blessing for smaller breweries that avoided takeovers, breweries like Saranac.
On the tour you’ll see some huge tanks that can supply, our tour guide informed us, 10 people drinking one beer a day with enough brew to last 88 years.
She also told us that the brewery, for a while known as the West End Brewing Co., was the first in the country to sell beer after Prohibition ended. In fact, since the brewery had beer to sell the day after Prohibition ended, and since it takes a minimum of several days to produce beer, they clearly brewed something when doing that was still illegal.
As you pass through the brewery, you’ll enter one room where the temperature is about 30 degrees, and another that has barrels of hops and barley that you’re allowed to scoop up with your hand and smell. And a display of what seems like several hundred cans and bottles of the various brands that have been produced at the brewery in the more than the century and a quarter it has operated.
The one disappointment of the tour was that, because it was a Saturday, the bottling room was idle. There were long conveyor belts going this way and that and a series of contraptions that you just want to see in motion, something you might see in an old cartoon. But you have to be there on a weekday to see the machinery in motion.
The tour ends with a visit to an 1880s-style pub where the only beer you can get are samples. The guide uses that word. Turns out the pub has a special kind of license, a samples license, and they can’t serve anything but the beer they brew on site. And the soft drinks for kids.
Saranac brews several flavors of soda under its own name. These include familiar flavors, like root beer and ginger beer. It also brews – oh, first the story the guide told us: A member of the Matt family was in a restaurant with a bar and kids kept going up and ordering Shirley Temples, and the bartender was clearly unhappy. When asked why, he noted that it was a pain to mix the drink and, besides, kids never tip. So the Matt family decided to bottle a soda called Shirley Temple. Made life a little easier for bartenders and made a little money for the brewery.
In the 1880s bar we were given a choice of about eight different beers. I chose, first, a pint of Wet Hop IPA, which was hoppy and mildly bitter, and then a pint of a pumpkin flavored beer. The pumpkin flavoring was subtle enough not to interfere with the beer flavor, and it was surprisingly pleasing. Large bowls of little pretzels helped.
If you go
Take the Thruway (I-90) to Exit 31; turn right after the tolls and follow Genesee South through half of downtown, and turn right on Court Street. But be careful: Court Street is not well marked at the intersection with Genesee. Turn right at the Key Bank, and you’ll be on Court. The turn is about a mile from the interstate exit. Take Court 6/10 of a mile to Varick Street. The brewery is big and easy to see, and there’s free parking on the brewery grounds and on surrounding streets.
If you want a full meal following the tour, there are several nice restaurants within walking distance. Try the Celtic Hand, across Varick Street from the brewery. Prices range from $7.59 for wings to $16.99 for blackened salmon with blue cheese sauce.
From now until May tours are available at 1 and 3 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. The brewery suggests you call ahead to make reservations (800-765-6288). Tours are more frequent in summer months.