January 17, 2001
F.X. Matt II died yesterday. He was a brewer, a poet, a reader and a gentleman, and my life is richer for having known him.
We met when I was writing advertising copy for an agency that had the F.X. Matt Brewing Company account. I was touted to him as someone who knew a lot about beer, but I think he must have rolled his eyes when he heard that, such a predictable claim coming from an ad agency.
But one day we somehow got around to discussing brewing in the old days, and how brewers would close the windows when a thunderstorm was coming. “Why did they do that?” he asked me. “Because if they didn’t, the beer would get foxed,” I said. And with the word “foxed” his eyes widened and the beginnings of smile appeared, and he said, “Maybe you do know something about beer.” And we talked about how the coming storm would kick wild yeasts into the air and into the brewery through any open windows, and thence into the fermenting beers with disastrous results.
The days of open windows and open vats were past, but a brewer still had to watch for things like brew kettle boil-overs. He told me he managed the brewery with an MBWA: Management By Walking Around. I walked with him a few times; he listened, he sniffed the air, he looked at everything as he went, and he greeted every employee.
He once left a meeting because, he said, “I have a meeting with my guru.” That was Joe Owades, the inventor of light beer, and the creator of many beers of character. It was Joe who helped F.X. realize his vision for a truly fine lager that came to be called Saranac, the brewery’s flagship beer today. We left the brewery to return to Syracuse and on the way to car saw F.X. and Joe in their shirt sleeves, conducting their meeting while walking around the block, talking about beer.
Although he was the grandson of a brewer and born on the day Prohibition was repealed, he did not go straight to brewing school. F.X. went to Princeton; he was an English major. And all his life he enjoyed writing poetry, although he was quick to add that his poetry was from the doggerel end of the verse world. It was fun and it rhymed, but he had no pretensions beyond that.
And F.X. loved to read. When a schoolboy, home sick from school, he ran out of books, and so went into his sister’s room and picked up a Nancy Drew mystery. “It was pretty good,” he told me.
After one presentation at the brewery, we went to a restaurant in Utica for lunch. I saw him standing by the bar, alone, and went over to talk. “What are you reading now?” I said.
“Women authors,” he replied. “Iris Murdoch, Willa Cather. I just finished Death Comes for the Archbishop and when she writes about New Mexico, you can taste the air.”
I once asked him if he thought of writing fiction, and he said, “I could never be a good writer, because I’m not a good observer.” That was F.X. all over. He knew his own limits, but he also knew what made other people good at what they did.
He was modest, even shy. When television advertising brought him a modicum of celebrity, and someone approached him at a ball game, he refused to sign an autograph. He wasn’t Joe DiMaggio or Cary Grant. He couldn’t understand why anyone would want his autograph.
I thought about all these moments this morning when I read that he had died. And I was okay, until the last memory hit me.
Years ago, F.X. told me that when he died and went to heaven, he wanted to talk to God about yeast. “It’s one of the great mysteries. I want Him to explain to me how it works.”
I live in the hope that F.X. got his explanation yesterday, and that God, like a good host, then introduced him to Willa Cather.