Fat Head’s Brewery: Focused on Quality in Ohio

From the Source by | Nov 2016 | Issue #118
Photos by Peter Larson

After 15 years in the craft brewing industry at Cleveland’s Rocky River, award-winning brewmaster and Siebel grad Matt Cole decided it was time to strike out on his own. Unfortunately, the year was 2008, and with the country in the middle of a banking crisis, money was tight. Cole was $150,000 short of his funding goal, and running out of options. His dream was slipping away.

Desperate to find a solution, his thoughts turned to a man named Glenn Benigni who owned a successful beer bar in Pittsburgh called Fat Head’s where Cole had hung out during his college years at the University of Pittsburgh. Maybe Benigni would want to invest in a brewery?

“I will never forget that drive to Pittsburgh,” Cole says. “On my way, I pulled over and thought, ‘I’m wasting my time, I’m turning around and forgetting the whole thing.’” Ultimately though, Cole persevered and met Benigni and his wife Michelle in Pittsburgh. Fortunately for the sake of the younger man’s aspirations, Benigni was very familiar with Cole’s brewing expertise.

“Every couple weeks, a friend of mine from Ohio was bringing me growlers of Matt’s beer from the Rocky River Brewery, so I knew he brewed great beer,” remembers Benigni. “With the reputation and quality of Matt’s beers, I knew I wanted to be part of that. It was an opportunity to take the Fat Head’s brand to the next level. It was a no-brainer.”

So a deal was struck in 2009, with the new brewery and taproom opening in North Olmsted, Ohio, under the Fat Head’s name.

Always Fresh, Never Filtered
In addition to the bar in Pittsburgh and the 10-barrel brewpub in North Olmsted, Fat Head’s now includes a production brewery and taproom in Middleburg Heights, Ohio, that went online in 2012, and another 10-barrel brewpub in Portland, Ore., which opened in 2014. And what sets Fat Head’s apart from its peers is its winning streak at the Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Cup. Since the original brewery opened, it has collected 25 medals between the two competitions across a wide range of styles: IPA, Porter, Rye beer, wheat beer, Red Ale, Black IPA, Schwarzbier, and smoked beer.

Fat Head’s is also one of only two breweries to win the National IPA Championships twice, with its Head Hunter IPA emerging as Grand Champion in 2010 and again in 2012. Remarkably, Fat Head’s is a 7-year-old brewery that has medaled at GABF for eight straight years, plus the last three World Beer Cups.

How does a small regional brewery consistently brew so many great beers? For starters, Cole explains, “many of our beers are hop-forward, and 20 percent of the hops we use are [whole] cone hops. The end result is a brighter hop flavor, especially on the tail end.”

To hand select the best raw ingredients Cole personally visits Yakima, Wash., each year. “You have to stand out, particularly in aroma,” he says, referring to the GABF competition. Hop selection and hop management has a lot to do with that.

Cole is also passionately opposed to filtering any of his beers. “Filtration strips out character, color, flavor, body, mouthfeel, and aroma,” he explains. “It is especially detrimental to the aromatics.” Accordingly, he is more than willing to let his beers clarify via an extra day or two of conditioning. “Any remaining yeast in the bottle is also going to scavenge oxygen from the headspace, which will help preserve the quality and extend the shelf life,” he adds.

118fatheads2A Future Built on Quality
The other secret to the success of Fat Head’s is engaged employees. “Without good people you can’t make it work; creating a good culture in our workplace is important,” Cole insists. “Fat Head’s is a fun place to work; where people can grow with the company. We just don’t have any turnover.”

Mike Zoscak, head brewer at the North Olmsted brewpub, is a prime example. He left a job at The Brew Kettle in Strongsville, Ohio, to join the bartending staff at Fat Head’s because of the culture and the potential to become a brewer. In his view, one thing is critical to the quality of the beer at Fat Head’s: freshness. “The key is keeping it fresh; we are fortunate that we usually move through our batches in a short two to four week span,” he says.

“I love seeing things on social media from someone that just bought a six-pack that was only three days old,” adds Cole. “That’s what I get excited about.”

A new, bigger, and better brewing facility is in the works a few miles down the road, but to manage shelf life and quality, the goal isn’t to go nationwide. The $13 million production facility and taproom will open in late 2017 with an initial capacity of 60,000 barrels. Bottling capacity will double and plans include a canning line, an automated kegging line, a new lab space, and a 10-barrel pilot system. The new brewery will also include a 12,000-square-foot restaurant and beer hall, plus a spacious beer garden. And, Fat Head’s will enter an entirely new arena of beer production with the addition of a separate space for open fermentation.

“Yes, we are going to grow significantly, but our focus has to remain on quality,” says Benigni. “We want to keep winning awards and having fun.”

It’s a simple conviction shared by Cole. “There are so many choices out there that brand loyalty is not what it used to be,” he explains. “If you don’t deliver day in and day out, the consumer will find someone that will.”

John Rowe is a regular at the North Olmsted taproom and tracks all of the beers he drinks. “I’m drinking my 783rd Head Hunter IPA here at Fat Head’s,” he says with pride one afternoon over lunch. How’s that for consistency?

Middleburg Heights Brewhouse
30 hectoliter, 5-vessel brewhouse
6 30-barrel fermentors
6 90-barrel fermentors
5 125-barrel fermentors
14 170-barrel fermentors
3 155-barrel bright tanks
1 30-barrel bright tank
150 bourbon and wine barrels

On Tap
Head Hunter IPA: An aggressively hopped West Coast-style IPA with complex hop flavors and aromas of pine, grapefruit, and pineapple balanced by a medium body. 7.5% ABV

Hop JuJu Imperial IPA: Generous additions of Citra, Cascade, Simcoe, Centennial, and Chinook create massive flavors and dank aromas that explode with tropical fruits, pine, and citrus rind. 9.0% ABV

Bumble Berry Honey Blueberry Ale: This light, refreshing ale uses lightly kilned malts, Ohio honey, and real blueberry pureé to produce a touch of sweetness with a refreshing blueberry finish. 5.3% ABV

Bone Head Imperial Red IPA: Hopped to the max with a deep amber color, intense hop flavor and aroma, and a smooth-as-silk mouthfeel that keeps the resinous CTZ hops in balance. 9.4% ABV

Trail Head Pale Ale: Deep golden in color, brewed with whole-flower Simcoe and Citra hops. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of this beer goes to the Cleveland Metroparks Trails Fund. 6.3% ABV

Battle Axe Baltic Porter: Aromas of dried fruits, licorice, and chocolate are integrated in this complex brew made with eight malts. Longer lager times create a smooth and creamy mouth feel. 8.6% ABV