An Afternoon With Matt Cole of Fat Head’s
Interview with the brewer at Fat Head’s Brewery and Saloon
September 24, 2009
Written by Cliff
This past Saturday, Matt Cole, head brewer at Fat Head’s Brewery & Saloon in North Olmsted Ohio, graciously let me follow him around as he brewed a batch of their Oktoberfest. As I sipped on some deliciously hoppy Hop JuJu Double IPA, I was able to ask Matt some questions about how Fat Head’s has been going, his award winning beers and Fat Head’s First Annual IPA Fest that is coming up in October.
Question (Q): So how did you get into brewing?
Matt Cole (MC): Homebrewing mostly. I took a liking to quality beer like anybody else and began homebrewing. I was tending bar while at the University of Pittsburgh, and became friends with the sales manager from Penn Brewing. Later I became a sales rep for Penn Brewing and got involved in the brewing operations.
Q: Did you have any formal schooling?
MC: I took the Seibel short course in ’95 and then took a course in England called Brew Lab at the University of Sunderland in ’96.
Q: Where else have you brewed?
MC: I did an apprenticeship through Baltimore Brewing Company, Great Lakes Brewing Company for about a year, then Rocky River Brewing Company for about 10 or 11 years and now here at Fat Head’s.
Q: Fat Head’s has been open since April, how are things going so far?
MC: Sales have been booming. I’m pretty sure were on a clip to probably be one of the highest, per capita, brewpubs in the state of Ohio, probably ever. I don’t know who else has sold more beer, or will sell more beer, than we will in one year. In hindsight, I could have made the brewery bigger if I would have known we were going be so busy. I mean, we have all of these guest taps to compete with, so I though it would be about 50/50, but it’s really more like 85/15. So things are better than I anticipated.
Q: Why did you go with a franchised brand instead of starting your own concept?
MC: We were going to do something different, that didn’t happen because literally, no pun intended, we could not get up off the ground (the original concept was going the be called Aviator). We fell on some really hard economic times during that course of a year and were weren’t able to secure, we had an SBA loan, but we couldn’t secure it because we weren’t able to come up the collateral needed for the loan, so as a last ditch effort, I went back to my friend Glen at Fat Head’s to see if he would invest in Aviator. After a couple meetings it switched gears to become a Fat Head’s. We had an established name, established brand, track record, I had financials and a lot of concrete things I could take and put in front of people that had legs, and I love Fat Head’s, I used to live there when I lived in Pittsburgh. That’s where I used to like to hang out, and I liked the concept and it was fate that brought the concept here.
Q: What was it like opening a Brewpub from scratch?
MC: Miserable! It’s everybody’s dream, supposedly, but it was absolutely the hardest thing I have been through and have no desire to try to do this any time soon. The not knowing, we signed a lease on this building, we knew it had a lot of potential, but we probably pulled the trigger too soon on signing the lease with not having all of our ducks in a row, like financing, other things, we struggled really hard for a while. There were periods without pay. It was rewarding when we finally opened the door, but up until that point it was a lot of uncertainty, a lot of sleepless nights.
Q: Did you ever think of doing a production brewery instead of a brewpub?
MC: There will be a production brewery in the future. The physical location will most likely be back in Pittsburgh. First stages right now, we are in the process of doing all of our label design for Head Hunter IPA, Voodoo Monkey Chocolate Stout and then some of our seasonal beers like the Phantom Pumpkin and Christmas Ale. I’ve got a three head filler here, so in the next month you’ll be able to go home with a six pack, so some of the bottling is coming and the brands are going to get out in some select places and that is phase one of bottling.
Q: Many of your beers seem to be fairly adherent to style guidelines, is that something you intend to do or just the kinds of beers you like to brew and drink?
MC: I experimented a little more over at Rocky River, and I’d like to do a little more experimentation here. We only use traditional imported barley, so right now we are making classic styles, but experimenting with custom mashing, and that makes a difference. We’re looking to make wort with the right percentage of fermentable and unfermentable sugars, the ability to decoct. A lot of the beers that we have done so far are stylistically correct but we are still being creative with processes. We smoked the barley on our loading dock for the Up in Smoke Porter, for the Battle Axe Baltic Porter, we caramelized the sugars, we decocted the Gudenhoppy Pils (which is awesome FYI) and the Head Hunter uses mash hops, some first wort hops and crazy amounts of dry hops. Some things that might happen in the future is some barrel-aged stuff, maybe blending the porters together (Smoked and Baltic), you know, dry hopping the pilsner a second time, so we’re having fun creating beers that are stylistically correct, but there is definitely some more experimentation in the future.
Q: Head Hunter IPA seems to be your flagship beer, was that intended?
MC: That was intended. That was one that was definitely a good beer, it has a cool name, and it can go in bottles. The cult breweries seem to be the one popular ones and I think this beer can have a cult following. I’m not trying to say we want to be the next Three Floyd’s or anything. I’ve got a lot of friends that helped me with that beer. I’ll be quite honest with you, I’ve got a lot of friends in Northern California that do it very well, and that have shared some very cool things with me that they probably wouldn’t share with a lot of other people. I went out there, worked in their breweries for a week, slept on their couches, picked their brains and left with recipes. Do I follow them? No, but do I use a lot of the same procedural operations, absolutely. There is a lot of Racer 5, a lot of Russian River, not that I’m trying to knock there beer off, that’s not what I’m trying to do, but if my beer tastes as good as their beer, then I’ve done my job. It’s more so about getting that big dank nose, that right balance of bitter sweetness and the drinkablilty where it needs to be, crazy aromatics, those are the kind of things I’m trying to achieve.
Q: Speaking of Head Hunter, Head Hunter just won the Bistro IPA Fest in Hayward California. How did you feel about that win?
MC: That was probably, in my brewing career, the biggest accomplishment. I’m very hard on myself on the quality of my beers and I don’t think I’m ever getting to where I need to be. Very rarely do I go, fuck man, that’s it! Its comforting to know that we went out there with the best or the best, in an industry that’s dominate with guys that wrote the style, and a small little brewery from Ohio beat them. That means were on the right track at least.
Q: And speaking of IPA Fests’, Fat Head’s will be holdings Wit’s First Annual IPA Fest on October 17 as part of Cleveland Beer week. Can you give us any insight as what to expect?
MC: We are going to have a large abundance of west coast style IPA’s. We are also going have some local IPA’s on tap as well, as well as beers like Ithaca Flower Power, Avery Maharaja, but I also want places like Hoppin’ Frog, Ohio Brewing and Buckeye to be able to go head to head with the west coast brews. We have put together a judging panel and these beers are going to be evaluated. We are trying to mimic the Bistro IPA Fest, but we don’t have quite as many beers to pull from as they do, but when its all said in done we will have around 37-38 IPA’s, where as they had around 70. But that is what we are working to and this one is to get the seed planted.
Q: Any other events here at Fat Head’s during Cleveland Beer Week?
MC: We are having three “Meet the Brewer” nights. We have Richard Hargrove from Bear Republic, Fred Karm from Hoppin’ Frog and one of the owners of Weyerbacher. It’s going to be more of like an IPA week. Whatever beers we don’t go through during the fest will be on, and we are pretty much going to line up the board with IPA’s all week. It’s going to be a celebration of the hop. I love Buckeye’s 420 Festival and this is going to beer a week long event of good hoppy beers. We’ll have our double on (Hop JuJu Double IPA), Head Hunter and our Pack-a-Wallop Strong Pale Ale. We are also going to do some things like double dry hop them and put them on cask, so it should be fun.
Q: Also coming up is Great American Beer Festival and I see that a handful of breweries across the country have each brewed a beer called Collaborative Evil that will be showcased there. Who are some of the other breweries and what’s it all about?
MC: Put together by a friend of mine named Todd Ashman, he’s a legendary brewer from Flossmoor Station in the Chicago area. They did it last year, made sort of a Belgian Dark Strong Ale and used unique sugars and a unique spice of some sort. This year it’s a strong golden ale. Most of the breweries are from the west coast, FiftyFifty Brewing, Flossmoor Station, Speakeasy, Sacramento Brewing Company, Oakshire, Valley Brew and a couple more, there are nine total. They gave us a table at GABF and they are allowing us to go up and talk about our beers for a little bit. We blended four yeasts, used candy sugar, corn sugar, some of these guys used some weird sugars, I kept it kind of simple, let the yeast do most of the work, and then we added a little bit pepper. You know, what it is for us as much as anything is a way for us to market our brewery, it’s a networking thing. We are all going to go to breakfast on Saturday morning, just kind of pick each others brains and hopefully one or two of us will get on stage.
Q: What other beers are entered at GABF?
MC: We entered the Oktoberfest, Gudenhoppy Pils, Battle Axe Baltic Porter, Up in Smoke Smoked Porter, Headhunter, Hop JuJu Double IPA and out Tree Hugger Honey Rye in the Specialty Honey Category.
Q: All the rage among many craft beer enthusiasts is big beers, barrel aged beers and sour beers. Any interest or plans for anything along those lines?
MC: I’m not a big sour beer fan, but I am starting to appreciate them more and learn about them, but I don’t want to bring lactic acid into my brewery. So I doubt sours beers will be coming out of here. It we do make anything tart, it will be yeast driven. Big beers, yes, we are planning on a Barley Wine, Imperial Stout, I want to do a wheat wine, but right now we don’t have the tank space to tie up for beers for a long period of time. Barrel-aged, yes, I just need to get down there and get some barrels. We have the space, we lifted our tanks up for a purpose to put things under them, so we have the ability to roll barrels in and out.
Q: And last, but not least, what’s your favorite beer that you brew, your favorite import and favorite American craft beer?
MC: Right now our Pils, if I want to drink beer and not fall down, that’s what I want, and when the Head Hunter is right on it’s awesome. Our best Belgian has been Sorcerer; I really like the yeast character on that one. As far as the beer that I like, it probably goes back to a pilsner, there is this little brewery in Bamberg called Keesmann. They make a pils called Herren pils that is the hoppest pils I’ve ever tasted, just tons of Spalt hops, it’s magical. I really respect Victory Brewing, those guess mentored me, they make some awesome lager beers. Obviously Russian River, it’s hard not to respect Russian River. He (Vinnie Cilurzo) is so innovative, that’s a guy that is a pioneer.
Fat Head’s IPA Fest is Saturday, October 17 from 12 – 5. Tickets are $25 and include 6 beer samples, tasting glass and t-shirt. For ticket information call Fat Head’s at 440-801-1001
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we are pretty much going to line up the board with IPA’s all week. It’s going to be a celebration of the hop.
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