Fat Head’s Saloon began in Pittsburgh in 1992. It was also then that college student Matt Cole learned to homebrew and started sales work for Pennsylvania Brewing Co. Fast-forward to now, Fat Head’s founders are partners with Cole, who has delivered his now-famous hop-forward beers to the hopheads of Ohio.
All About Beer: When did you become a hophead?
Matt Cole: My favorite beer [Baltimore Brewing Co.’s DeGroen’s Pilsner] is about 45 IBUs, and it didn’t take me very long to appreciate a hop-forward beer. I remember [Great Lakes’] Burning River Pale Ale being a cascade-driven beer with this amazing cascade aroma and citrus flavor. That beer was also very inspirational. I did one trip in the early 2000s to the West Coast IPA Festival and met the guys at Marin [Brewing Co.] and Bear Republic [Brewing Co.]. We became friends, and I was able to ask them techniques with hops and what to look for. They were so great and open. Once I started to apply that knowledge, I noticed our beer started to become in tune with what they were doing, or I thought it did. So I was ready when we opened the North Olmsted brewpub. I was aware of how important securing hop contracts was going to be, and understanding the different hop notes.
We had only been open for four months and we won the West Coast IPA Festival. Stunning. As a young company, I was afraid to enter into the GABF [Great American Beer Festival]. Then our beer won in 2010 and 2011. It forced us to take a step back and say, ‘Maybe we need to get our beer to more people, and our beer can stand on its own.’ We realized it could stand on its own alongside the likes of Ballast Point, Green Flash, Sierra Nevada, Russian River and so many others.
How has Ohio evolved recently?
I used to brew at Rocky River Brewing Co., and we always were winning awards. I felt Ohio then was a few steps behind, but now I can honestly say, between JAFB Wooster, Brew Kettle, and others, that there are some dynamite hoppy beers coming out of the this state. The past two years have seen IPA and Double IPA win GABF gold by Ohio brewers. I see the quality getting better and better year to year.
How did you come to open a brewery in Portland, Oregon?
My best friend who helped me in Ohio was also general contractor for the brewery. He took a job with a restaurant group in Portland, and his group approached us about bringing a brewery out there. I fell in love with the city instantly. It’s a very educated consumer and an incredibly beer-savvy town. I love the food scene there, and I have only scratched the surface.
It puts us also in proximity to our hop growers and having better relationships with our hop growers. I will go now two to three times leading up to and during the hop harvest so I can see the harvest taking shape and know what’s going on. I think our beers can hold their own out there, and hopefully consumers will continue to feel the same in a very demanding market. It’s started out very well, and very welcoming.
What surprised you about the Ohio beer scene over the last few years?
The sheer number of breweries opening up. … A lot of those are nanos, but there are some breweries in some pretty remote locations. It’s wild. I think Ohio is a great educated consumer and is very supportive of our industry, and while I’m not saying we will lead the country in breweries per capita, we have a great presence.
Head Hunter and Hop Juju are regular winners on the circuit. I assume they lead in the brewery.
Believe it or not, in Ohio our blueberry beer is becoming our No. 1- selling beer. It could be the trend in the market of how larger brewers are losing share, and consumers could be using it as a transitional beer. Our seasonals (Spooky Tooth Pumpkin and Holly Jolly Christmas) are really strong beers for the third and fourth quarter. Our session IPA, Sunshine Daydream, is definitely growing and is a go-to beer for me at 4.9%. In Portland all they want is hops. They like Belgians and hefes, but at end of day we could have 10 hoppy beers on tap and they would be very happy.
What is the beer you’re most proud of on tap now and why?
I have a couple wild ones. I would probably say Day Glow, the 100 percent Brett fermentation. It’s one of those beers that took eight months to make. We put it in a tank and forgot about it, and [it] took seven months for the Brett to get going. We didn’t give up on it, and it takes so long for those flavors to develop. I’m on a real sour kick. We made a gose [Go To Gose] recently where I did the kettle sour, and learning how to do that came from friends in Portland, who coached me through our first kettle sour with Lactobacillus.
You’ve done a fair amount of collaborations, haven’t you?
We have brewed with Stone, Bear Republic, Alpine, Tröegs, Founders, Devils Backbone and the latest one will be New Belgium. We thoroughly enjoy our collaborations and learning from other brewers. Having those guys to go to when things don’t go right or when we are ready to try something new and different. We embrace and love the fact we have some great collaboration friends, and we call them partners in the industry that help us as much as we help them.
Go to the next page to read about Matt Cole at a glance.
This Q&A appears in the World Beer Festival-Cleveland Beer Guide. The festival is produced by All About Beer Magazine.