RALEIGH, February 15, 2013 – Matt Cohen, founder and brewmaster of Shelburne, Vermont’s Fiddlehead Brewing Company knows how to utilize patience. “I’ve gotten calls from companies in North Carolina and Texas that want to distribute my beer, and it’s very tempting since I could double my production,” he said during our recent phone conversation.
His ability to hold back from such temptations can be attributed to his well-established, locally-focused philosophy about business:
“If you’re strong in the local market, you can weather any storm that comes your way.”
Fiddlehead Brewing Company, founded in 2011, is the ultimate creation of Cohen, a brewmaster known widely in the craft beer industry as “Matty O.” He is no stranger to the world of brewing, as his legacy goes back to his lengthy tenure as head brewer at South Burlington, Vermont’s Magic Hat Brewing Company.
In keeping with his communal focus, Cohen left Magic Hat after the company was acquired by Rochester, New York-based North American Breweries, which owns such brands as Pyramid Breweries, Genesee Brewing Company and several others. Despite his long stretch at Magic Hat, the change from a small-time brewery to a more corporate climate made his departure pretty painless, as he was far from the only member of the company to leave.
“I really enjoyed my time at Magic Hat for many years, and I learned about what to do and what not to do,” he said. Surely his lessons have served him right, as Fiddlehead’s product has gone on to be one of the more sought-after beers in Northern Vermont.
Keeping It Under Control
One of the many lessons that Cohen picked up along the way, whether through Magic Hat or his own personal experience, has much to do with what breweries decide to put out for their consumers. “I quickly found out that successful breweries have a very approachable, easy-drinking flagship beer.”
As a result, Fiddlehead provides Vermont with Fiddlehead IPA, a dry-hopped India pale ale that is brewed with two pounds of three different hop strains per barrel. At 53 IBU (International Bittering Units scale that measures the bitterness of beer) and 6.3% ABV (alcohol by volume), Fiddlehead IPA makes for an accessible, citrusy, and generously-bodied IPA.
Using Fiddlehead IPA as the mobilizer, Cohen believes that while many breweries try to race to the top by pumping a variety of beers in their market, long-term success is attainable by focusing on just one brand. With 30-foot ceilings and 3,000 square feet of space in a building currently devoted to brewing, Cohen can see the best way to utilize that space is to let one brand drive it all.
With these conditions controlled by Cohen and his team for now, his eventual goal is to expand to 6,000 barrels (BBL) of annual production. This goal has already been demonstrated to be attainable, since despite his hope to do 500 BBL in his first year of operation, Cohen ended up with 1600 BBL. His goal for 2013 is to produce 3,500 BBL.
But in the meantime, it sounds like Cohen knows where he needs to be. “It really takes a few years in the market to know that you’re established,” he added.
Cohen acknowledges that many U.S. craft breweries want to grow as fast as possible, but ultimately cannot keep up with their aspirations. While there is a significant boom in the craft beer industry lately, many aspirants do not last very long.
To say that Cohen is holding back from expanding could not be further from the truth. Patience, he maintains, means knowing that the right time will arrive, and it’s best not to force it.
Besides Fiddlehead IPA, Cohen aims to brew a new beer every two to four weeks, and then retire it. “There is never a beer from Fiddlehead that is brewed twice – a practice that inspired me to want to learn more about Fiddlehead,” he said.
The brewery makes its beer available in over a hundred locations throughout Vermont in growlers and the 32 fluid ounce “growlette.” Visitors can also get a taste of the beers at the brewery, itself, or at the pizza restaurant located right next door. Among other brews, consumers can sample the Dog Eat Dog Double IPA, a monster IPA clocking in at 8.5% ABV/120IBU. On a similar scale, the brewery is putting out its one-year anniversary ale called Devil’s Right Hand, a style that Cohen identifies as a Texas Brown Ale.
Cohen is not concerned about trying to beat out the next guy in line. Fiddlehead focuses on Fiddlehead, he says, and to exhaust resources on anything else but making good beer would not fare well. While he openly expresses his disdain for brewing competitions that contain strict guidelines for certain styles, he believes true success lies in the mindset of the drinker.
A good beer should not be identified by the medals it has received, but according to Cohen, “…a good beer is where you can drink one, then want another.”
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