Above: Fiddlehead’s award-winning IPA accounted for 88% of the brewery’s sales in 2022.
By Kevin Noonan
Photos courtesy Fiddlehead Brewing Company
It’s not unusual for college kids to have beer in their dormitory. Matt Cohen took that a step or two or three further — he had an actual, working brewery in his dorm at Ithaca College.
Granted, it wasn’t much of a brewery, but it was legitimate. And it was the start of what has become a successful career in the craft beer industry. Cohen and his wife, Amy, are the owners of Fiddlehead Brewing Company, which made its mark in Vermont and is now a rising star in other East Coast states.
That includes Delaware, which became the ninth state – and Cohen says probably the last – to sell Fiddlehead and its flagship India Pale Ale.
According to Matt Cohen, it all started because he couldn’t get a convincing fake ID when he was at Ithaca in the early 1990s. That meant he couldn’t get into local bars. And that meant if he wanted to drink beer (he did) then he would have to make his own.
“I started my freshman year brewing in the dorm,” Cohen says, “and then just continued that after college, when I realized quickly that that was what I wanted my profession to be.”
It’s easy to conceal drinking beer from college and dorm officials, but making it? How did Cohen get away with it?
“It was definitely a covert operation,” he says with a laugh. “There was a communal kitchen in our dorm where I made the beer late at night, when hopefully everyone was asleep. Then I would ferment it in my closet and after fermentation the beer was put in glass bottles with wing caps. Then I’d let them sit for a couple of weeks and wait for the beer to carbonate. Fortunately, I had a roommate who loved beer and was very excited about the whole process of me brewing beer.
“I’m sure if I had a pint of that beer today, I wouldn’t be able get through a pint, because it was probably pretty awful,” Cohen adds. “But for back then, for what I was doing, I was really happy with the craft.”
But even though he had a system and he a product, his brewing process wasn’t perfect, as Cohen discovered one night.
“I was just sitting around my room and all of a sudden — whoosh! It was like bombs were going off,” he says. “All of these bottles were exploding because I had put too much sugar in that batch.
“That was one of the early lessons I learned in home brewing.”
Fiddlehead of the Class
Cohen apparently learned well, because Fiddlehead has been so successful, he recently built a much bigger brewery and canning plant at his headquarters in Shelburne, Vt. And even though his initial plan was to sell his beer only in Vermont, the success of Fiddlehead prompted him to expand to Massachusetts and then New York, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and, finally, Delaware, where Fiddlehead draft beer made its debut this past April.
“It’s been really amazing, and we fit in really, really well with the Delaware market,” says Eric Schmid, Fiddlehead’s sales manager for New Jersey, Eastern Pennsylvania and now Delaware. “We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from taverns, and our launch strategy was to have only draft beer for a brief period and eventually bring in package. We feel the best way to experience and enjoy Fiddlehead is with fresh, draft beer, and so that’s been our focus.”
Cohen says he doesn’t want to expand farther than Delaware because his company prides itself on its beer’s freshness and doesn’t want it sitting on shelves for weeks on end — Fiddlehead’s goal is to have its products go no more than two weeks from production to consumption.
So far, whatever Cohen has done has worked. When he opened his modest brewery in 2011 — after years working as brew master for a brewing company in South Burlington, Vt. — his goal was to sell 500 barrels of beer in his first year. He sold 15,000.
“So, we were off to the races from the beginning,” Cohen says.
And they’re still setting the pace. In 2022, Fiddlehead sold 80,000 barrels and Cohen says that’s projected to go to 100,000 next year. That was enough for Fiddlehead to qualify for the 2022 Brewers Association’s list of Top 50 craft breweries by volume — Fiddlehead was No. 49. And Brewbound, a national trade publication on the brewing industry, named Fiddlehead as its Craft Brewery of the Year for 2022.
The Cohens certainly picked the right place to start their business. According to the Brewers Association, which tracks sales and trends of craft breweries, in 2022 Vermont was No. 1 in the nation per capita in the number of craft breweries (15.6 per 100,000 adults 21 or older) and No. 1 in gallons consumed per capita (20.1 gallons per adult 21 or older).
Keys (and Kegs) to Success
When the Cohens created Fiddlehead, they had a few guidelines they were determined to follow:
One, they wouldn’t produce a bunch of different beers at first and instead focus on their IPA, which proved to be a wise move— their IPA accounted for 88 percent of Fiddlehead sales in 2022. They’ve added different beers since then, but the IPA is still their biggest seller.
“A lot of brewers make a mistake by coming out with 20 different brands,” Cohen says. “But my philosophy has always been to narrow our focus, because you’ll get better results.”
Two, their emphasis would be on fresh, draft beer, although they did expand their canning operations during the covid pandemic.
“Temperature and oxygen are the two worst enemies of beer,” Cohen says. “Time is not on your side when it comes to beer. That’s why we demand cold storage of all of our products.”
Three, they would concentrate on putting their beer into ski resorts in Vermont and New Hampshire. The Cohens
realized that not only did skiers drink a lot of beer, many of them came from nearby states like Massachusetts and New York. They would discover Fiddlehead and want to purchase it at home, so, when the Cohens were finally ready to expand, the marketplace was ready for them.
“We wanted to start slowly and build our brand carefully,’ Matt Cohen says. “Of course, we want to sell as much beer as we can, but we also believe that quality is more important than quantity. That’s why we’ll dump a batch down the drain that doesn’t meet our standards. You can’t be afraid to dump beer.
“Really, it’s the art of brewing that really drew me to this. I think of brewing as art meets science and creativity. That’s what makes it so much fun. This is my profession, but it’s also my passion.”
By the way, in case you’re wondering where the name “Fiddlehead” comes from, it has nothing to do with a musical instrument. A fiddlehead is the young shoot of an ostrich fern, which tastes something like asparagus and grows in swampy areas of the Northeast, which, of course, includes Vermont.
“At first, I wanted to open a regional brewery and that name definitely has a regional meaning, and I liked the sound of it,” Cohen says. “And I don’t even like asparagus.”
— For more information about Fiddlehead Brewery and its different beers, go to FiddleheadBrewing.com.