If you drive past the airport, bounce over a couple sets of railroad tracks, and circle to the back of an industrial complex, you'll end up at Fat Head's production facility. Inside the cavernous warehouse, brewers work around the clock to generate an endless supply of Head Hunter, one of the best India pale ales in the country.
In just one year of operation, the brewery already has cranked out 12,000 barrels of beer – almost twice the amount that Fat Head's brewpub in N. Olmsted has produced since opening in 2009. "Our growth has been just amazing," says head brewmaster Matt Cole. "What we've brewed at the production facility in one year took us four years at the brewpub, and we're a pretty high-volume brewpub."
Perhaps more exciting to fans of the suds, Cole and his team currently are putting the finishing touches on a new taproom, which will open in early June. If you imagine a bar plopped down in the middle of a humping brewery, you'll have a pretty good idea of what to expect.
"There is no separation whatsoever," Cole notes. "You're basically going to be right in the thick of a working brewery. You'll see it, you'll hear it, you'll smell it."
All I smell as we tour the roomy facility is mind-numbing hops. Cole's assistant brewer is monitoring the controls of German-built brewing rig purchased from Troeg's Brewery. The 25-barrel, state-of-the-art workhorse is fully mechanized, from adding the grains and water, to moving the mash, to flushing and draining the lines. Brewers don't have to so much as twist a valve.
"If something goes wrong, it literally sounds an alarm and calls my cellphone," says Cole.
The brew system runs pretty much all day and night, and is capable of brewing three batches at a time. Very soon, the brewery will top 15,000 barrels per year, officially upgrading them from microbrewery to a regional brewery. Already, they are the third-largest brewery in the state, behind Great Lakes and Akron's Thirsty Dog.
Fat Head's has about $2.8 million into the brewery. A 3,000,000 BTU boiler provides all the on-demand steam heat the system might need. A $100,000 centrifuge will increase yields by five or six percent. A pricey new bottling line should be able to crank out up to 100 bottles per minute. And don't even try to calculate how much is tied up in stainless steel.
But what really has Cole pumped is the taproom.
"Beer is always freshest at the source," he says.
Fortunately for Cole and Ohio brewers like him, recent legislation now makes it legal for production facilities to sell beer directly to the public, opening the way for taprooms like this one. For years wineries have made a considerable portion of their revenue from selling glasses of wine to customers who visit their tasting rooms. The 2,000-square-foot taproom space is decidedly low-key. "It's all about the beer and socializing with friends," says Cole. There will be room for 65 people at picnic tables and high-tops shellacked with innumerable bottle caps. Beneath a massive Head Hunter mural is a small bar constructed from the salvaged bowling lanes of Carousel Lanes.
Thursdays through Sunday, Fat Head's will pour about 10 drafts, with two or three coming from the brewpub in N. Olmsted. Special pours like bourbon barrel-aged Battle Axe Baltic Porter or a firkin of cask-conditioned ale will usually be available.
While there, visitors will be able to buy at retail prices growlers, 4-packs, 6-packs, large-format beers, cases and kegs. Food will come from the brewpub or food trucks, which will be invited to roll up and feed the weekend crowds.
"It's not an easy place to find, I'll admit – we are so off the beaten path," he says. "But sometimes those are the best kinds of places. I remember trying to find Victory [Brewing]. I got lost the first couple of times I tried to find it, but that's actually kind of neat. Plus, we have no neighbors to worry about."