Matt Cohen ’96 might not be considered unusual for finding his calling on campus, and in the library no less. Except he wasn’t studying but flipping through a magazine—and his spark of inspiration was an ad for a home brewing kit.
“Late one night I went down to the kitchen at the base of the East Tower, boiled up some wort, and brewed my first batch of beer, a light American ale,” recalls Cohen, who opened the Fiddlehead Brewing Company in Shelburne, Vermont, on New Year’s Eve in 2011. “I thought it was pretty delicious, but I’m sure if I tried it now I wouldn’t be able to get through a glass.”
An anthropology major, Cohen found that his hobby fit neatly into his studies. “I soon realized that every culture had a fermented beverage,” he says. But he wasn’t sure brewing would become a career until after he graduated and moved to Vermont.
He started out at Shed Restaurant & Brewery in Stowe and then landed a job at Magic Hat in 1998. By 2004, Cohen was head brewer and the brains behind fan favorites such as amber ale Roxy Rolles and summer ale Wacko, which incorporates beet juice.
When North American Breweries bought Magic Hat last year, Cohen saw the atmosphere becoming more corporate. “I like the entrepreneurial spirit of craft beer,” he says. “I had always wanted to own a brewery, and it seemed like the right time.”
Fiddlehead Brewing Company makes its home in a barn-like structure on Route 7 outside of Burlington, Vermont. In the tasting room, Cohen sells his sole brew—an India pale ale—for patrons to drink on-site or carry next door to the BYOB pizza parlor. The ale is also on tap in more than 100 restaurants and bars in Northern Vermont.
“A lot of brewers make the mistake of brewing the beers that they want to drink, and their tastes aren’t necessarily in line with the rest of America,” Cohen says. “At Magic Hat, and at Fiddlehead, we put an emphasis on drinkability. My IPA, while it is hoppy and has beautiful hop aroma, is not as bitter as a lot of the other larger-production IPAs in the market.”
Beer drinkers seem to agree. Cohen’s original business plan called for him to brew 500 barrels in 2012; demand helped him surpass that figure by spring. “I’m on track to do 2,000 barrels this year,” he says.
But he hasn’t forgotten his home brewing start at IC. He commits to using local ingredients when possible, and a separate brewing setup in Fiddlehead’s tasting room lets Cohen experiment with a new beer every two weeks. His most recent challenge is a modern take on the Vermont sap beer, a summer brew made from maple sap. Like that first attempt, he had to wing it.
“It’s a historical beer, and we didn’t have a recipe,” he says. “But you know what? It turned out pretty good.”
– Kelli Grant '04