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Thursday, February 8, 2018

First Look: Fat Head’s Brewery and Saloon in Canton (and More)

Posted By on Thu, Feb 8, 2018 at 1:35 PM

click to enlarge Matt Cole (left) and Will Polensek
  • Matt Cole (left) and Will Polensek
Matt Cole was hoping to have the Canton location of Fat Head’s Brewery and Saloon up and running by January, but as with any ambitious construction process, this one overshot the runway by about three months. This week, Cole finally began brewing on site in anticipation of an early March opening.

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Located at the juncture of Whipple Avenue and Everhard Road, in the recently renovated Venue at Belden, the new Fat Head’s brewpub will follow in the footsteps of its successful nine-year-old parent in North Olmsted (24581 Lorain Rd., 440-801-1001) – with a few notable exceptions.

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“This is our first exposed brewhouse, so it was a bit more challenging,” Cole says. “But the sights and sounds and smells and all those things play into the experience.”

Separated by little more than a drink rail, the 10-barrel brewhouse and tank farm dominates one end of the 10,000-square-foot interior. Will Polensek, who started out at Fat Head’s as a line cook and worked his way up to brewer, will be at the controls. The plan is to have 20 selections on tap, 12 to 14 of which will be brewed on site with the balance coming from the other breweries.

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“We could have gotten away with not putting in a brewery, but part of the reason I felt we needed to do it is because around here, there aren’t a lot of breweries,” Cole explains. “The taproom is a great opportunity to get people to see what we’re all about. Hopefully, our beer will land on more people’s palates and they’ll start buying more of it in the stores in the Akron-Canton region.”

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While a couple thousand square feet smaller than the original, this one feels bigger, brighter and more contemporary. There is seating for 225 in various settings such as the drink rail at the brewery, the massive three-sided bar, at high-tops in the lounge, and in roomy family-friendly booths that seat six to eight guests. Another 50 or so will fit on the front-side patio, which is joined to the main space by a pair of oversize garage doors. All of the furniture was built by Cleveland-based Global Custom Furniture.

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A small game room will entertain kids while the parents navigate the drink and food menu. Chef Derek Wilson, operating from a large, modern kitchen, will offer a nearly identical menu to that up north, with smoked wings, meaty "headwiches," burgers and pizzas.

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Of course, all of this is taking place at the same time that Cole and company are building a massive new brewery and beer hall in Middleburg Heights, about a mile from its current production facility, which will be handed off to local Rivals Brewing Company. Cole said that the decision to move forward with a larger production brewery was years in the making.

“We knew that when we got to 30,000 barrels we would have to make a very core decision on whether we would expand in our existing building or take on more debt and build a new brewery,” notes Cole. “It’s become more and more important to me that we build an absolutely world-class beer hall and restaurant. We have to be this destination.”

The 250-seat beer hall and restaurant will offer guests an unobstructed view of the brewhouse and most of the process, says Cole, adding that it’s akin to a self-guided tour. Chef Nate Sieg, formerly of Butcher and the Brewer and Bar Cento, will work from a 3,000-square-foot kitchen to craft a menu that makes heavy use of a live-fire grill turning out burgers, steaks, pork chops and other beer-friendly fare. Cole, an avid competition barbecue enthusiast, has commissioned a 100-percent hardwood-fueled Oyler Pit smoker from J & R that will produce meltingly tender ribs, brisket, pork and chicken.

Cole, who began planning this ambitious move in 2013, says that the craft beer market continues to evolve at a breakneck pace, and not always in ways he anticipated.

“I think the hardest area is where we’re expanding, the mid-level of regional breweries, because it’s so competitive, with so many choices, and there’s not a lot of brand loyalty by stores,” he notes. “And because the consumer wants variety, the retailers jump all around. You really have to perform in your little footprint that you’re in or they’ll find someone else. It’s becoming a price war.”

Those market forces are behind some changes like Fat Head’s recent announcement to move their award-winning flagship beer Head Hunter IPA away from 4-packs and to 6-packs. Cole also says drinkers can expect to see Head Hunter in cans by spring of next year.

Of course, much of that competition is coming from the hands of brewers that Cole himself has tutored and trained.

“We’ve had some brewery turnover, but it’s all for the best,” he says. “I’ve had four former brewers open up breweries last year, but I love to see that; I was once one of those guys.”
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