Since its founding in 2010, Fiddlehead Brewing Company has recorded double-digit growth every year in each of its eight markets, and this year made the Brewers Association’s (BA’s) list of Top 50 Craft Breweries by volume, ranking No. 49.
In 2021, the Shelburne, Vermont-based company increased production to 51,061 barrels, after producing 28,304 barrels in 2020. This year, the brewery is targeting 73,000 barrels, with Q1 already ahead of projections, Fiddlehead owner Matt Cohen told Brewbound.
All of Fiddlehead’s growth has been calculated, with the goal of being “the freshest beer in the market,” Cohen said. All its distributed offerings are stored cold, with a 15-day supply window, so consumers are “rarely, rarely” buying a beer more than two weeks old.
“There’s great beers being made all over this country,” Cohen said. “There’s fantastic breweries out West, but what they can’t do is get the beer to the accounts where I’m selling beer in 15 days.”
Fiddlehead beer is now available in Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey and Pennsylvania through 17 distributors, according to Cohen. Nearly three-quarters of its total business comes from its home state of Vermont, as well as New York and Massachusetts. The company is targeting 220,000 CEs (nearly 16,000 barrels) each from Vermont and Massachusetts in 2022.
When entering a new market, Fiddlehead begins by only pursuing draft accounts in the first year. Additionally, it partners with a maximum of 50 accounts in the market for the first month, before expanding.
“We want to continue to build brand awareness, but we’re not going to do that by just opening up 100 new markets,” Cohen said. “There’s a lot of mistakes that other breweries make, they open up the market, flood it with package, and it’s really difficult in today’s market to get noticed on the shelf.
“There’s just so much noise out there, and if you just show up on the shelf without any brand awareness, you’re just there to die,” he continued.
About 88% of Fiddlehead’s sales are attributed to its flagship, Fiddlehead IPA. The offering has grown double-digits every year since its release in 2011, available only as a draft offering until 2020, according to Cohen. Now, more than half of the brewery’s overall IPA volume (54%) is Fiddlehead IPA draft.
While Cohen had “no desire to ever can [Fiddlehead’s] flagship offering,” the COVID-19 pandemic, which halted on-premise business, forced the company to reevaluate in order to survive.
“We were forced into package, but it was a really exciting time,” Cohen said. “Now all of a sudden people went to their grocery stores during the pandemic and, for the first time ever, Fiddlehead IPA was available in a can in the grocery store. We saw immediate response to that, and we immediately became one of the top sellers in the supermarket chains.”
The off-premise growth hasn’t stopped. Off-premise dollar sales of Fiddlehead IPA increased +72% in the last 13 weeks, according to Matt Roth, Fiddlehead director of sales, citing NielsenIQ data. In the last 52 weeks, 16 oz. 4-packs of the offering were the No. 15 Northeast craft SKU in NielsenIQ tracked channels, Roth added.
“This is with cold distribution only,” he continued.
In addition to 4-packs, Fiddlehead IPA is available in 12 oz. 12-packs and 19.2 oz. single-serve cans. Cohen said the latter — which Fiddlehead originally created for venues — has become a “hot package” in convenience outlets and has a great deal of “potential for future growth.”
“We found it a very effective tool, especially when you start talking about the on-premise, to get us into certain on-premise accounts, sporting venues, etc.,” Cohen said. “They always have space for another can where draft wouldn’t be a possibility.”
This year, Fiddlehead is also exploring beer styles beyond IPA with their summer release, Aetherium, a 5.3% ABV Belgian-style white ale. The brewery did a soft rollout of Aetherium in some Vermont accounts this winter, and will be releasing it in 12-packs across the rest of its markets later this summer.
“I love all different styles of beer and it’s one that we feel there’s a lot of interest in the style,” Cohen said. “There’s only really a handful of players, and we feel that we can make an incredible Belgian white.”
Additionally, the brewery’s focus this year will be on the continued rehabilitation of its on-premise accounts, as draft is the company’s “bread and butter,” Cohen said. Prior to the pandemic, about 80% of the brewery’s sales were in the on-premise channel. Now, the brewery’s business is split about 50/50 on- vs. off-premise.
Fiddlehead also operates a taproom in Shelburne. The taproom was originally opened “for survival” to sustain the brewery as it developed its distribution focus, but Cohen said it was created with the intent of being a distribution hub.
The taproom temporarily shut down due to the pandemic, and reopened in June 2021. The company held off on opening the taproom until it could make sure all Fiddlehead employees could work safely, and as a result, the company “never had a single case [of COVID-19] here at the brewery,” Cohen said.
No taproom expansions or additions are planned at this time, and any decision to expand would require the company to think “long and hard” first.”
“The business I want to be in is making beer and then selling it to bars and restaurants,” Cohen said. “Their business is to sell it to the end consumer, and we have a great relationship with our distributor partners as a result.
“I want to sell beer in a particular town in every bar, not just my bar,” he continued.
Any further distribution expansions will also be carefully planned out and evaluated.
“We’ve worked at a lot of other breweries, and we’ve seen what can happen when the dollars become more important than quality, so no decisions are made based off of the bottom line here at this company,” Cohen said. “We’re not in this for the short-term game; we’re in this for the long haul.”