Who could have imagined that in 25 years a neighborhood bar from Beechview could grow to become one of the most well-regarded, highly-awarded craft breweries in the country.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” says co-founder, Glenn Benigni.
Glenn and Michelle Benigni opened their frst bar, Big Head’s, in 1991. Glenn, whose head is perfectly ordinary, explains the origin:
“There was this one kid in school who had a nickname for everyone, and mine was ‘ big head.’”
In 1992 they caught wind of an undervalued, 1874 Victorian structure for sale at 1805 E. Carson Street in Pittsburgh’s South Side. They closed Big Head’s, and Fat Head’s was born.
At the time, they were one of only a handful of bars in Pittsburgh to ofer more than just domestic beer. The inspiration came from a trip to Ocean City, MD. Glenn and Michelle, in need of a break from a tedious bureaucratic battle to get their liquor license transferred to the new location, ended up at a bar that ofered guests a passport where they would receive stamps for fnishing diferent types of beer.
“I thought, hey man, no one is doing this at all in Pittsburgh,” says Glenn.
So he called the wholesalers at the time and was able to assemble a 99 bottle collection, mostly imports, like Sam Smith, alongside the “Budweisers of the world”—Kingfsher, Red Hook, and the like.“Hundreds and hundreds” of people ended up trying all 99 beers—some several times over—and they were awarded with a t-shirt, bobblehead, and the legacy of having their name immortalized on the wall.
The bottle club has been disbanded—the emphasis at Fat Head’s has shifted to draft—but Michelle says they still have the paper lists of everyone who completed the challenge, and they hope to reincorporate the old records as a form of wall art somewhere inside the newly renovated Pittsburgh space.
The Benigni’s estimate that most of their early customers came more for their jaw-busting headwiches than the brews, though word eventually spread about the extensive beer selection. (The TRASH guys began to migrate down from Chiodo’s when word got out that Fat Head’s ofered Fuller’s ESB.)
In addition to bottles Fat Head’s ofered eight beers on draft. Red Feather Pale Ale, by Arrowhead Brewing, in Chambersburg, PA, was the frst semi-local microbrew. It was later joined by oferings from Newport, OR’s Rogue Ales and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
“It was the frst beer I actually loved,” recalls Glenn. “Back then it seemed super hoppy. It’s still a favorite.”
Today Fat Head’s ofers 42 beers on tap representing some of the best local and national beers available. “I think that’s plenty [of lines],” says Glenn. “We want to keep it fresh and keep it turning.”
That’s not the only change: in anticipation of their 25th anniversary Fat Head’s underwent one of its biggest facelifts in memory, with a new, pressed tin ceiling and clean white subway tiles that “echo the spirit” of the 1874 Victorian they call home.
“It’s an old pub feel infused with Fat Head’s pop culture,” says Michelle.
On September 11, the Benigni’s celebrated their 25th anniversary with throwback menu items and an “Anniversary IPA” brewed with Centennial, Warrior and Citra hops, then dry-hopped with Mosaic and Simcoe “Cryo Hops.”
It’s easy to forget that Fat Head’s didn’t start to brew their own beer until 2009—who can remember a world without Headhunter IPA?
The motivation came when Matt Cole, a Pittsburgh native brewing at Cleveland’s Rocky River Brewing Co. at the time, approached Glenn and Michelle about teaming up to open a brewpub outside Cleveland. Glenn knew Matt from when he worked sales at Penn Brewery and he knew he could brew great beer, but they were still a bit skeptical when they decided to hear his pitch. They loved the idea, but with one catch: they didn’t want to bankroll a new business venture; they wanted the North Olmsted saloon to be a Fat Head’s.
Since Fat Head’s started beer production in 2009 they have medaled at every single Great American Beer Festival, including, in 2017, Gold in German-style wheat ale for Alpenglow and bronze in American-style black ale for Midnight Moonlight.
In 2012 they opened a production facility in Middleburg Heights that they have already outgrown. Early next year they’ll move production one mile down the road where they’ll make the jump to a 65 barrel brewing system. There will also be three open fermentation tanks where they can experiment with new Belgian-style ales and German wheat beers.
And that’s not all.
In early 2018, Fat Heads will open a brewpub in Canton, Ohio. Like the Portland, OR, location, which opened in 2014, they will brew on-site with a 10 barrel system alongside a pilot batch system for experimental one-of beers.Later in 2018 comes another brewpub location, this time in Charlotte NC’s South End neighborhood.
“Brewpubs are the new bar,” says Glenn. “People want to open a brewpub more than they want to open a restaurant.”
The Benigni’s have a nice rapport with the new class of local craft breweries, and on a recent visit oferings from the likes of Full Pint, East End, Hitchhiker and Voodoo joined a dozen Fat Head’s brews and other craft selections on the draft board.
Glenn says the quality of beer coming from today’s craft breweries impresses him much more than the frst wave of microbreweries that hit Pittsburgh in the late-90s, when Fat Heads ofered beer from long-forgotten outfts like Strip Brewing and Foundry Ale Works.
“Most of the breweries opening today are by people who know how to brew good beer,” he says, and that, frst and foremost, is the best piece of advice he can give to today’s upstarts:
“Please make good beer,” he says. “Quality is more important than anything else.