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Yankee Brew News Archive

In The Beginning...There Was Catamount

Originally Published: 03/95

By: Karen Kane

In 1986, Catamount Brewing Company began operation in White River Junction, Vermont, just thirty miles from where I lived. The local papers anticipated the brewery's opening, beer aficionados counted the days until bottles would reach the local beverage mart. The first six-packs arrived at M&M Redemption five months later; my friends and I laid in a good supply.

Our enthusiasm over the arrival of fresh Vermont-brewed beer was understandable. In those days, adventurous drinkers in the Northeast had two alternatives: expensive imports, and home brew. Nowadays, M&M coolers are well-stocked with microbrews. The craft brewing industry has grown by leaps and bounds, and variety is the name of the game.

In Vermont in the mid-80s, we celebrated Catamount as a local phenomenon, but in the grand scheme of things it was more than that. Catamount created a niche for microbrewers in New England; it was the first brewery in the Northeast to bottle all-malt beer.

™Those were interesting times, remembers Steve Mason, Catamount's President and co-founder. ™We were starting at a time when there were a handful of microbreweries in the eastern U.S. Even the term microbrewery was new.

Steve was a devotee of imported beer, and began home brewing in 1975. As he explored different styles of brewing, he employed increasingly advanced techniques. In 1981, after hearing about the establishment of microbreweries in the west, Steve decided to examine the possibilities of opening a brewery in Vermont.

There were few examples to study, he says. ™People starting now can visit hundreds of microbreweries throughout the country. Back then, the book on commercial brewing hadn't been written.

Steve knew he needed to work in a ™micro to learn the craft of brewing commercially. In 1983, he traveled to England, where he apprenticed with the Swannel Brewery in Hartfordshire, near London. He returned to Vermont with a working knowledge of traditional British brewing practices, and began to put together a business plan. Details such as financing, purchasing equipment, and finding a site occupied him for the next two years.

White River Junction offered itself as the best location. Situated within a mile of Interstates 89 and 91, the turn-of-the-century railroad town provided access to Vermont, New Hampshire, Boston and New York markets. The town's underground aquifer supplied good water. The building, which Catamount leased and then bought, was a three story brick structure built in 1884. Most recently, it had been used as a meat packing plant.

In the Spring of 1985, the Catamount Brewing Company was formed. Steve's partners were Alan Davis and Steve Isreal. Financing was raised through bank loans, a low interest economic development loan, and a private stock offering. The company invested $240,000 in brewing and bottling equipment.

The design of the brewery was unique, in part because Steve was committed to finding exactly the right equipment for the job. There were no turn-key breweries in North America at the time, hence no complete setups for sale. Steve decided component by component what the brewery needed, and where it could be obtained.

While visiting his home town of Detroit, he salvaged a 28-barrel yeast tank from the Stroh Brewery for the kettle. The mash tun came from a stainless dealer; it was originally used in coffee making. Five 72-barrel conditioning tanks and three fermenters were custom fabricated by JV Northwest. A used soda filler completed their list of major equipment needs. The original brewery had an annual capacity of 6,000 barrels.

In 1987, its first year of production, Catamount brewed 3,000 barrels of Amber and Gold ale. Catamount Gold is a crisp blond ale that won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival in 1989. Catamount Amber, a full bodied British style pale ale, continues to be the company's flagship beer. Draft was introduced in 1989, and Porter, which began as a holiday beer, joined the regular line. Contract brews, Post Road Ale and Frank Jones Ale, pushed production to 6,500 barrels.

In 1990, Catamount added space and equipment. Two 120-barrel JV Northwest fermenters and four 80-barrel conditioning tanks brought capacity to 12,000 barrels. Seasonal beers gained a strong following. In 1994, the company added three 200-barrel DCI unitanks and brewed the last six months of that year at full capacity--20,000 barrels.

Catamount has grown steadily in its eight years of operation, and Phil Gentile, the company's Marketing Director, expects the pace to continue. ™Our sales were up significantly in '94, he explains. ™Markets are exploding.

Steve believes the product line is one reason for Catamount's success. He describes Catamount's lagers and ales as ™unique and distinct. He brews primarily with 6 row malt, which comes from the Midwest and is milled on the premises. Catamount also has its own yeast strain.

Diversity is another plus. Catamount brews seven different ales and lagers. Porter, the most recent addition to the regular line, is a creamy beer made from dark malts; Galena and Cascade hops give it a smooth, dry finish. Seasonal beers include Christmas Ale, an IPA with a clove-like intensity that comes from 100% Cascade hops; Bock, a smooth, rich lager enhanced with caramel malt and Hallertau hops; Octoberfest, a Viennese style amber ale; and American Wheat, made from malted wheat and barley and Hallertau hops from Yakima. Catamount also has a limited edition draft series in the works. Double Bock is available at selected locations in Vermont.

With current production at capacity, and calls for more beer, Catamount will need to expand again before long. The owners are looking for a building with almost twice their present square footage, and they will most likely have to build what they want. Phil and Steve agree that they would like to remain in White River Juntion; they will certainly stay in Vermont.

In two years, Catamount will celebrate its 10th anniversary. Steve promises special events and special beer. For old time's sake, I'll buy mine at M&M.

And I'll lay in a good supply.

For more information about Catamount Brewing Company, call Public Relations Director Jeff Close at (802) 296-2248.

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