The American brewing industry just wrapped a banner year, not least because of the growth in the number of breweries to 4,144, according to the Brewers Association, an all-time high.
Most of these breweries are smaller operations using traditional ingredients and methods to brew in relatively small batches. With such growth, one gets the sense that the sky may be the limit for these smaller brethren to Anheuser-Busch InBev (which had a pretty notable 2015 as well). So much demand, so much potential. What could go wrong?
Three partners—Stephen Mason, Alan Davis and Stephen Israel—incorporated the Catamount Brewing Co. with the State of Vermont on Halloween in 1984. The date placed the trio among the pioneers of small-batch brewing, at least on the East Coast and certainly in New England.
Using a Small Business Administration loan and $750,000 from 32 investors, Catamount rolled out its inaugural kegs in January 1987 from an old meat warehouse leased from the Central Vermont Railway in Vermont’s tiny White River Junction, bang on the New Hampshire border.
Mason, a former PE teacher and homebrewer turned Catamount’s brewmaster, produced a line of beers that almost from the get-go elicited plaudits—Catamount Gold, a hoppy golden ale, took home (what else?) a gold medal at the 1989 Great American Beer Festival. The new brewery’s lineup soon expanded beyond the initial golden and amber ales, and production climbed to 12,000 barrels within six years of that 1987 rollout.
In 1996, Catamount busted out of its White River Junction confines, expanding into a gleaming, 26,000-square-foot facility 15 miles down Interstate 91 in Windsor. The company spent more than $3 million outfitting the new brewery with primo equipment and technology—a consultant Catamount hireddescribed the Windsor setup as “a real Cadillac.”
And why not?
This was the period of rapid growth in small-batch brewing. Brands such as Pete’s Wicked and Samuel Adams were popping up throughout the country, opening up sales opportunities for smaller operations, which were starting up in droves. There were more than 1,100 breweries in operation in the U.S. in 1996, the year Catamount started building out its Windsor operation. That was the most ever since just after Prohibition, with brewpubs in particular leading the cresting wave.
Then, within 24 months of Catamount’s annual production hitting nearly 22,000 barrels, it was all over—for the vaunted brewing company, and, so it seemed, for the small-batch industry that it helped popularize.
Catamount closed its doors in April 2000, and creditors soon closed in on both the White River Junction and Windsor facilities. The latter’s build-out contributed to perhaps millions in arrears the company would never be able to catch up on. The Mass. Bay Brewing Co., makers of Harpoon, bought the Windsor brewery from a creditor for $1 million in the summer of 2000 (and still uses it).
The causes of Catamount’s collapse were apparent even without hindsight. Simply put, the brewing company expanded too fast, and for too much money, before it had a solid customer base in place.
It certainly seemed 20 years ago that the sky was the limit for the sorts of beers Catamount made. Yet the company turned out to be one of nearly 200 breweries that shuttered from 1996 to 2000—or about one-third of the small-batch operations in the U.S. The whole thing Catamount had been a part of seemed altogether faddish, whatever the growth statistics.
Today, 15 to 20 years on, the marketplace and the industry are different: better-informed, better uniformity in quality, more festivals, more financing, the advent of social media, etc. But amid the fireworks over 2015’s growth, spare a thought for the breweries that did not make it—even though, like today, it all seemed so unstoppable.
This column originally appeared on All About Beer magazine.