As an outside observer and casual enjoyer of the Frederick craft beer scene, I was surprised to hear the news that House Cat Brewing — the next-door neighbor to Attaboy on Sagner Avenue — would be closing its doors for good on April 15.
Part of my surprise, at least, was due to the fact that a Frederick brewery hasn’t closed in what seems like forever. More specifically, a Frederick brewery hasn’t closed since 2006, when the former Frederick Brewing Company sold to Flying Dog, said Kevin Atticks, the executive director of the Maryland Brewers Association.
“That’s the first one in recent history that we can remember,” he added. “I checked with my staff, and that’s what all our recollections can come up with.”
2006 was a long time ago. It also predates the ongoing craft beer boom in Frederick by almost a decade. The county currently has a total of 17 operating breweries, Atticks said, with at least one more on the way. I’ve lived in Frederick since 2016, and I’ve personally witnessed more than five different breweries open their doors (not even including the recently established craft beer program at Springfield Manor in Thurmont). Six of that total number, including House Cat, co-existed in a roughly 12-block radius in and around downtown Frederick.
So, as a casual observer, I wondered if House Cat was the first casualty of an increasingly oversaturated craft beer market. Downtown Frederick is a charming place to live, but it’s also much less densely populated than people tend to think, as Kara Norman, the director of the Downtown Frederick Partnership, once pointed out to me.
“We’re fooled by our deep blocks and all those long backyards,” she said, referring to the densely clustered row homes that characterize most of the downtown architecture.
In other words, Frederick isn’t as crowded as it might appear. And I questioned whether half a dozen breweries could survive in the same moderately sized city.
I thought it was a good question, too, until I was politely but firmly rebuffed by another half a dozen different industry insiders.
“I don’t think that’s true at all,” said Eric Gleason, the head brewer for Barley & Hops. “There’s plenty of beer drinkers here and there’s plenty of room in the landscape.”
“I’m going to have to disagree with that sentiment,” echoed Jim Bauckman, communications manager for the Brewers Association of Maryland. “I don’t think saturation really played a role.”
Or, “Not even close,” as I was told by House Cat brewer Joe Idoni.
“Frederick could take six more breweries,” he added emphatically.
There’s also plenty of room in the craft beer market nationwide, Atticks said, which is still growing in market share. A little more than 13 percent of all beer sold is craft beer, according to statistics from the National Brewers Association — a growth of 4 percent over the past year. In Maryland, craft beer sales are stable, and the local scene is continuing to foster most new businesses.
Okay, fine. In terms of breweries, then, Frederick hasn’t even begun to peak. But what has happened, as Atticks explained, is that the industry has begun to mature. It’s not enough to simply be a craft brewery in a market where there are 16 other competitors.
“You have to do a lot of things right,” added Brian Ogden, the brewer and co-owner of Attaboy Beer.
The ambience has to be welcoming. The taproom has to be clean. And the beer, especially, has to be spot-on, he said. Ogden can remember dumping an entire batch of Creek Life, one of the brewery’s pale ales, after a customer picked up notes of diacetyl (a naturally-occurring compound that can cause beer to taste like buttered popcorn).
“It’s an embarrassment that we had it on tap for a day,” he said. “And I don’t mind saying that because we’re not perfect and sometimes things happen. But you have to pay attention. One bad experience and that person is going to tell 10 different people.”
To summarize, then, the Frederick craft beer market has not reached saturation, as even the owners of House Cat agree. But Frederick customers are also uniquely fortunate to live in an area with a proliferation of high-quality breweries, which, in turn, contributes to a more educated clientele than you might find in places like Chambersburg, said brewer David Kozloski, who runs his own company — GearHouse — from the small Pennsylvania town.
“At this point, customers know what’s a good beer and what’s a bad beer, and they’re not going to drink a bad beer,” Gleason added.
And the beer at House Cat, as Idoni and co-owner Jack Sheppard admitted, had some problems. A lot of them could be traced back to the experimental yeasts that the owners were using for their barrel-aged sours, Sheppard said, which behave less predictably than traditional brewer’s strains. At some points, the two were brewing entire batches with those yeasts, without any real assurance that the final flavor would be palatable.
Kozloski and Gleason, who both advised House Cat on several occasions, said it didn’t help that the owners brewed “clean” beers— the kinds not made with wild yeast — in the same facility as their sours. Breweries like Troegs in Hershey, Pennsylvania and Jailbreak in Laurel keep sour beers in a completely different space to prevent cross-contamination from wild yeasts, which can “infect” other beers, Kozloski said, and negatively impact the flavors.
“I do know that consistency and quality assurance were issues for us,” Sheppard said later. “If I were going to do it over, those are some of the first improvements I would make.”
Mostly, though, it’s been a gut punch for the owners to phase out the business, and a gut punch for the rest of the brewing community to see them go, Ogden said.
Both House Cat owners started out as passionate home brewers and got into the business to add a certain “mythos,” Sheppard said, to Frederick.
The brewery became known for its cat-friendly policies (including Jack, the resident taproom cat) and a recurring tall tale that both Sheppard and Idoni would repeat when customers asked how they met. In a nutshell, the story revolves around both men realizing they had been dating the same girl, and — after a confrontation at her apartment — been co-owners of the exact same cat.
“Basically, we both thought we had adopted this cat with her,” Sheppard said. “And we became friends after we decided to take the cat and share custody. It’s like, why let the truth get in the way of a good story?”
Actually, the brewery’s increasingly feline-centric branding became a separate issue, the owners said, after some customers started complaining that they were allergic to the cats allowed inside. If House Cat is indicative of anything, Ogden added, it’s that those types of concerns have to be addressed immediately. It also shows that Frederick is becoming an increasingly competitive place to make beer.
“It’s a lot tougher than it was even when we started,” he said. “And if you’re a small brewery, that’s something to think about.”
Follow Kate Masters on Twitter @kamamasters