A drive down a road off Route 16 winds through a residential neighborhood. Park on the road or in the nearby field and walk up the stone-paved hill to a country barn with goats and chickens in the backyard. It’s Saturday—a.k.a. Caturday—and you’ve arrived at Fat Orange Cat Brew Co., a small seasonal farm brewery and tasting room in East Hampton, Connecticut.
Fermenters bubbling inside during off-hours echo the beginning of Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s “Monster Mash.” But there’s only one mad scientist on the scene—brewmaster Mike Klucznik. He and his wife, Sheila Mullen, are the top cats in charge of the operation. Mike brews while Sheila focuses on marketing and maintaining the vibe people have grown so fond of.
“People like this location,” Mike explains. “They love the feel here. I think people come here to escape, to get away—and they don’t wanna leave. The vibe is very festive—people are having fun. It’s not an industrial park. It’s so different than anything else out there. We don’t sell a whole glass of beer, it’s just tasting. I think it’s a nice atmosphere.”
Open since August 13—yes, just three months—and business has been booming since day one. How did they take off so fast?
“We built this up,” Mike says. “The process took almost a year and a half, but we were brewing the whole time. We had a founders’ club before we were open. A group of people would come every other month or whatever. I’d brew one single beer, say, split it up into five fermenters, and use different yeasts for the same exact beer. It’s amazing, the differences in flavor—just incredible! Then we’d do a straw poll: who likes this beer? Number 3? Number 2? It helped me decide what yeast to use on that recipe.”
Sheila chimes in, “It started with friends and anyone else who wanted to come to a tasting. Then we opened it up to Facebook. It was always on a Sunday afternoon, so it’s kinda mellow. It went from like 8 or 15 to like 85 people. We had to move it outside! He brewed a lot and we couldn’t take one cent for it. We were not licensed, so we just gave it away for a year. We did a good job promoting it up front. It’s what a lot of breweries do. We really thought we were gonna open up in April, but because things happen, it was August and the anticipation was huge. A lot of the people who came on opening day had been following us on Facebook—all new people! We never met most of the people who came on opening day. But they came to see what we’re all about. And it was 100 degrees out! We had a good day that day!”
“The marketing that Sheila has done is incredible,” Mike adds. She’s on Facebook five to six times a week doing some posts and it keeps people looking. The beers are pretty well received. Between the two of us, we have very separate roles and that’s why I think it works.”
Mike’s brewing constantly and has 22-23 recipes. They usually have four or five different beers on tap at a time. So, if you come every weekend, there’ll be two or three new pours that weren’t there the prior weekend.
This Saturday’s lineup began with an FOC favorite, JalapeñoJack Cream Ale with a bit of a kick, served with a slice of lime, if you like. I asked if they grew the peppers on site and quickly learned why that wasn’t practical. For one barrel, they use approximately 100 peppers. They get them from DeFrancesco Farm in Northford. “We’re trying to do Connecticut-grown all year. So we have three big freezers completely packed with peppers. We have bushels and bushels and bushels. And these peppers aren’t just thrown in,” Sheila says. “I cut out all the ribs and seeds and cut them all up.”
Next up on the menu is the Surfside 6 Pale Ale. In it, I detect a flavor that’s almost a creaminess. “It’s balanced. It’s a little bit of bitter in there. I think it’s the hop that makes it seem creamy,” Mike says. “It has a dill and a lemon combined flavor.”
Working down the menu, there’s The Frog, Double IPA, the third in the Courageous Cat trilogy. Mike explains, “The Frog is a trilogy of the Courageous Cat. If you’re my age, you would’ve watched that cartoon on TV as a kid. So we have Courageous Cat, Minute Mouse and The Frog. The Frog is the bad guy! I use the same exact grains to do each one of the beers, but I change the hops.” Not usually being a fan of IPAs whatsoever, I’m thrilled how much I thoroughly enjoy The Frog. It reminds me of their Hopkick Murphy, another Double IPA. It was the first IPA I’ve ever enjoyed, as it’s not bitter, and it’s also one of Mike’s favorites. When I say I’m tasting grapefruit in The Frog, Mike nods. “That’s what people like about these beers—they’re citrusy, all the New England beers are citrusy. They call ’em juicy. This is not your typical New England IPA because I bitter it throughout the boil. Whereas the New England IPAs, they have a little bit of bitterness up front, but all the hops are added at the end of the boil.” It’s a very refreshing brew.
Also on tap this week is Talky Tina, a Belgian Saison made from porcelain doll heirloom pumpkins straight from Paul’s and Sandy’s Too in East Hampton. Please note, no residents of Pumpkintown, USA were injured to make this beer. Talky Tina is a favorite of Sheila’s and mine, too. “A lot of the pumpkin beers have an extract,” she explains. “It’s like a pumpkin pie. This is made from porcelain dolls that we found have this beautiful flavor. I know people use them decoratively, but they’re wonderful. So we chop ’em all up, then I roast them—bake ’em for about 45 minutes, so this wonderful texture and flavor comes out and then it goes in the beer! We used a little bit more pumpkin than last time on this batch.” For the inspiration behind Talky Tina’s name, check YouTube for a particularly creepy episode, featuring a porcelain doll of the same name. Get it? Porcelain doll!
Mike shared some details about a new beer due out next week. “We haven’t named it yet. It’s really cool. It’s very tangerine-flavored. I didn’t add tangerines at all, it’s the hop. When I put it in the cooler on Sunday, by Monday or Tuesday, it’ll start to carbonate and we’ll start to sample it. I have a long list of beer names on my phone. We’ll go down the list and see which one matches the flavor of the beer.” I can’t help but point out if it’s an orangey flavor, it may be a clue to the name right there—after all, the brewery is named for their much adored orange cat. Sheila suggests, “Maybe that should be Billy, if you love it. We’ve been wanting to name one after Billy, our original cat. Maybe that should be Billy Beer because it’s orangey. I kinda like that.”
Since so many of us have fallen for FOC, it’s sad to think the season comes to a close at the end of the year. In case you were wondering about their winter plans, they’re going to ramp up production and get a larger system. This way, Mike will be able to brew 31 gallons of every beer he makes. “So I really shouldn’t run out of beer on Saturdays.”
Meantime, Sheila will be working on crowlers. “They’re like our growlers. It’s a one-at-a-time canning machine. And it’s a 32 oz. can. They’re really popular in Colorado. All the package stores said, when you’re ready, we’ll sell them. So that’s what we’re going to do over the winter when we’re closed here.”
As to how he knows what he’s doing in the brewery, Mike explains, “Early on, I did a lot of reading. I read everything I possibly could on brewing. Sheila interjects, “You still do!” He agrees, “You know, I’ve got an eye for detail. What I’ve learned in this brew process is you can’t cut one corner to speed things up. When you do that, you’ve just compromised the best beer you could possibly do. The beer may still be very good, but it’s won’t be the best it could have been.”
Sheila adds with a smile, “He’s like a mad scientist. He’s so passionate about it. You’ve found your calling.”
Mike says, “Even though we may work a lot of hours doing this, it’s not like we’re away from each other. We’re doing it together. And it takes a special relationship to be able to that—and we have it.”
“We’ve only been married three years,” Sheila says. “If we’d been married thirty years, we wouldn’t be doing this.” They both laugh. Long live the Fat Orange Cat! And cheers to partnerships that bring joy to many.
Fat Orange Cat Brew Co. is located at 47 Tartia Rd. in East Hampton, CT.
Open Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m.