Michael Schuler McLean is proud to run a “foster kitten sweatshop.” Based in New Jersey, the endeavor involves a workshop full of adorable kittens less-than-helpfully getting in the way of the wooden homebrew beer tools and supplies he crafts under the name of Abbey Cat Brewing.
It’s a combination Michael says came about naturally, as both cats and beer play a large part in his daily life. (Adding to his feline credentials, Michael also records cat-centric electropop ditties as part of the duo Kittens Slay Dragons alongside his wife, sometime Catster contributor Sarah Donner.)
Taking a break from stewarding foster kittens through the working day, I spoke to Michael about the cat who inspired his business, why it’s important to volunteer at your local shelter, and the all important questions of how you go about using a beer mash paddle as a cat scratcher.
Where does the name Abbey Cat Brewing come from?
It’s named after a very special foster kitten. My wife and I specialize in fostering bottle babies who have lost their mother too soon. It is difficult work — you need to keep them warm and clean, and you need to feed them every few hours which means a lot of sleepless nights the first few weeks. It also involves a lot of heartbreak because they have a very high mortality rate, as they are very susceptible to infection and disease, especially if they never fed from their mother and received her antibody-rich colostrum.
Abbey was one of those kittens who was not doing very well. She had reached the point of being non-responsive and had started the agonal breathing that kittens exhibit right before they pass away. We decided to try one more round of subcutaneous fluids. To our amazement, a couple of minutes later she opened her eyes, stood up, and started walking around as if nothing had happened!
We had never seen a kitten come back from the brink of death like that. Abbey got better and got adopted and turned into an awesome and playful cat. So Abbey proved to us that sometimes you can make a difference and that what we do is worth doing. I named my business in her honor.
How did Trenton Cats Rescue, where you foster the kittens from, come into the picture?
My wife and I got involved in cat rescue the same way I assume most people do — we had a feral cat population that lived in the parking lot behind our apartment. Naturally, we started feeding them and then we started catching their babies and finding homes for them. We trapped, neutered and released the colony, and suddenly we had no more kittens to take care of — that’s when we started volunteering for Trenton Cats Rescue.
I would encourage anyone to volunteer for their local rescue. Most of them are in desperate need of help, and even small things like helping clean cat traps from time to time can make a huge difference.
What sort of skills do the foster kittens have that make them ideal workers for Abbey Cat Brewing?
Well, I’ll start by telling you what they are not good at — using any tool that requires opposable thumbs! But they are naturals at final sanding and finishing. They are also great at packing my products for shipping, so long as they don’t end up just napping on top of the bubble wrap.
The main thing is that they work for wet meats which helps my bottom line. I do offer my kitten workers full medical coverage though, including a spay or neuter once they reach the right size. That’s a pretty good deal, right?
What sort of shenanigans do the foster kittens get up to when they’re on the job?
Oh, man, there is never a dull day when you are working with a crew of carpenter kittens. The main problem is how easily they get distracted from their work. I know the moment I start turning a tap handle on the lathe, the entire shop is going to stop what they are doing to chase after the wood chips as they are flying through the air.
Also, napping is a problem: One minute they are all busy working, the next I turn around, and they are in a pile fast asleep under the router table. They are so cute though, I usually just let them sleep.
If the kittens could invent their own homebrew beer, what sort of flavor profile would they go for?
Well, one of the main criticisms I get from my cats about the beer I brew is that I do not end up with enough tuna in the flavor profile. I try to explain to them that putting fish in beer is a disgusting idea and that also I am a vegetarian, so if I did put fish in my homebrew I would not be able to drink it. They are not typically impressed by my excuses, so I tell them that if they want fish beer they need to pick up a mash paddle and brew it themselves!
Speaking of mash paddles, what tips do you have for repurposing one as a cat scratcher?
There is a lot of debate about the best kind of mash paddle for scratching your cats. Is stainless steel the best? Or maybe maple mash paddles? It really comes down to personal preference. Stainless steel versions are easier to clean, but maple versions tend to be more durable and are less likely to leave permanent scratch marks in your brew kettle, er, I mean cat… So just go with what feels right to you.