For this installment of Inside the Industry, I spoke with Otter Creek Brewing Company’s Brewmaster, Mike Gerhart. I was very excited to interview a man who has a hand in making Otter Creek’s Black IPA. Of the Otter Creek brews that I’ve tried, Black IPA is my personal favorite and if you see it at your local distributor grab some. Otter Creek offers Black IPA year round along with Copper Ale and Stovepipe Porter. They make Otter Summer, Winter Red Ale, and Oktoberfest seasonal beers. They also produce the Wolaver’s line of USDA certified organic beers, the first of its kind. I found out through the interview that, in 2010, Wolaver’s and Otter Creek were purchased by Long Trail creating a merger of three fantastic Vermont breweries. We talked about some collaborations that will be debuting today and tomorrow at The Vermont Brewers Festival as well as some brews that will be available in Pennsylvania (and surrounding states) for the first time. I will let the brewmaster himself give you all of the details.
Q: Tell me a little bit about Otter Creek. How long have you been in business? How did you get your start?
Otter Creek started brewing its Copper Ale in March 1991 in Middlebury, Vermont and its product was initially only available in the local area. By 1995, the brewery had outgrown its original space and relocated to its current location down the road. Since then, the capacity of the brewery has grown and our beers are now available in 15 states.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about Otter Creek’s relation to Wolaver’s and the process of brewing certified organic beers? Are there difficulties in maintaining an organic process? Have you found organic certification to be very important to your customers?
In 1997, Morgan Wolaver founded Wolaver’s Organics, the first USDA-certified organic brewery. Wolaver’s initially contracted with multiple breweries across the United States, and Otter Creek was one of these breweries. Morgan Wolaver was so impressed with the Middlebury operation that he ended up buying Otter Creek from Lawrence Miller, the founder of the company, and Wolaver’s started making all its beer at Otter Creek.
We find it very easy to maintain a certified organic process here. Basically, organic certification comes down to being able to track processes and ingredients from start to finish and prove to an organic auditor where all the ingredients came from, where they were unloaded and stored, and prove without a doubt that no conventional products went into our beer. We use the same quality assurance process for organic and conventional beers here, so it is easy to track. We use separate silos, racking and shelving, and a clearly defined labeling system to keep our organic ingredients for Wolaver’s separate from conventional ingredients.
Q: Do you have any special new products or events coming up that you would like to talk about? Are there any aspects of Otter Creek that you think really set you apart and want to tell more people about?
We have some fun products coming out in the months ahead.
Otter Creek Hop Session Ale: We wanted to bring something lighter to our year round lineup and we wanted to satisfy audience by giving them a hoppy beer without bitterness or high alcohol content. Our new Hop Session Ale, which will be available later this summer is 4.25% alcohol by volume and has 35 IBUs but has the big hop aromas commonly associated with double IPAs. With this good balance between the flavor of its malts and the bitterness of its hops, the Hop Session Ale is refreshing and complex.
The Shed Mountain Ale and IPA:
Later this summer, we’re excited to bring the award-winning Shed family of ales to a wider audience by introducing Shed Mountain Ale and Shed IPA in six packs for enjoyment at home and bringing them to new markets for the first time. The Shed ales were previously only available on tap in the state of Vermont, but now they will also be available in New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.
In case you haven’t had it before, The Shed Mountain Ale is an unfiltered English Strong Ale with pronounced caramel and toffee notes followed by a roasted finish. We use kettle additions of Mt. Hood and Northern Brewer hops to create moderate hop bitterness.
The Shed IPA is an unfiltered IPA that’s deep gold in color with bright citrus hop aromas. Generous additions of wheat and caramel malts provide balance to the ample hop additions throughout the entire brewing process.
Q: How did you get into the beer industry yourself? Do you have any advice you can give someone starting out? How can a beer lover (like myself) work their way into the industry?
I got into the beer industry because my parents bought me a homebrew kit when I was in high school. I started homebrewing to make beer for my father because he was a beer enthusiast. Once I started, I was sucked into the life of homebrew geekdom! I went to college in Vermont and started working in a brewery washing kegs. I worked my way up to being a brewer while I was working my way through college. In 2000, I graduated from college and left Vermont to study in Berlin to be a brewmaster. When I came back, I worked in breweries ranging from cutting edge craft breweries to Big 3 ones. Four years ago, I had the opportunity to return to Vermont and I’ve been brewing here at Otter Creek ever since.
Craft brewing is a very hot business right now. It sounds like a lot of fun, but you have to understand that it’s not all glamor and artistry. It’s very hard work in the hot weather of summer and cold weather of winter. It’s the type of industry where paying your dues is part of the process. Nobody is too good to start scrubbing drains and cleaning kegs. When you start out, you need to take tasks without bucking at it and you’ll be accepted and work your way up through the ranks. Nothing takes the place of putting boots on your feet and working in a brewery. You need to get wet, get your hands dirty, and be a part of the process and make it your life. If you’re willing and ready for some punishment, you’ll find that brewing beer is one of the most satisfying jobs out there.
Q: I came in contact with you through Long Trail. Does Otter Creek have a strong relationship with Long Trail? Is there a feeling of camaraderie between craft brewers and/or New England brewers? Do you collaborate with any breweries near you?
Long Trail purchased Otter Creek 2010. The merger has been very positive for Otter Creek and Wolaver’s and Long Trail. There are many benefits to economies of scale since we’re pretty close to each other. The best part of it is that we can exchange information between the two breweries, so each team can benefit from the other brewery’s experience. It is a great relationship.
I think there’s a lot of camaraderie between brewers in New England and brewers throughout the world. It’s one of the only industries where the production side of it is so open and honest with each other. People freely exchange a lot of information and help each other out. Brewers embrace sharing knowledge because it allows us all to make better beer and more of it, which benefits the beer enthusiast. For example, we recently worked on collaboration brews for the Vermont Brewers Festival with FX Matt’s Saranac and Zero Gravity. Even though we’re competitors out on the market, we’re willing to work with each other and collaborate.
The two collaboration brews we did were both fantastic experiences. Working with a much smaller brewer like Zero Gravity and with a much bigger one like FX Matt allowed us to benefit from seeing how other people do things on different scales and join forces to create some unique brews. For the Otter Creek/Saranac collaboration, Otter Creek got organic wheat from Addison County in Vermont, and Saranac got ‘heirloom’ hops from New York to make a ‘HUGE’ Hefeweizen. Wolaver’s and Zero Gravity did a 100% organic Berliner Weisse. It was really fun to exchange knowledge and we were very pleased with the outcome. If you’re going to the Vermont Brewers Festival on July 20-21, you’ll be able to try these beers for yourself.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about, advice to share, insights, or info you’d like to give?
One of the best ways to appreciate a beer is to visit the place where it’s made. We encourage people to come to Middlebury to see where we make Otter Creek, Wolaver’s, and The Shed. Our Visitor Center is open daily from 11:00 am – 6:00pm and offers self-guided tours, light pub fare, a gift shop, and beer-to-go. Directions are available at http://www.ottercreekbrewing.com/. We hope to see you there soon!
Thanks very much to Mike and, if you are in the Vermont area, be sure to check out the Vermont Brewers Festival today and tomorrow.
Tim Meyers (Tim@GoodHopBadHop.com)