By Alan J. Wax
Vermont’s Otter Creek Brewing wants the world to know a transformation is underway — in the market and in its beers.
Founded in 1991, Otter Creek in those relatively early days of craft brewing was known for its Copper Creek Ale and Stove Pipe Porter. Both are now gone. Jettisoned by management. The now-rapidly growing Middlebury, Vermont, brewery in instead focused on what brewmaster Mike Gerhart says are modern craft beer drinkers.
Otter Creek, he noted, started out brewing classic styles of beer, because back then they were new and exciting for beer drinkers weaned on American lagers. “That was huge, but it ran its course. Over the last 10 years, the slingshot has been pulled back as far as it can go,” he told his audience.
Today, however, he added, “Flavors are changing by the moment.” And with 1.1 new breweries opening every day in the U.S., competition is getting tougher.
Gerhart and the rest of the Otter Creek team were on Long Island in late-March, bringing their message and their new beers to bar owners and beer retailers. I sat in on one of these gatherings, a dinner arranged by the brewery’s distributor, Clare Rose Inc., at Jackson’s Restaurant in Commack, New York.
“This is the beginning of a new day for the brewery,” he said. “Amber ales aren’t what people are looking for these days. We have to brew what people want”
Translation: more hops.
Gerhart, 39, has been brewing professionally since he was 18—he started home brewing under his parents’ watchful eyes at 15—and his resume includes stints at Magic Hat, Coors and, significantly, four years at Dogfish Head, where he was the research and development brewer, helping owner Sam Calagione develop new beers. He joined Otter Creek in 2009.
Otter Creek, now brewing ‘round the clock, he said, is adding new capacity—120 barrels – to its current volume of 80,000 barrels.
The brewery’s newest releases are clear evidence of the new direction.
Among them is the first year-round IPA in Otter Creek’s history,Backseat Berner, described as a “juicy exploration of American hops” at 7 percent ABV with 68 IBUs. A hazy gold with a nose of citrus and musky, tropical fruit and resiny notes dominate its full-bodied, palate. It’s an eminently drinkable brew. The beer’s hazy notes are Gerhard’s use of a centrifuge to remove solids instead of a filter.
In addition, Otter Creek has begun producing what Gerhart described as a “hop-soaked” session ale, Over Easy, with 4.6% abv and 40 IBUs. It’s a cloudy gold brew with a floral, tropical citrus aroma. It’s crisp and a bit wine like with good mouth feel for a low-alcohol brew and a dry citrus finish.
Then, there’s Citra Mantra, an American pale lager, a spring seasonal brewed to emphasize its crispness and to allow the hop character that might be overshadowed in an ester loaded ale. It’s 5.75 percent abv and clocks in at 55 IBUs. It has more dry hops that an IPA. Gerhart said he developed the recipe while meditating at a Buddhist monastery in Vermont. Also, hazy gold, it nose is floral. On the palate it’s crisp, a bit sweet with bready malt notes, but finishes dry,
Otter Creek has had three owners over its 20-plus years in business. Entrepreneur Lawrence Miller, who founded the brewery, sold it in 2002 to Wolaver’s Organic Ales, which until then was a contract brewer. In 2010, Wellesley, Massachusetts-based private equity firm Fulham & Co. acquired Otter Creek and Wolaver’s through its Long Trail Brewing Co. subsidiary.
The new flavor direction isn’t the only thing changing at Otter Creek. The packaging is new too. New labels feature cartoonish drawings featuring Gerhart, the brewery’s VW microbus and Gerhart’s 150 lb. Bernese mountain dog, Oslo.
Will the new beers resonate with drinkers? Given the demand for such hop-forward brews as Russian River Brewing’s Pliny, Alchemist’s Heady Topper, Bell’s Hopslam ale, Dogfish Head 120, Ballast Point Sculpin IPA and others, the odds are favorable. I, on the other hand, will miss the traditional styles.