New flavor focus, new labels mark transformation of Otter Creek Brewing

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.

Otter Creek head brewer Mike Gerhart at Jackson's Restaurant

Otter Creek head brewer Mike Gerhart at Jackson’s Restaurant

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.

Six pack of Otter Creek's Citra Mantra features a meditating Gerhart.

Six pack of Otter Creek’s Citra Mantra features a meditating Gerhart.

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.


Filed under Taps - Beer

16 Responses to New flavor focus, new labels mark transformation of Otter Creek Brewing

  1. Pingback: Otter Creek Brewing transformation includes new flavor focus, labels | Vermont Beer

  2. What a shame. Stove Pipe porter was one of the best porters brewed in the US. At some point the hop craze is going to end, then what will they do? There is a reason we have classic styles, they’ve stood the test of time. To give that up in favor of the trend of the day is imho short sighted. I’m all for pushing the envelope, but why abandon your best? There is no reason to not brew classic styles and still experiment with the latest trendy hop?

    • Andrew Daubenspeck

      I’ve been looking to buy more Stovepipe for years now, and it sounds like it is just never coming back. I really do like hoppy brews, but it seems like it is the only thing you can buy anymore. For those of us who like pairing lots of beers with lots of foods, it is a little disheartening. Hops don’t go with everything, and sometimes a solid porter sounds like the best choice in the evening. Otter Creek had the best one I’ve had in its price range.

    • Paul Eisenberg

      I agree Steve. I still think Copper Ale is one of the best beers that I have ever had the pleasure of drinking. Personally, I adore American Ales and Lagers along with anything amber, red, or malty brown and hate the bitter over-hopped IPA’s that seem so prevalent in the craft segment these days. OK, maybe that’s just me and maybe Otter Creek has to give the masses what they want. As for me, I can’t wait until the pendulum swings back the other way and we get back in touch with simple but very good beer rather than all the fru fru flavors, etc.

      • Mark

        Thank you guys for the comments that I’ve been searching. Stovepipe porter is in my opinion the greatest porter, possibly brew ever made. While I know the hop frenzy made it tougher to sell OC beers, but there has to be a way to use technology to keep the customer base for the classic products. Perhaps they could charge a premium price. Maybe there is way for customers to rally online to make this happen, once hop heads tire of new OC products. There is hope, the new Brooklyn ‘insulated’ tastes remarkebly like OC Black IPA.

    • Francis Noir

      Obviously, They are all very confused Steve.. I mean look, they’re still attending dead concerts.

  3. Joe Knepper

    It’s all good. Hops have forever changed brewing styles and in particular American hops. And not just NW hops although they do rule the roost. IPAs and American pale ales are here to stay but that doesn’t mean there’s not room for diversity and experimentation. Let’s not forget all the crazy things going on with yeast strains, malts and grains. And of course it all starts with the water! Keep it local, keep it pure – the best classics are yet to come.

  4. Rob Marcotte

    I totally agree with Steve Wynehurst. To stop production of Black IPA and Copper Ale is very short sighted. IMHO Otter Creek is no longer a craft brewery. It is a fad brewery. I am buying up all the Black IPA that I can find.
    I want a good robust beer. Not something that smells and tastes like leftover fruit salad brewed by a Hippie wannabe.

  5. Ron Vallee

    I wish them well in their transformation. I must share that Copper Ale was one of the simple pleasures I looked forward to when camping in the Green Mountain State. I got exposed to Otter Creek Brewery when working at a Massachusetts beer distributor. Instantly they became one of my favorites at a time we were getting introduced daily to 1 or 2 new brewery’s and their products to sell.

    It feels like I’ve lost an old friend today.

  6. christina

    What a way to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We served Copper Ale at our wedding not because it was ‘new and exciting’ or ‘what people wanted’ but because it is an excellent tasting beer. Too bad they can’t see beyond the next 6 months and think all of us are only interested in new fads. Boo hiss, Otter Creek, guess we’ll just have to wait until the trend comes full circle and you decide to bring it back. Till then, see ya!

  7. Bill Muller

    I loved both Stovepipe Porter and Copper Aleand was a big propronent and advocate of them in a my geographic region in which they aren’t the easiest beers to find on shelves or on tap. It’s a shame that Otter Creek’s owners are having this knee-jerk reaction to the uber-hop craze being experienced by just one segment of the beer- consuming marketplace. They are doomed to just add a few more non-differentiated offerings to the huge mountain of brewing sameness. As a 30-year marketer I can recognize it for what it is – it’s called “overextension of the brand” which is evidenced by abandoning those things that made you great, made you efferent, in pursuit of the newest brightest shiniest object. It’s a shame. They’ve lost a long time fan. Hopefully they see the light when the marketplace teaches them all these things first hand.

  8. Bryan

    Totally agree with Steve. True, I may not always want a porter, but when I do- stovepipe comes to mind, first. When I think of OCB, stovepipe again comes to mind first. Citra is great, but pretty much every brewery has something fairly similar. Giving up a distinctive flagship beer to instead compete with thousands of offerings is foolish.

  9. Levi

    They could never get Wolaver’s Organic Oatmeal Stout distributed worth a damn, and not they’ll stop making Porter. I’m done. It WAS my favorite beer, but I just give up. Good luck with your new business model. You’ll be selling off to Bud in a few years anyway.

  10. Bob

    I agree that it is sad to see OC feel the need to drop brews from their lineup which were favorites with some fans. Fortunately Otter Creek is not the only brewery out there. Those who enjoy the traditional less hoppy styles can still find them. For New Englanders, I’d point to Shipyard’s Prelude and Chamberlain, Woodstock Inn’s Pig’s Ear Brown (soon out in cans!), Geary’s Pale Ale and Hampshire Special, and Ipswich Original, among others. Then there are the easily obtainable British imports, like Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout and Brown Ale , Porter’s ESB and various canned pub style ales, just for starters. Meanwhile the hopheads will be keeping Otter Creek and Vermont’s economy growing by buying tons of Kind Ryed, Citra Mantra, Double Dose, Backseat Burner, Fresh Slice and Over Easy.

  11. James Paroline

    Wow I was thinking that I must be the only one out here that loved Copper Session and Black IPA. I was being told that it was a seasonal thing and looking forward to its return. Looks like it’s not happening. The Couch Surfer (Wolaver’s Oatmeal Stout) was good and for a time Long Tail was selling their Harvest Ale (tasted like Black IPA to me). Now they are gone as well. What are they thinking? All the over hopped beers taste so much alike to me.

  12. Michael Feldman

    I was shocked to not find Copper in my local mart.
    My fav beer
    Called Otter Creek and they confirmed that there were no plans to brew it again.
    Too bad, big mistake I told them…lost me
    Totally uninterested in their current menu trendy nonsense.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *