Hops Honey Log: Wednesday, March 31st
Location: Middlebury, VT - Otter Creek & Wolaver’s Breweries
It’s not everyday you get two for the price of one in the world of craft beer… well, ok… that’s not true, ’cause you’ve often got two-fer Tuesdays… but how often do you get to visit two breweries at once?!? Such is the joy that can be found in Middlebury, VT, the next stop on my VT Brewcation! Once I left Long Trail, I headed West & North to Middlebury.
I had e-mailed the brewery and brewmaster Mike Gerhart wrote back letting me know that he’d be happy to take me around & give me a tour… & have some tasty beers! Funny story… as we’re talking I learn that Mike grew up in Suffern, NY… and that’s where one of my best girlfriends, Amanda, grew up as well… but I didn’t really think anything of it. However, when I left the brewery I gave her a call & mentioned that tidbit & she asked his name, & when I told her she said, “I think I actually know him! Describe him…” I did, & she said that he’d been her lab partner in high school!!! LOL Small world :)
** btw, it should be impressively noted that Mike has worked at all ends of the spectrum within the beer industry… holding posts previously at both Coors and Dogfish Head… the latter of which provided some great stories and a serious twinge of envy on my part at that opportunity! **
So not only does Mike and his crew have the already challenging task of producing quality craft beer while adhering to the highest safety, cleanliness and tastiness standards… they also have to brew two completely different lines of beer, one of which just happens to be a line of organic ales! This brings you to an entirely new level of detail in terms of operations.
Here’s the official ‘history’ of how two breweries, Otter Creek and Wolaver’s, came to live under the same roof!
“In 1998, we began producing Wolaver’s Certified Organic Ales in partnership with Panorama Brewing Company. Both brands have flourished as beer drinkers throughout the northeast have enjoyed craft ales, and as the focus on sustainable farming and living has blossomed.
In May of 2002, the Wolaver family purchased Otter Creek Brewing. Otter Creek remains a family owned Vermont company and produces all Otter Creek and Wolaver’s brands for distribution throughout the country.”
So how do you maintain the integrity of an organic line, while also having a non-organic line in production?
Divide & conquer, my friends!
All of the ingredients for the two product lines are kept completely separate. They have two silos, one of which is only for their organic grain. Inside, the bags of grains and barley are kept in separate areas, on their own unique pallets/shelving. Same thing goes for the hops. There is intense care taken to ensure that there is no cross-contamination.
A great example of this is when an organic beer follows a non-organic one in the brewing schedule. When this happens, they use 100 pounds of organic grain to flush out any remaining non-organic grain in the mill!
In terms of keeping the facts & figures straight during the brewing process, they use different colored markers on the whiteboard (where they’ll note times, temperatures, & other measurements throughout the brewing process) – anything having to do with the Wolaver’s line of organic beers is written exclusively in green!
They also employ green ‘Organic’ signs on any fermenters containing the organic ales, again striving to limit the possibility of contamination or confusion!
Ok, ok… so that’s how you run a double-brewery operation…
but what about the beer????
Otter Creek puts out five year-round beers, and offers up three Imperial beers that are 22-ouncers and are described as “brewed with more malts and more hops”… and are their “high-octane” offerings :) I actually just shared a bottle of QVH with my friend Chris the other night! Yummo…
In addition to their year-round beers, Otter Creek also has four seasonal beers… Spring Ale, ‘Otter Summer, Oktoberfest & Winter Ale!
Wolaver’s has four year-round organic ales… Pale Ale, India Pale Ale, Brown Ale and an Oatmeal Stout.
While these are all solid, tasty beers… it’s their seasonal offerings that are a beautiful representation of Wolaver’s commitment to sustainability. These beers are made with local, organic (duh) ingredients from neighboring farms, and actually feature the farmer from which they take their name! (These descriptions come right from their website!)
**So this beer isn’t employing a ‘local’ ingredient,
but they are supporting a wonderful fair trade organic farm!**
* Alta GraciaCoffee Porter – This beer is brewed with organic roasted barley and chocolate malts for a rich, dark and robust flavor with an infusion of organic vanilla beans, and coffee from the Dominican Republic farm communityAlta Gracia.
This non-profit farm works to empower farmers with tools and techniques to grow quality shade-grown organic coffee. The result is growers who feel pride in their stewardship of the land, are paid fairly for their labor, and have healthy sustainable farms.
The farmers of the Alta Gracia farm community are paid fair wages for their work. It is the mission of the farm to teach neighboring farmers techniques to grow high quality shade-grown organic coffee that will allow them to get a fair price for their product.
The coffee beans are roasted just down the street from our brewery at the Vermont Coffee Company.
* Ben Gleason’s White Ale - Ben Gleason has been growing organic wheat for twenty eight years at his farm in Bridport, Vermont, just ten miles from our brewery.Our brewers have combined Ben’s organic raw wheat, organic rolled oats, and organic 2-row malted barley. The resulting golden brew is then mildly spiced with organic coriander and orange peel and fermented with an authentic Belgian yeast to create this complex and refreshing white ale. A fitting salute to Ben Gleason.
* Pat Leavy’s All-American Ale – Pat Leavy’s All-American, brewed with Oregon-grown organic hops and American organic malts, is named in honor of hop grower Pat Leavy.
Frustrated that organic hops had to be shipped in from overseas, we set out to find a more local source. Pat Leavy agreed to grow organic hops for our brewery and this All American ale is brewed with his organic Fuggles, Goldings, and Magnum hops.
* Will Steven’s Pumpkin Ale - The pumpkins were grown by Will Stevens and his wife Judy, of Golden Russet Farm in Shoreham, Vermont. They have been growing organic vegetables and flowers for over 25 years. Their farm is less than 15 miles away from our brewery!
Ok, check this out… Mike was adorably excited to show me a refrigerator during my visit & tour.
Yes, a refrigerator, folks.
What could be so exciting about the contents of a refrigerator?
Why yes, that IS a huge refrigerator full of bags & containers of pumpkin!!! They harvest the organic pumpkins, cook & puree them, and then store them in the refrigerator until they are ready to brew! Since there’s quite a bit of time between those two events, yet they want to be able to use real pumpkin in the beer, this is their solution. Pretty cool, huh?!?
One other cool tidbit that Mike shared with me related to their quality control measures… has to do with being able to determine if a batch of beer went bad on its own, or whether something went wrong after it left the brewery… They take 6 bottles from each batch & put two in the fridge, two at room temp and two in a heated environment – that way if a customer ever complains, they can test the fridge beer & if it is, then they know something happened with a distributor/shipper… say, for instance, that a truck in FL was left out in the sun for a week. If the fridge beer is ok, then something happened once it left the brewery… make sense?
Not sure how many of you out there are Spaceballs fans… but while Mike was taking me around, we passed a piece of equipment that seems to me, if it were on the Spaceballs ship, would have been called… Mr. Temperature!
I also loved this pix of the empty bottles moving along the bottling line, waiting to be filled with tasty Wolaver’s IPA, which is what they were brewing the day that I visited!
One of the coolest machines I’ve ever watched in action (not that I’m a machine-in-action junkie, or anything…)… was the palletizer at Otter Creek / Wolaver’s!!! This thing is seriously awesome… It’s like a puzzle wizard! It pulls in each incoming case, knows which way it needs to face & either pulls it in straight or uses its ‘arms’ to spin it around to face the other way, slides it in with the ones already on the pallet, & when it’s full? It makes sure all the cases are tightly packed up against each other, then shrinkwraps it & slides it off! Oh, and it builds these pallets 6 ‘stories’ high!!! My only regret from the day was that I didn’t take a video of this beast in action! Luckily, you can watch a video of it in action from the manufacturer, on YouTube… here!
Once my official tour was done, Mike brought me out to the tasting room, & we got to sample a bunch of tasty Otter Creek & Wolaver’s beers! Here’s a tip: if you can get your hands on both the Russian Imperial Stout & the Alta Gracia Coffee Porter… mix them! ;)
Yup, we had a fun time tasting some yummy beers after my tour… these guys are totally all right… :)
BIG thanks to Mike for showing me SUCH a great time at the brewery… he was seriously awesome… he’d get calls or e-mails on his blackberry, & kept apologizing for having to take them!!! Here he is taking time out of his work day to tour me around, & he’s apologizing to me for being responsible & doing his job?? No need, my friend… :) I had a wonderful time at Otter Creek & Wolaver’s & can’t wait to get back there soon for another visit!
Meanwhile… there’s SO much great information about the organic brewing that Wolaver’s is doing, and I while I was going to include it in this post, it’s just too much & would have made this post too long… so… I’m going to do a follow-up post just on that aspect! Stay tuned :)