Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
Logo of The Middlebury Campus
Saturday, Dec 2, 2023

Nothing's hotter than an otter

In March of 1991, Laurence Miller brewed his first Copper Ale. The owner of Otter Creek Brewery, Miller opened his business at 616 Exchange Street, the current location of Vermont Soapworks. Four years later, the brewery expanded and moved down the road, where it resides today. With a 40,000-barrel capacity, Otter Creek Brewery distributes its year-round and seasonal beer to states across the country.  Long Trail Brewing bought Otter Creek Craft Ales and Wolaver’s Certified Organic Ales, both of which are brewed in Middlebury, last January and has since invested $1 million into the brewery.

The partnership between Wolaver’s and Otter Creek formed in 2002 when Morgan Wolaver bought Otter Creek. Wolaver, who worked with fresh food, sought to brew quality beer, and he became the first USDA-certified organic brewer. At first a satellite brewer without a brewery of his own, Wolaver knew Vermont’s organic lifestyle fit the product he envisioned, so he bought Otter Creek. He worked with the organic barley and farmers in the area, and together they created an “organic beer market.”

Dale Becker, the assistant manager of the Visitors Center at the brewery, said that Long Trail beers rank as the fourth best selling brand of beer in Vermont, following Amstel, Busch and Miller Lite. In addition to the brewery’s four year-round ales (Copper Ale, Pale Ale, Solstice Ale and Stovepipe Porter), it also has seasonal varieties. This year’s fall flavors include Oktoberfest and Will Stevens’ Pumpkin Ale. Becker said the winter ales will be Otter Creek’s Alpine Black IPA and the Wolaver’s Alta Gracia Coffee Porter. At the Vermont Brewers Fest this July, Becker said everyone loved the Alpine Black IPA, as do the college students who have tried it; however, the ingredients needed to make the beer are expensive.

The four ingredients in any beer are water, malted barley, hops and yeast. If a beer is five percent alcohol, then the other 95 percent of the drink is water. Otter Creek uses the township water, which it later purifies and softens.

Malt (a type of grain that has been allowed to sprout) forms the basis for 80 percent of beer. Specialty malts, like roasted and de-husked barley, give some beer its burnt, smoky flavor and dark coloring, according to Becker. By de-husking the barley, the beer spice, commonly called hops, is not overshadowed.

Ales, first created by the British, are fermented at warm temperatures, so the yeast can rise. Said to have been a German improvement on an ale, lagers are fermented at cold temperatures, allowing the yeast to fall. These beers are cold-stored for long periods of time before being bottled or kegged.

A native Floridian, Becker enjoys the heartiness of the ale because it fills him up faster, but he prefers a lager when it is hot outside because of its “crisp, clear and refreshing” taste.

Otter Creek, located at 783 Exchange Street, is open seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Complimentary tours are also available to the public.

“We want more interaction with the College,” said Becker. “The students are diverse and politically-minded. The other day a group of girls were in here drinking beer and arguing about politics.”

This is an especially appealing idea because the brewery plans to open a restaurant in the next year. With a 90-person seating capacity and more than 21 bar seats, the eatery will start small and serve appetizers like chili and, of course, beer.

Becker admits that beer is more sophisticated and complicated than he ever thought, and the brewing process certainly reflects this complexity. First, the barley must germinate before it is kiln-dried and coated with sugar or caramel. The barley is also milled, which means that the husk must break open to expose its natural enzymes and starches. Becker said that up to five batches of milled malted barley are produced each day.

To start the brewing process, 148-degree to 154-degree water is mixed with the milled malted barley in the mash mixer for 60 minutes. The barley’s enzymes begin breaking down the starch into simple sugars. Next, the mixture is moved to the lauter tun, or settling tank. Here barley falls into the natural filter bed at the bottom of the tank, and the remaining liquid is easily pulled out. This substance, called “wort,” is a brown sweet liquid. If someone drank a cup of this clarified liquid, Becker said they would go into “sugar shock.” The remaining barley is picked up by a local farmer twice a week and fed to his cows, as the animals love the sugary taste of the grain. As much as 10 tons of barley are left over each day.

The wort is then transferred to the brew kettle where it sits for 60 minutes. Here boiling water is added to the wort, so it can be sterilized. If anything touches the wort while it is transferred from one tank to another, it becomes hard to contain. Hops pellets, which give the beer its bitter taste, are also added to the brew kettle. Otter Creek Brewery uses hops grown in Middlebury. Finally, the mixture is sent to the whirlpool tank where the solids move to the center and the liquid beer can be easily pulled out from the sides of the tank. The leftover solid is used as fertilizer.

“This is a trick on nature,” said Becker, who studied marine biology in college and has done much retail work in fly-fishing. “The process highlights our dedication to the company’s organic and natural label.”

The brewed beer is cold-stored at 32 degrees and generally bottled on the 19th day after the brewing has begun. This ensures fresh quality beer.

The visitor’s center is the “face of the brewery,” and Becker has several goals he seeks to accomplish here. He hopes to create an enjoyable experience and entice first time customers enough so that they will be more inclined to buy Otter Creek the next time they go to the grocery store, for example. Beer enthusiasts often embark on the Vermont Brew Tour, where they visit breweries, including Otter Creek, across the state. Becker challenges himself to find ways to make the Middlebury brewery the best spot on the trip.

“I have three textbooks with 700 pages of information each [on beer],” he said. “I want to learn everything.”

He yearns to make the visitor’s center a place all can enjoy because Becker believes Otter Creek customers are buyers for life.

“I have Middlebury alums that call me three to four times per month because they want Otter Creek beer at their weddings,” he said.

Stay tuned for events and activities at the brewery, especially as it gears up for the restaurant’s grand opening next year.