Otter Creek brews new ales

MIDDLEBURY — Lovers of Otter Creek Brewing Co.’s Black IPA, Copper Ale and Hop Session beers might want to buy and savor them while they can.
The Middlebury brewery is phasing out those year-round products in favor of two new brews, the company announced last week: Backseat Berner IPA and Over Easy.
Otter Creek marketing director Jed Nelson said the brewery’s several seasonal beers, like the firm overall, have been performing well.
But Nelson confirmed lagging sales of the beers that have been company mainstays for years — in the case of Copper Ale, since the company was founded in the early 1990s with that German altbier style as its flagship brew.
“People just aren’t picking up those styles anymore,” Nelson said. “They’re all great beers. I grew up on Copper Ale.”
The craft beer marketplace is increasingly competitive. The number of U.S. breweries grew from around 600 in 1994 to about 2,700 in 2013, and about 1.5 new craft breweries a day are now adding to that total, Nelson said.
Given those numbers, and that Vermont had the second-highest number of breweries per capita among U.S. states as of 2013, Otter Creek — and its parent firm, Long Trail Brewing in Bridgewater Corners — decided it was time for a new direction.
“Those beers are going to fade into the sunset,” Nelson said. “They’ve served us well over the years. But as consumer preferences have changed, we’ve had to change along with them. It’s not been an easy decision to make, but the consumers have spoken.”
At the same time, Nelson said Otter Creek brewmaster Mike Gerhart and the rest of the company are excited about the new offerings, which Nelson said should hit Vermont stores later this month and are now available at Otter Creek’s Exchange Street taproom.
Backseat Berner is Otter Creek’s entry into the burgeoning IPA field — Nelson noted 48 percent of all new craft beers are India Pale Ales, or IPAs, as breweries ramp up to meet demand for the popular style.
Backseat does not have the highest alcohol content (7.0 percent alcohol by volume, or ABV) or bitterness level (68 International Bitterness Units, or IBUs) of the IPAs being made, but Nelson said it should please taste buds by packing in flavor.
“Our IPA has got the profile that people are looking for, which is high citrus notes, and the alcohol content, the ABV, is not completely over the top,” Nelson said. “While it drinks almost like a double IPA, it’s got the alcohol content almost of a regular IPA.”
Nelson also quoted Gerhart: “If you can find a way to put more hops into a brew, then we want to hear from you.”
Over Easy, according to a company release, is meant to be a drinkable, lighter-bodied ale. But despite its more modest 4.6 ABV and 40 IBUs, Nelson said Over Easy’s taste punches above its weight class.
“It’s a session-style ale that drinks more like an IPA,” Nelson said. “People are really amazed at how much is going on, how many flavor characteristics they can ascertain, from this beer.”
As well as relying on flavor to move their new products, Otter Creek is building a marketing campaign around Gerhart, whose Wolaver’s Pumpkin Ale won gold in the 2014 Great American Beer Fest, duplicating his 2009 results with an Otter Creek Vermont Lager. Gerhart’s vintage Volkswagen minibus is often seen in the company lot, and his Bernese mountain dog, Oslo, is likewise a brewery fixture. Both the bus and the Bernese are featured on the packaging.
“We think we’ve come up with some pretty unique branding that really showcases the personality of the brewmaster and the brewery,” Nelson said.
TWO NEW BEERS, Backseat Berner and Over Easy, are now on tap at Otter Creek Brewing on Exchange Street in Middlebury and will be available in local stores in the next few weeks. Courtesy photo
So far, Long Trail’s tactics since its 2009 purchase of Otter Creek Brewing seem to be working. According to Nelson, the brewery then employed about a dozen-and-half. Now, the onsite number has roughly doubled, he said, not including a regional sales force that ranges from 15 to 20.
The company also continues to brew and distribute the Wolaver line of organic beers, which Nelson said has seen steady sales of its year-round brews and, as is the case with the Otter Creek line, growth in seasonal offerings.
In 2011, Otter Creek purchased The Shed label, equipment and recipes when that Stowe business was struggling, and its brewmaster also now works in Middlebury. Shed products are now selling well, and Nelson said Shed Mountain Ale is the No. 1 selling craft beer six-pack in Vermont.
“The Shed is hugely popular. The Shed has really surpassed our expectations,” he said.
Meanwhile, what Nelson called the Long Trail “mothership” is operating close to capacity, innovating new products, and “continues to do well.”
The Long Trail brewery also two years ago added what Nelson called a “dedicated, small, single-barrel brewery” that allows its brewmaster to experiment more efficiently with new styles. Shortly after that, Otter Creek, which he said operates “autonomously” from Long Trail, bought a similar system, which was used to develop Backseat Berner and Over Easy.
“Our brewers are able to play around to their hearts’ content,” Nelson said. “All of our new beers are being developed on this pilot system.”
On Tuesdays at the brewery, customers get to sample and comment on the latest experiments. Some of that feedback helped shape the new brews, as did employee input.
“We listened and we adjusted as we heard from our customers, as well as obviously we had everyone in the brewery sampling these beers, too,” Nelson said.
All these steps are necessary given just how much competition is out there and on the way, both locally and beyond, in a growing craft segment. In 2013 craft beer sales increased by more than 17 percent from the year before to capture almost 8 percent of the U.S. beer market, according to brewersassociation.org.    
“It’s ridiculous how competitive it’s become. It’s totally exploding right now,” Nelson said.
That situation led to some evaluating, which in turn led to the product shakeup, and, he said, a focus on what the company believes is an advantage — their gold-medal brewmaster, Gerhart.
“It was a brand without an identity for a long time. And we did some soul-searching and looked inside and realized our identity is this amazingly talented brewmaster that we have here,” Nelson said. “We think Mike is pretty much the best-kept secret in brewing anywhere.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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