By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — Otter Creek Brewing’s award-winning beer is getting greener and greener.
No, we’re not talking about a build-up to a special St. Patrick’s Day promotion.
The green, in this case, symbolizes the many environmentally friendly processes the Middlebury-based brewery is using in production of the more than 30,000 barrels of beer it ships out annually to 22 states.
“It’s not one big thing we’re doing, but a lot of small things that add up,” Otter Creek Brewing President and owner Morgan Wolaver said during a Thursday tour that meandered around imposing steel vats, humming machinery and busy employees at Otter Creek’s Exchange Street plant.
Wolaver paused to point out examples of the many “small things” the company is doing to use less electricity.
He motions to two fairly inconspicuous heat exchangers that capture warmth from the plant’s brewery platform and send it into the company’s hot water system. Were it not for the heat exchangers, the beer would have to be refrigerated before receiving yeast, an extra step that would use more energy and cost the company more money. Instead, Otter Creek Brewing is using a fairly simple process to help itself and the environment.
“Works just like a car’s radiator,” said Wolaver, whose family acquired the brewery four years ago from founder Lawrence Miller.
Wolaver next walks up to two large tanks, one of which captures spent grain, the other spent hops and yeast — all ingredients essential in the brewing process.
But instead of landfilling the spent products or draining them into the municipal sewer plant, Otter Creek Brewing is recycling them for agricultural purposes. The spend grain is hauled away to area farms, where it is used for cattle feed, while the hops and yeast are used in compost.
Wolaver calculates his company saves between $10,000 and $20,000 by not having to dispose of the grain at a landfill or sewer plant.
Next, Wolaver walks into the company’s chilled storage warehouse — a welcome refuge on a hot, humid day.
Thanks to some energy efficiency incentives offered through Efficiency Vermont, the warehouse has been able to use Mother Nature to provide some of the cool temperatures that had previously been supplied exclusively through electricity. In-take and out-take fans near the ceiling of the warehouse circulate cool air from the outside during the evening hours. A computer system inside signals the warehouse cooling units to come on when the temperature risks exceeding the desired 46 degrees.
“We will basically captured our investment in two years time,” said Wolaver, estimating the new warehouse cooling system saves his company around $4,000 annually.
While saving money is important, Otter Creek Brewing has made some environmentally friendly changes that are costing it some extra money — for now.
The company recently converted to a fuel mixture for its boiler that includes 20-percent biodiesel. That fuel costs Otter Creek Brewing about 7 percent more than conventional fuel, but Wolaver expects the price to become more competitive in the near future. With fossil fuel prices continuing to increase, more entrepreneurs are turning to biodiesel. And as demand increases, the costs of producing the fuel should come down, he noted. In the meantime, Wolaver takes solace in the environmental plusses of the cleaner-burning biodiesel.
“We’re cutting down on the pollution we put into the air,” Wolaver said.
Otter Creek recently began using a lot of Addison County-grown organic wheat in its Wolaver’s Organic Wit ale. Forty percent of the wheat used in the brand is derived from local growers.
“We pay a little more, but you think about less transportation and fewer pollutants that are going in the air,” Wolaver said.
The company will showcase its environmental energy upgrades on July 20, from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., at an event organized by the group Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility. People interested in attending should call 862-8347.
Otter Creek Brewing will eventually take more steps to make its Middlebury plant even “greener,” Wolaver said. He’d like to harness solar power to meet more of the plant’s electricity needs. And the company may someday install a special digester to capture methane gas from the beer making process and convert that gas into electricity.
“It’s a constant discovery,” Wolaver said of future energy options.