When it comes to where we live and what we consume, Vermonters never run out of declarations to color the state’s portrait: green, organic, natural, fair-trade, local.
But when Morgan Wolaver, owner and president of Otter Creek Brewing and the man behind the one of the first organic ales in the country, stepped into a bar more than a decade ago, he was surprised to see the word “organic” on a beer label. At that point, organic milk, eggs, fruit and veggies were standard, but organic beer was still an oxymoron.
“Well, organic is more than that, it’s about sustainable agriculture,” Wolaver said. “It’s about managing the soil, it’s all about what’s upstream because if the farmers are not taking care of the soil or the land properly, it all flows down on us.”
Wolaver has been interested in the human impact on the environment for a long time — even before his college days at the Florida Institute of Technology. Wolver grew up in Virginia and came from farming roots. His brother Robert stayed close to the land, working as an organic farmer, while Wolaver took to the sea. He became an ocean scientist and studied the sea for 20 years.
Years later, the two decided they wanted to start a business together that meshed their talents — organic food and science. And as the brothers sat in that bar over a decade ago after a long day of pitching business ideas to one another, Wolaver came face to face with one proposal they hadn’t considered: organic beer.
“We were looking at how we could put together a business that we felt strongly about and was a family business,” said Wolaver. “Beer was not one of the ones we initially thought about, because you don’t think of (beer) as being a farm product, but really it is.”
In 1997, Wolaver’s Certified Organic Ales was born. The brothers decided that Santa Cruz, Calif., was the best place to launch their beer because of “the density of the demographics” they needed. In order for organic beer to create a market for itself, Wolaver needed a population of “sustainable-minded, sociably-responsible-minded organic consumers.”
The above description of Wolver’s ideal consumer brings to mind another demographic who appreciates organic food just as much as the West-Coasters: Vermonters. So, in May of 2002, Wolver purchased Otter Creek Brewing from founder Lawrence Miller and started brewing organic beer under the Wolaver’s name and craft-brewed beer under the Otter Creek label.
“One of the things that differentiates our business from other craft brewery businesses is that our focus really with the Wolaver’s has been to reach out to farmers, make those connections and try to figure out how we can be directly involved with knowing them,” Wolaver said.
Wolaver’s closeness with the farm community is evident in the “Farm Series” that Wolaver’s Certified Organic Ales puts out. This series of beer features farmers that grow organic and sustainable products. The series launched last year with local farmer Ben Gleason, who Wolaver has been in league with for seven years. Gleason, who has been growing organic wheat for 28 years at his farm in Bridport, was the perfect partner. The white ale was “a fitting salute to Ben Gleason,” Wolaver said.
Wolaver also partnered up with Will Stevens and his wife Judy of Golden Russet Farm in Shoreham. Wolver uses Stevens’ organic pumpkins to spice his autumn line of beer. And in November, Wolaver plans to launch a new beer as a part of the series with Vermont Coffee. The brewery will use Alta Gracia coffee that has been grown on a patch of land owned by Julia Alvarez in the Dominican Republic. Alvarez and her husband bought land where she grew up that had been deforested and turned it into a fair-trade, organic coffee co-op. The new Alta Gracia Coffee Porter will be produced in collaboration with Vermont Coffee as the fourth brew in the Farm Series.
“It would be nice to say that we buy all of our ingredients within 500 miles instead of thousands of miles,” Wolaver said. “But it’s a step toward supporting fair-trade.”
Wolaver currently lives in Richmond, V.A., and visits the brewery one to three days a week. He knows the 25 employees by name and said most of the work done at the brewery is about collaboration.
“Drinking beer is really about camaraderie,” Wolaver said, and so is making it. From flavor to alcohol percentage, the beer is talked over with the brewers and marketing employees.
“So we sit down as a group and discuss what seems to be interesting,” Wolaver said. “It really is a community process.”
And it’s the feeling of community that Wolaver said he remembered about his first true “beer experience.” In the mid ’80s, before Wolaver was knee-deep in the beer industry, he was visiting England and stopped into a traditional pub. The pub was small, and about 10 people were crammed in a room that looked like it belonged in somebody’s home, “which it probably was,” said Wolaver.
“And you sit there and this guy makes maybe 30 gallons of beer a week, so I was really tasting beer from a tradition of hundreds and hundreds of years of making beer,” he said. “That was really my first experience of industrial beer in America versus what beer was like in Europe.”
The difference Wolaver tasted was the difference between craft-brewed beers that were made with a philosophy in mind, versus industrialized conveyer-belt beer lacking personality and the human touch. A lot of thought goes into each beer Wolaver’s company makes. When asked which beer is his favorite, Wolaver responded, “I love all my children the same!”
But beer is not produced on philosophy alone: there’s a science behind it. This is where Wolaver’s scientific background comes in handy.
“I just enjoy the science,” he said. “Making beer is art and science put together.”
Wolaver said these days, craft beer has grown up, and “it has become a more significant part of the texture of our culture.” And when people see organic beer on tap at their local bar, ponderous and slightly terrified expressions are few and far between. And though the Wolaver brothers’ unstoppable mixture of organic philosophy and science has proved successful, Wolaver said it has taken his business about 10 years to get established as a certified organic craft-brewed beer with strong local ties.
Wolaver’s labels are a direct reflection of Vermont’s own philosophy brushed with the words we see and speak every day. The company uses natural Vermont water, local ingredients, and beers are made with no less than 98 percent certified organic ingredients.
Plain and simple, Wolaver’s and Otter Creek beer is Vermont beer, said Wolaver.