Morgan Wolaver led the way for organic beers in the United States
In 1996, a strong desire to create a family business that could survive the generations, combined with an affinity for wholesome foods, motivated Morgan Wolaver to create an organic ale — the first in the country. Since 2002, he has been the owner and president of Otter Creek Brewery in Middlebury.
by Keith Morrill
It was in college that Morgan Wolaver came to an important realization. Maybe it was the years of bad dorm food, or maybe just being away from home; whatever, the reason, Wolaver realized the importance of fresh food. It doesn’t seem like much of a revelation, but for Wolaver it marked an understanding that would eventually lead him to become owner and president of Otter Creek Brewing in Middlebury.
To understand Wolaver’s epiphany, it’s important to know that he grew up in the Tidewater region of Virginia, a place he describes as more rural than Vermont. His parents came from farming families, and though neither was a professional farmer — his father was a structural engineer; his mother, a nurse — gardening and preserving were an important part of life. It was only when he left the idyllic pastoral scene to study oceanographic technology at the Florida Institute of Technology that things started brewing.
“I began to question more and more what was going into the soils and where food came from,” says Wolaver. He questioned the benefit of supporting foods whose source and growing methods were unknown.
After graduation in 1978, Wolaver moved to Texas, where he took a job in environmental sciences with an engineering firm. “I worked on projects all over the world,” he says.” I haven’t made it to every continent, but I made it to every ocean.”
He continued to be based in Texas, working for several companies, until 1995, when he agreed to quit engineering and manage real estate for his mother, following the death of his father. “Helping her managing her property, certainly the money was there, but not the substance of the job,” Wolaver says. “And I was looking to take it to the next generation, so to speak.” This prompted discussions with his brother about creating a family business.
Planning begins with dialogue as Wolaver, the brewers and the sales and marketing team try to find a balance among beers they would love to brew, and the kinds of beers consumers are looking for or willing to purchase. Steve Parkes is the head brewer.
“My brother Robert and I started looking at forming a business based around organic food production,” he recalls. “We looked at things like coffee, juices, fruit bars. Our original intent was to farm and produce the product, but it became apparent to us over time that it was really a lot more than we had the skills or the financial capital to do.” A solution came unexpectedly.
Robert was an organic farmer in Hawaii at the time, and Wolaver was visiting him. “After a day of research, we stopped off to get a beer,” he says. “Lo and behold, on the shelf was this organic beer from overseas. The beer was too old and not very good, and that was an inspiration. We felt like we could make a good organic beer.”
In 1997, Wolaver’s Certified Organic Ales was born. Wolaver’s started its base of operations in Santa Cruz, Calif. Robert left Hawaii and recruited Joe Glorfield, his son-in-law in Florida, to join him. Wolaver, still managing his mother’s real estate, stayed in Texas and took care of beer sales there.
The company was able to take advantage of Glorfield’s past association with Nell Newman, the founder of Newman’s Own Organics, also located in Santa Cruz, which played a mentoring role to the nascent brewery.
The beer was contract-brewed by several breweries, on the West Coast and in parts of the Midwest. “That was good emotionally,” he says, “but bad business. “We had six contracts, six different sets of labels, six invoicings and reconciliations.”
After a couple of years in Santa Cruz, they moved the base to Nevada City, Calif., which put them closer to their contract brewers and allowed them to focus on being a regional label, something their market analysis had shown to be critical.
By 2001, the Wolavers were seeking to purchase their own brewery. Around that time, Lawrence Miller, the founder and then-owner of Otter Creek Brewing, was looking to sell in order to pursue other business prospects. Otter Creek Brewing and Vermont perfectly matched Wolaver’s standards of quality and beliefs in organic, environmentally friendly products.
“We had good growth,” says Wolaver, and we felt like we really needed to take that next step. Vermont is second to none when it comes to finding people who know about organics and understand it,” he says. On June 1, 2002, Wolaver’s Organic Ales purchased both the brewery and the Otter Creek brand.
Wolaver says he thinks he got the better part of that deal, because he shifted some of his business duties to his brother and moved to Vermont. “Robert and the people out west stayed there,” he says. Robert does sales and marketing for the company on the West Coast and is the ambassador for the growth of organic agriculture for the company.
Today, Otter Creek Brewing employs 26 people at the Middlebury brewery, in addition to four or five part-time people, and seven sales people in various areas. In Wolaver’s opinion, these people are essential ingredients to making the brewery run smoothly. “It’s all about chemistry. We’ve really focused on a very cohesive group of people here. It’s important that everyone wants to work together, that they’re not just coming in for a job.”
He sees this as the cornerstone of the company, describing it as “a team effort from conception to consumer enjoyment.” Planning generally begins with dialogue as Wolaver, the brewers and the sales and marketing team try to find a balance among beers they would love to brew, and the kinds of beers consumers are looking for or willing to purchase.
Wolaver’s timing is good. The market has never been better for craft-brewed beer, which continues to garner media and consumer attention. That’s not to say things have become easy. The industry still holds plenty of challenges, he says.
For one, increased attention means increased market saturation, as more and more brews fight for shelf space. According to Wolaver, the way to stay on top is to be dedicated to quality. “If you’re going to be in the craft-beer industry you have to make quality beer, because consumers have a lot of options out there.” Otter Creek Brewing has managed roughly 7 percent growth per year since Wolaver took over in 2002, an amount he calls steady yet manageable.
Finding the ingredients necessary for certified organic beer remains a persistent challenge. “Organic hops are still a limiting factor,” he says. “With organic barley, we can make breads from them, we make cereals from them, so there are a number of avenues for organic grain growers and malting companies to sell their product. What else are hops used for?” The answer: not much. The only reliable source of organic hops is New Zealand, he says, though he’s been working to change that.
Few things would please him more than to have hops growing right here in the Green Mountain State, which is why he continues to work with local farmers to produce crops ready for brewing. The hope is that maybe in the next five years, Otter Creek could be receiving between 20 percent and 30 percent of its hops, barley and wheat from growers in Vermont.
Since Wolaver bought Otter Creek in 2002, sales have grown 7 percent per year. Kevin O’Rourke is comptroller; Gail Daha is general manager.
Bill McKibben, renowned environmental writer and scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College, talks about Wolaver’s work in Vermont. “I’ve watched him work to find locally grown grains,” he says, “to try and coordinate other Vermont breweries into coming together around the possibility of a regional barley-malting plant — something that would make eminent sense given that we have more breweries per capita than just about any place on earth.”
McKibben also cites Wolaver’s dedication to staying green. “I think he’s been taken by the possibilities that Vermont presents — the sense that you might be able to make a product that not only is environmentally responsible (which he’s done a good job of) but that helps build community at the same time”
Wolaver does appear to have fit neatly into the Vermont landscape. He has initiated many changes over the last few years to make Otter Creek Brewing as environmentally friendly as possible. “I’d like to think we can get to zero carbon emissions,” he muses, a goal he admits is likely impossible, but worth striving for.
One way the company has done this was to install a warehouse-sized cooling unit. The 2,500-square-foot space uses cool air from outside to chill beer awaiting shipment. On the other end of the mercury, the brewery burns 20 percent biodiesel to heat its boilers, an achievement of which Wolaver is quite proud, but he’s not entirely content. Recently, he obtained a grant from the Vermont Clean Energy Fund to take his efforts further and investigate a fuel source that would be a hundred percent renewable, and local.
It makes sense to him, both as a conscientious businessman and a Vermont resident who wants to continue enjoying the state’s beauty, which he does all four seasons, cross-country skiing, hiking and bicycling. He likes attending the farmers market in Richmond where he lives with his wife, Melissa, their two children, Emily, 9, and Grace, almost 2. Alex, Wolaver’s son from a first marriage, graduates this year from the University of Texas.
The importance of fresh, local and organic food is never far from his mind. He and Melissa are experimenting with winter crops in his small greenhouse. “Up until December, we had some hardy winter greens,” he says. “Knock on wood, we might end up with a few other things in another month.” •