After nearly 20 years, Wolaver’s Fine Organic Ales — a pioneering organic craft beer brand that was acquired by Vermont’s Long Trail Brewing in 2010 — has ceased production.
Citing the rising cost and availability of organic ingredients, as well as cost-prohibitive production realities, Otter Creek said it would no longer brew the nation’s first USDA-certified organic craft beer brand and will instead focus more energy on accelerating the growth of its recently rebranded Otter Creek line.
“It’s something we have been mulling for years; there are certain constraints when working with organic materials,” Jed Nelson, the director of marketing at Long Trail Brewing told Brewbound. “We sacrificed a lot from the production of our conventional beers to give to the organic line and we just couldn’t continue to justify it.”
Long Trail, which is owned by Fullham & Co., a family office, also makes and markets The Shed Brewery and Otter Creek brands.
When faced with a decision to continue managing cumbersome brewing schedules and investing behind an organic Wolaver’s brand with stringent production requirements, Long Trail said it became increasingly clear that Otter Creek deserved more of attention.
“The organic ethos is something that runs throughout the brewery and this wasn’t an easy decision,” said Nelson, noting that he expects the Otter Creek line of beers to soon be verified as non-GMO by the Non-GMO project.
Although Nelson wouldn’t share specific production figures, Wolaver’s volume was a “fraction” of Otter Creek’s annual output; even the company’s Shed Mountain Ale, which is most popular amongst Vermont skiers, was larger than all Wolaver’s brands combined, he said.
“Half of our storage space is dedicated to conventional beers and half is dedicated to organic — we have to segment the two in order to remain compliant with the USDA organic standards,” he said. “And if you looked at what we were producing, you would see that it is not a 50/50 mix.”
The decision to shut down the Wolaver’s project comes about three months after Otter Creek announced plans to triple capacity — from 65,000 barrels to 200,000 barrels — at its brewery in Middlebury. Construction on the facility is expected to be completed by next summer and will make Otter Creek the largest brewery in the state.
Nevertheless, the company isn’t concerned about the void left by Wolaver’s even amidst the expansion, Nelson said.
“We are rolling out a succession of new Otter Creek beers and we will keep those coming throughout the course of the year,” he said, adding that new markets might also be on tap.
And assuming Long Trail doesn’t unload the brand — there are currently no interested buyers, Nelson said — it appears this is the final chapter in a storied Wolaver’s history.
Launched in 1997 by brothers Morgan and Robert Wolaver, the brand was first contract-brewed at five different breweries across the U.S. — North Coast Brewing, Goose Island, Old Dominion, Otter Creek and the no-defunct Ybor City Brewing.
Led by Joe Glorfield, Robert Wolaver’s son-in-law, the original Wolaver’s concept was designed to fill excess capacity and leverage existing sales and distribution networks at craft breweries around the country. In doing so, the company also gave up equity stakes in the business.
“The idea was that you could essentially become a national brand overnight,” said Tom McCormick, the current executive director of the California Craft Brewers Association and a former minority partner in Wolaver’s.
Mark Ruedrich, the president of founding brewmaster of North Coast helped to create the original recipes for the Wolaver’s brands — a pale ale, IPA and brown ale — but shortly after launch, the company ran into number of obstacles.
“There were quality control and consistency issues, the margins were ridiculously thin and we started right when the industry hit a slowdown,” said McCormick.
When some of Wolaver’s contract partners, like North Coast, began opting out in favor of increased attention to their more profitable house brands, the Wolaver brothers began searching for a brick and mortar facility to purchase. Around the same time, Lawrence Miller, who founded Otter Creek Brewing in 1991, was looking for an exit.
In 2002, Wolaver’s Organic Ales bought the Otter Creek brewery and its brands, relocated to Vermont and took over production of both portfolios. After years of modest growth, Otter Creek, in a move to make the business more financially stable, sold to Long Trail/Fullham & Co. in 2010.
But throughout its near 20-year history, the Wolaver’s brand routinely struggled with the same issues — stringent organic production requirements, access to raw organic ingredients and manufacturing inefficiencies.
On top of that, organic beer has also always been somewhat of a tougher sell, said McCormick.
“There is not a vey big divide between organic craft beer and craft beer,” he said. “The differentiation is pretty marginal and, in the late `90s, consumers perceived craft beer — in general — to be an all-natural product, handcrafted with only four ingredients.”
On its website, Wolaver’s said Alta Gracia Coffee Porter was the final product brewed and shipped to wholesalers.
And for the nostalgic Wolaver’s fan out there interested in claiming a piece of the company’s history, there’s always these original Wolaver’s labels being sold on Amazon for $3.50.