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This Copper Ale’s Not For You

Here’s a recipe for a fun evening. Grab a six-pack of New Coke, hop in your Ford Edsel, and come on over so we can discuss Starbucks’ wildly successful campaign to get its customers to talk to each other about race.

When we’re done dissecting how well it worked for Starbucks to have their baristas write “Race Together” on their incredibly wasteful paper cups, we can turn to the subject of beer.

Local beer, I mean. In particular, Otter Creek Brewing Co.’s shocking decision to retire its flagship Copper Ale.

Will this iconic ale be brought back to life as quickly as old Coke? Or will it prove to be as forgotten as the Nash Rambler?

For the record, I will state that I can’t join Jed Nelson, Otter Creek’s marketing director, in saying that I “grew up on Copper Ale.”

But let’s just say that over the years, I’ve had a few.

Copper Ale is everything local – invented here nearly 25 years ago, made here, and imbibed here in once copious amounts.

It is, in the words of the brewing company itself, “a complex amber ale handcrafted with six malts, three hops and the spirit of the Green Mountains.”

Apparently, however, the spirit is flagging and Copper Ale consumption is no longer as copious as it once was.

So despite the Green Mountains to be tasted in every last drop, Copper Ale is going the way of Ipana toothpaste, Prell shampoo, and Jubilee Kitchen Wax.

Also slated for the annals of brewing history are the company’s Black IPA and Hop Session beers.

“People just aren’t picking up those styles anymore,” Nelson told the Independent’s Andy Kirkaldy, who wrote a nicely reported story in last Thursday’s paper. “Those beers are going to fade into the sunset … As consumer preferences have changed, we’ve had to change along with them.”

Count me as one consumer whose preferences haven’t change. To my buds, Copper Ale tastes of Addison County essence.

Spare me the beer that some brewers are concocting these days, with lemony notes or a dash of maple syrup. Lemons belong in merengue pie, thank you, and I’ll take my syrup over pancakes at 3 Squares Cafe.

Nonetheless, I understand Otter Creek’s dilemma.

There are only so many of us Copperheads still out there, and craft brewing has become an intensely competitive business. Hundreds of new breweries bubble up every year in the U.Ss, and keeping up with beer drinkers’ trendy tastes is a challenge.

Accordingly, Otter Creek is retiring three old favorites and launching a new India pale ale called Backseat Berner, along with Over Easy, a lighter-bodied ale. (The easy ale is apparently designed for all those wussie drinkers who don’t trust a beer if they can’t see through the glass to the other side.)

As for Otter Creek’s Black IPA, as it sails off into a sudsy retirement, I never quite understood how a beer could be both “black” and “pale.” But whatever the brewery did with to make Black IPA, it was magic. And we stubborn beer drinkers hate it when you mess with our magic.

I mean, has Budweiser dethroned the King of Beers in favor of a hoppy prince? Has Coors decided to stop making the world’s most watery beer, and go instead with a heavy porter? Is Heady Topper transitioning to be a Boring Bottomer?

Of course not.

But at Otter Creek Brewing, change is the order of the day. Even the labels on the bottles are going through some marked changes.

The label on Cooper Ale, for example, had a somber, crunchy feel. The newer Kind Ryed, by comparison, features a stylized VW bus being driven by brewmaster Mike Gerhart’s Bernese mountain dog, Oslo.

The Kind Ryed label echoes the ramblin’-man spirit of the Sixties. And as for serving suggestions, the label says you should “Just chill, bro.” After all, Kind Ryed comes from “Mike’s private stash.”

You half expect the beer to smell of skunk weed and patchouli.

A similar motif adorns the label of Citra Mantra, an India pale lager (whatever the heck that is) and Fresh Slice, a “white IPA.”

Has Otter Creek lost its way?

Probably not. The labeling is edgy and fun, and those folks know their sales charts a lot better than any outsider can.

Otter Creek has certainly proved to be adept at thriving over the years. Yet I can’t help but wonder about the price of bigness.

When the brewing company was sold a few years back, one of the first things to go was a distinctly local feel. Among the new owners’ first public decisions was to expel the community gardens that had, under the previous Wolavers ownership, taken welcome root behind the brewery.

Now the parent Long Trail Brewing also owns The Shed label, which Kirkaldy reports is the state’s most popular six-pack of craft beer. Shed used to be a local Stowe label. Now from the standpoint of identity, it’s just one more bottle of beer.

I do admire Otter Creek’s inventiveness. But a part of me just wants to sit down and enjoy a Jenny Cream Ale.

Which, I will note, the Genesee Brewing Co. still sells despite “changing consumer preferences.” 

This column, which first appeared in the Addison Independent, prompted the following letter to the editor of that paper:

[Local background – Greg’s Market is an independent grocer in Middlebury that recently closed.]
“Environmentalist lauds new beer”
To the Editor:
The news has seemed sour and sad too often these last weeks: the steady parade of people who don’t want to have to see any solar panels out their windows, the attack on small schools and the  demise of Greg’s Market. And then I read the usually wonderful Greg Dennis decrying Otter Creek Brewery for phasing out  Copper Ale and replacing it with the new Backseat Berner.

I have written a good deal about beer over the years (everyone needs a hobby) and I would like to say: The new brew is a world-class beer. If you’ve been scheming to find a can of Heady Topper, this is a very similar case: hoppy, bitter, incredibly delicious. To think that we will be able to drive into the local gas station (or drive down Exchange Street to the brewery) and pick up a six-pack of one of the most adventurous beers on the planet for under $10 – well, it restores my spirits.

As the days grow warmer, I plan to sip it while sitting on the porch and looking lovingly at the solar panels in my yard.
– Bill McKibben


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