Mass. Brewery Expands, Looking To Stay Small, Sell Local -- And Shorten Lines

Sep 27, 2017

You won't be able to find a cold can or freshly poured draft of Tree House beer anywhere except where it's made, right in Charlton, Massachusetts. 

Customers travel near and far to stand in long lines for a taste of Tree House's New England Style India Pale Ales.

But after investing in a new 55,000-square-foot brewery, will the lines last?

Built into the design of Tree House's new location are a couple of reminders of the brewery's rapid growth.

"As you walk into Tree House Brewing Company, in Charlton, the newest facility, you first see -- hopefully, the first thing you see is our timber frame structure which is the same dimensions as the timber frame structure that we started in in Brimfield when we started in 2011," said Dean Rohan, co-founder of Tree House. "And etched on the floor is the footprint of our original brewery."

Six years and two breweries later, Tree House now serves 15,000 customers a week.

Rohan said they come from all over.

"We've had China, Japan," he said. "But I know we've had California. I know we've had -- I can't imagine a state that has not been here."

Inside Tree House in Charlton, Massachusetts.
Credit Carson McGrath / NEPR

Caroline Usas, from New York City, made a pit stop at Tree House on her way home from vacationing on Martha's Vineyard.

"It's very family oriented," she said. "My little one-year-old is here running around. He is chasing all the dogs. It is really nice. You see people coming here after work. It is a neat experience, actually."

Tree House hopes to create a unique experience in Charlton, but they are not the only brewery focusing on hyper local sales. Companies like Trillium in Boston and Rare Barrel in Berkeley, California are doing the same.

Tree House removes a distributor from the equation entirely.

Andrew Gill, beer writer for The AV Club, said that puts more money into the breweries' pocket.

"I think that they are a model of understanding where the beer industry is going and these larger breweries are learning from breweries like Tree House because they understand how to orient their business in order to be profitable," Gill said.

Larger breweries like Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, and Oskar Blues expanded by opening bigger facilities in North Carolina to distribute to East Coast customers. But Gill said the expansion wasn't as successful as the companies hoped.

"When they did that, they expected their demands to keep growing at the rate it had been growing, and it hasn't, actually," Gill said. "So a number of those companies have taken investment from private equity firms. Like Oskar Blues was kind of wholly acquired by a private equity fund, and so now they are not independent anymore."

That independence is exactly where the beer industry is headed, Gill said: smaller breweries like Tree House that focus on serving their communities.

And that could be what drives the hype.

A sign outside Tree House in Charlton, Massachusetts.
Credit Carson McGrath / NEPR

For Tree House, because its beer is sold at one location, rations are necessary so more customers can leave with some cans. This rarity brings customers in each week, with lines anywhere between ten minutes to over an hour wait.

But Bryan Roth, director of the North American Guild of Beer Writers, said standing in line for a product isn't a new phenomenon. And certainty not unique to beer.

"You'll have these lines where people will wait for hours on end, but it is not so much just the end product that they are getting, but it is also that kind of shared experience that helps them to feel like it can be a bit more of an authentic transaction than just handing over your dollars and leaving," Roth said.

Tree House insists it's trying to shorten the lines, but keeps drawing in a crowd of customers with food trucks on the weekends, outdoor seating and even touch football games.

And for the super fans wondering when Tree House will distribute their beer elsewhere, Rohan said maybe, but...

"Our plan really is to stay hyper local," he said. "To keep our beer as close to us as we can so we are able to monitor what happens to it. The further away your beer gets, the less it gets treated well."

That is especially true for Tree House's beer. Those juicy New England Style IPAs the brewery is known for don't last long before the freshness fades. Tree House is hoping its popularity has a longer shelf life.