December 11, 2017
Focus on Food & Drink

How Tree House just sort of created a cult beer following

PHOTO/EDD COTE
Tree House will use its Twitter account to let potential customers know how long the line to buy beer is at any given time. Those lines are typically 100 or more people deep.

Despite high acclaim from customers and rating sites, Tree House Brewing Co. beer is hard to get your hands on. The brewery doesn't distribute, so beer lovers are forced to make the drive to the 52,000-square-foot Charlton brewery.

That exclusivity, intentional or not, has created somewhat of a cult fanbase and turned the beer into a novelty among beer drinkers. Now, it's not uncommon to see license plates from New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland and other faraway places pulling up to the busy brewery.

"That kind of happened organically," said Dean Rohan, co-founder of the brewery. "We're not doing anything special."

The business model is simple. Brew beer, can it, and only sell it out of Charlton.

First comes the flavor

The beer, of course, is tasty, according to beer rating websites and apps where Tree House fans give their favorite beers, like Julius and Haze, near perfect marks.

Good Morning, Tree House's imperial stout, is ranked No. 2 on beeradvocate.com with a 4.79 out of 5 from more than 1,000 raters. On beer-rating app UnTappd, nearly 100,000 beer drinkers gave nine different Tree House beers have a rating of at least 4.57 out of 5.

On a chilly Thursday afternoon earlier this month, those who braved the long lines left with huge hauls of the coveted beer. Nearly everyone had at least one case of the beer – 24 cans – but the crowd included patrons with huge coolers or industrial-strength carts buying well into triple figures. Expensive hauls, too, considering 24 beers costs about $90 at Tree House.

PHOTO/ZACHARY COMEAU
What beers Tree House will make available on any given day is something of a mystery, as the beers sold depend on what is made and what has sold out.

"It's like gold," said Connecticut resident John Muirhead, of the fruity New England IPAs that family members in other parts of the country drool over when he pulls out the decorative cans at the dinner table.

Muirhead drives from his Connecticut home at least once per month, spending an hour-and-a-half in the car and then waiting in a line at the brewery often 100 people deep.

Despite the extra effort, Muirhead said the beer is worth it.

"No doubt about it," he said.

The cult following business model

The brewery's straightforward, no-distribution business model has made Tree House beer among the most sought after beers on beer-trading websites like beeradvocate.com and other platforms, including a thread on Reddit with almost 20,000 subscribers. Per the Reddit search engine, Tree House is mentioned in the thread 500 times.

According to the brewery's Twitter account, their beer has graced places most humans will never see, including the Antarctic Peninsula. Fans have taken pictures of themselves with Tree House beer in Ireland, Iceland, Jamaica and even on the Spanish Steps in Rome.

Katie Stinchon, executive director for the Massachusetts Brewers Guild, said the line at Tree House is similar to when baseball fans camp overnight to buy opening day Red Sox tickets.

"There is a real passion and following for Tree House," she said.

Rohan insists the cult following the brand has drawn wasn't intentional, but Stinchon said the fact the beer is "difficult to get your hands on only adds to their secret sauce."

"They've built an incredible brand and experience for their customers, and they live up to the hype," she said.

Tree House wouldn't disclose its sales or production figures, but when it moved from Monson to the Charlton location in July, its brewing capacity increased from 30 barrels to 60 barrels. On its opening day in July, more than 2,000 visited the new facility, which was a fairly typical daily number, said Kimberly Golinski, the brewery's office manager.

Becoming a destination

Most people, even diehard Tree House fans, would probably agree the exclusivity of Tree House beer adds to the hype of the already delicious beverages being poured in Charlton, said Rob Vandenabeele, who co-founder of local beer blog massbrewbros.com.

"People are fans of not just the beers, but the experience and surroundings," he said. "Beer is now a thing to do – a destination now for many serious beer drinkers."

Massachusetts has north of 120 craft breweries, many of which distribute, which makes the fact Tree House fans wait in long lines for a taste even more incredible, Vandenabeele said.

"It's amazing, in this day and age with the number of high caliber craft breweries in New England and Massachusetts, so many people are still willing to wait in line for beer," he said.

When out-of-staters or people from a different country visit, Rohan said he makes an effort to meet them and give them a tour of the brewery.

To keep the beer fresh and control the product, the brewery has no current plants to distribute, Rohan said.

He insists the company has remained humble since its beginnings in 2011.

"We're just a couple guys that got together to make beer, have fun and play guitar," he said.

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