I was going to include the Trillium stuff from this week in my monthly news/notes/links column coming on Thursday but there was way too much to unwrap, so I decided to write a separate post. Here it goes.
It has been a crazy week for Trillium Brewing Company, one of the most popular and sought after local breweries. It started with a thread on Beer Advocate where a former employee made a series of accusations including the fact that many long-time employees had their pay cut as they moved into jobs at the new Fort Point brewery/restaurant. There were also accusations of offering lower quality beer from trub kegs (containing excess sediment from the bottom of a batch) for growler fills and of spiking frozen beer drinks with tequila. The Boston Globe followed up with a comprehensive article that included a short response by founder JC Tetreault, and Trillium later followed up with an official statement that admitted to the wage cuts but declined to address the other accusations. Trillium has reinstated the wages of impacted employees who hadn’t already left the company.
One of the best pieces I’ve read on this is from Beervana, who notes how poorly the brewery has done at responding to this debacle. The Full Pint suggests that breweries need to invest in professional PR firms to handle these things.
Will Gordon called out local beer blogs on Twitter today for avoiding the topic, so I thought I would jump in the ring and give a few thoughts on everything that has happened over the last few days. To be honest, I would be surprised if any local beer writers are actively trying to protect the brewery, my experience (and I am not alone in this) is that Trillium has been arrogantly dismissive of beer writers and bloggers, ignoring most requests for comment on pieces.
-It really sucks that Trillium had no qualms about treating long time employees this way, and that they only changed the policy after public backlash and after many of the impacted employees had left the business. I think it acts as a reminder that the romanticized vision of all craft breweries as ideal companies serving their communities is off base. Just like any other industry there are a spectrum business models ranging from ownership groups that prioritizes the needs of their workforce to breweries that try to squeeze out every last dollar of profit. Hopefully the backlash from this leads other breweries who have similar employment issues to reassess their business model.
-To be honest, the story wasn’t a huge surprise to many people who are plugged into the local industry. I had heard multiple negative accounts from former Trillium employees about the company culture. Fortunately many of these same people have had much better experiences working for other breweries or in other parts of the industry, suggesting that the problem isn’t industry-wide. It will be interesting to see if similar stories start to emerge about other popular breweries.
-I’ve heard plenty of people opine that this negative publicity will have zero effect on Trillium’s bottom line, that the haze bros won’t care about this in the least. I think this is completely false. A brewery like Founders (who is going through their own set of issues right now) might skate by because the majority of their product is sold in grocery stores to people who don’t pay attention at all to beer news. Trillium sells most of their beer directly to customers at their breweries, so their customer base needs to be somewhat plugged into the local beer scene to seek it out. If even a small percentage of their customers decide to avoid the brand after these revelations it could have a significant impact. Trillium markets their brand as a premium product, and they charge a premium price, but there are plenty of other quality options available at a lower price point. The biggest issue that Trillium could face is that some of their die-hard fans could use this as an excuse to check out other brands, and realize that there is a lot of other great beer to try.
-While Trillium admitted to the employment/pay issues in their response they neglected the quality issues, only making a small mention of trub kegs in one reply and completely ignoring the accusation of spiking beer with tequila. I imagine there are legal reasons to avoid these issues (the tequila thing in particular could get them in big trouble), but I have a hard time believing that they would stay silent on the topic if it was completely false.
-It will be really interesting to follow the fall out from all of this. Trillium has just opened a massive new brewery and restaurant in Fort Point and purchased a farm in Connecticut to set up a farm-brewery. We’ve seen a number of recent examples where breweries have run into financial trouble because they over-expand assuming a continued rate of growth, so even though they are selling lots of beer it is missing the projections they need to cover their expenses/debts. I don’t believe that this will happen to Trillium, they have many options to sell more beer (like expanded distribution) and a huge national following for a local brewery, but it will be interesting to see how the backlash from these revelations effect the business going forward.
-I will end with a question for my readers: Will the news from the last week effect your future patronage of Trillium? If yes, will you just buy less or stop going all together? I am interested to hear what everyone has to say.