Q&A: J.C. Tetreault of Trillium

Grown from an alleyway spot in a developing neighborhood to a regional powerhouse with satellite taprooms, restaurant, farm, and retail, this Boston-based brewery has matured through growing pains and taken some calculated risks.

Jamie Bogner Mar 23, 2020 - 21 min read

Q&A: J.C. Tetreault of Trillium Primary Image

Photo: John Holl

CBB In a broader sense, how did your vision for the brewery change from pre-launch through the first few years?

JC When Esther and I first started the brewery, we had a super-vague notion of what it even meant to operate a brewery. Never having done it before, we had this romantic notion of what Trillium might grow up to be, which is a New England farmhouse brewery. Early days, getting started in a 2,300-square-foot-space in the middle of the city, you can’t really get much farther away from what that vague notion would be. The path that might eventually lead to that was still just a hope at that point, and there wasn’t a plan to get there. It was one foot in front of the other, staring at the ground, hope to live another day. We still had our full-time jobs and two young kids and barely had our heads above water.

CBB Why do that, then, at that point in your life? Why jump into that kind of risk?

JC That’s the same question lots of folks from the outside looking in asked, especially our parents. Esther and I were married at a vineyard that was started by a husband-and-wife team in their semiretirement. I could see the incredible joy in their eyes when they were walking us around the vineyard and telling us their story. They completely fell in love with it and wished they’d been doing it longer than they had. I looked back at where I was in my life and said, “Can I wait 30 years to realize what my dream might be or take a shot at it? Would I even have the energy for it? Would I even be alive in 30 years?” Tomorrow’s not guaranteed.

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CBB At the time you launched in 2013, the means by which breweries sold beer to consumers was very different from what it is today. How has your strategy pivoted over the years?

JC When we first opened, there was no pouring permit in Massachusetts. When we opened with a 19C [farmer-brewery] license, we were only allowed to hand out free two-ounce samples and only sell beer for off-premise. We were not able to serve in a taproom.

CBB The year 2013 is not that long ago. In six years, it’s a big change to go from selling to-go beer in growlers to packaging, expanding to a production brewery, and now having multiple taprooms with retail. Every time you grow, you take on risk. It’s nice to say that you just stumbled into it, but every time you’ve made a decision to grow, you’ve taken on significant risk.

JC Pretty early days, we were just trying to survive another day. Shortly after we opened, it became painfully obvious that we didn’t have enough tanks. So we had to wait for cash flow to be able to buy a tank, then we bought the tank, and waited for it to arrive. As a result, we were way upside down on supply for the demand. In 2013, there were no banks that were going to give a brand-new entity with operators with no experience a loan. Every penny we had went into it, and we had to sit on our hands and wait for cash flow to grow.

To go from two 10-barrel fermentors to five felt like a massive expansion for us. Every big step forward comes with challenges—operating out of a tiny little 2,300-square-foot brewery meant we had to get off-site storage, had to figure out how to buy enough kegs, then wait to buy a keg washer. Brewing is wildly capital-intensive, and we didn’t have any available debt to grow, so it was just hand to mouth. As the complexity grew—and I kept my regular job, and tried to stay married, and tried to raise two kids—it was about as much as we could take. So about a year after we opened, I was able to leave my regular job to be 100 percent focused on Trillium.

It sounds silly to say, but we didn’t know whether people were going to be interested in buying packaged beer from us. We were really nervous to buy glass and bottle caps and try to package our first beer. It sold out the first day and was the best day we ever had. Waking up to the reality of what we were doing, it always felt way smaller than what the world wanted us to be. We were trying to catch up to what people expected from us.

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We just always did what felt right. That helped me always keep that homebrewer mindset. There are no set rules on how you should or shouldn’t do something. There was always the willingness to ask the question why, and that’s probably one of the reasons why we started to develop our own methodologies and processes around what has now become known as the hazy or New England–style beer. We slowly moved away from what the methods were for making a West Coast–style IPA—ferment the beer out totally, drop it to 60°F, get all the yeast out then add the hops, then cold crash it, dump it all out, wait until the beer is bright, and package it. We noticed that those beers just weren’t nearly as good as some of the earlier pilot batches we were making, mostly because we didn’t have that tight level of control around temperature [earlier on], and the beers were dry-hopped warmer. So we started inching up the temperature of the dry hop, and eventually the beers smelled better and tasted better, and they started looking crazier and crazier. There were a few times there where we were like, “I don’t think we can sell this, but it’s been in the bright tank for a week, and it has not changed.”

CBB How did you evaluate the upside and downside risk of these expansions?

JC The transition from just the Congress Street location to having both the Congress Street and Canton locations was another massive wall to climb for us. We were going to go from making 10-barrel turns out of a dairy-tank mash tun that we fabricated into a purpose-built, high-gravity actual “real” brewery—into tanks that we hoped we would one day be able to use to their full capacity. We started making 30-barrel batches into 90-barrel tanks. That was one thing we took with us early—“I can’t imagine us making and selling this much beer.” But I said that two months ago, I said that six months ago, I said that two years ago. Then, I couldn’t imagine doing 30-barrel batches, but let’s start with that and hopefully one day it will go to 60, and one day it will go to 90.

We were nervous that we were going to make this beer, and only a certain number of people would come, and is the beer going to be the same? Every single time a brewery does an expansion, you’ve seen the chatter: “The beer is not the same anymore.” You’re learning how a brand-new brewery works—tank geometries and how yeast works in the new environments—and thankfully, we had the same municipal water supply as we did in Boston. But there are just a million more variables that everyone expects you to master from Day One, and that’s a tough thing. The beer was a little bit different when we first opened at Canton, and we had to do the relatively unthinkable and change our house-ale strain. We had to go through the sleepless nights wondering, “Are we going to be able to make Trillium beer anymore out of this new location?”

With enough time and enough effort, and a lot of work and a lot of trials, we eventually got back to the place where we were not only super-stoked on how the beer was turning out, but it was actually better than it was at Fort Point.

It was a very intense time, and whenever we look back on those moments, maybe it’s part of the human condition, but we tend to remember the good. It’s like the thinking when people consider having another kid: You remember the incredible stuff, and you gloss over the most difficult parts. But that was one of the two main motivations for going for an expansion. The first was that we felt like we were frustrating more people than we were making happy with our beer. There was a lot of, “What do you mean I can only buy one or two bottles,” and, “Why am I waiting in this line?” The stress of that made us feel like we had to do something about it. The second was the stress on our team in operating out of that tiny little space—asking them to work with resources that were not appropriately sized for what we were trying to do.

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CBB There’s a difference between needing more space and opening a three-story restaurant with full kitchen, plus taproom and retail.

JC It just felt like it was a small slice of the hospitality that we yearned for at the time, so when we started to draw up the opportunities we had at Fort Point, it felt like a homecoming in a way. We were nervous that we weren’t going to be able to remain a Boston brewery and were going to get priced out of our neighborhood, and we just weren’t going to be able to afford it. The opportunity that came up with the developer and partnering with them to make it a possibility, it allowed us to do that. I loved food well before I loved beer. I took all the food classes in high school and just always loved food. Bringing the beer and hospitality together under one roof seemed like a dream for us.

Also, my restaurant-owning friends said it’s a terrible idea. They were all frustrated and mad at me for even doing that, not because we were going to compete with them, but because they were like, “You’ve got it so good. You don’t need to get into food. It’s such a life-sucker. You don’t make any money at all, especially for the effort you put into it. What are you doing? Why are you doing that?”

We’d already achieved way more with our dream than we could have possibly imagined, so we thought, “Why shouldn’t we be able to live that part of the dream out?”

CBB Most restaurateurs will tell you that trends come and go. If they own a building, a restaurant brand may run its course in that space, in which case they’ll shut it down, bring in a new chef, and launch a new concept. Are you worried or nervous that now that you’ve tied your packaged-goods brand and the restaurant brand together, something may age out over the next eight, 10 years?

JC We’re kind of trying to anticipate what people want from us and do that, and no more. We also learned that nobody is going to be able to ensure the quality of our beer better than us. Making beer accessible through distribution is a great thing for a lot of reasons, but man, is it difficult to treat it in the way that it should be. We are very fortunate to continue to be able to handle our beer in the best possible way. Keep it cold-chain all the way through, and keep it as fresh as possible. That’s just not possible in a broad distro model. We didn’t have a plan for what distribution was or what that world looked like, never mind operating a beer garden or a big restaurant in the city. But it seems like that has really worked for us. We never had a goal of hitting 50,000 barrels or being in New York and California and Colorado. I always wondered why it was necessary for bars in Boston to be bringing in IPA from Colorado and New York. It just seemed like such a silly thing.

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CBB This retail strategy now of having four, five different retail points of your own to sell your beer is a higher-margin retail strategy. But you’re saying it’s more about controlling the conditions and experience of people buying your beer?

JC The assumptions that people make about our margins—we have a lot of infrastructure, a lot of square footage, a lot of cold storage, a lot of trucks. And a team and management around all that creates overhead that a lot of folks forget about. There’s a lot that goes into how we operate. Of course, the margins are better than packing up a whole bunch of beer and shipping it halfway across the country, but we generally take that margin and put it into the experience and the quality of the beer. Especially in our rapid way and rapid pace in less than seven years of operating here, from what I understand in talking to other brewers now, it’s kind of a unique story.

CBB The story hasn’t been entirely without some hiccups. As most people know, last year you ran into some of that pain, where there became a disconnect between the way you viewed the business and how that was ultimately communicated to the staff [when there was local backlash and news coverage of a drop in hourly wages]. What did you learn through that process and how you were able to take what was a pretty rough public-relations patch there for a while, and rethink how you got to that point in the business?

JC As Esther and I went through that period, we asked, “What did we do wrong? What did we miss? How could this happen? Did we deserve it? How could we have communicated differently?” All of these questions went through our heads, and we didn’t sleep for close to a month, probably. But what gave us a sense of the chatter that was going on in the broader world, and gave us the comfort to know that Trillium is going to outlast this moment and hopefully my lifetime, was the broader team around us, and the loads and loads of folks who reached out independently. They were so concerned about us, knew us personally, knew our hearts, and knew the details of what the truth was. That got us through and gave us the calmness to know that we have to keep doing what we have been doing. We now make sure we better communicate our intentions to the team and make sure we give everyone the support that they need. We also recognize when someone who’s here is not right for the place and have very clear, open, and honest communications with them often and early. There’s a ton to be learned here, but the PR lightning strike that happened to us would have washed over and gone past 99 out of 100 breweries. There were a lot of soundbites and misinterpretations of what happened, to what people think happened.

CBB Within the social-media universe today, culturally speaking there is a broader embrace of negativity, more so than we’ve seen in much of our cultural past.

JC It’s like a super-cynical version of “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” People just love to watch others falling on their faces and getting kicked in the nuts. It’s a weird thing that people think is a funny thing. It’s not terribly unique to beer culture, but the thing that I did learn through this is that this voice of cynicism or that hypercritical nature, particularly around folks who for some reason are perceived as having had undue success, they’re waiting and chomping at the bit for that soft spot to run after. The world has been able to amplify those cynical voices in a way that’s disproportionate with reality. Thankfully I’ve learned that when it seems like the nasty criticisms couldn’t get any louder on the Internet, all I have to do is walk into the taproom and see a whole group of people enjoying themselves, passing around their beers, and saying, “Try this one.” It’s such a cool, strange dichotomy. The loud screaming is coming from the one percent of one percent of people. When people complain on Yelp, but still the restaurant is busy, you realize that it’s a strangely inaccurate portrayal of the world. It probably says more about cynical folks than it does about reality.

CBB From time to time, every business will encounter a crisis of one sort or another. What are some of the big takeaways for you in dealing with crises that you as a business owner have learned through this?

JC It’s always important to talk to others on the team to get everybody’s perspective and to take a moment to zoom out a bit and really set up the true nature of the context. Is it actually a crisis, or is it something that needs to get worked through? There have been several moments in Trillium’s existence where we almost lost everything and would have needed to close. We’ve actually gotten some help to work with management team here to frame up the context of things. What might appear to be a crisis is not exactly that. How to deal with that and how to help the rest of the team set up the appropriate frame of thinking around a given moment or stress that we’re going through is an important skill to develop and put into use.

CBB At some point, will you ever sit back and enjoy what you’ve built?

JC I still have intense satisfaction coming from the creative process around the food, the beer, the design, and the experience of everything we’re doing. We also have a ton of that work still left to be done as we go through the move from current buildings to new spot in Canton and building up the farm and realizing that vision. But I also know that I don’t want to keep growing and growing and building and building forever. There is going to come that time when I’m happy to step back from the intensity of all of this and slide to the other side of the counter a little bit more.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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