Tree House Criticized for Wastewater Pollutants

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THE GIST
Tree House Brewing, which has amassed a cult following obsessed with its hazy New England-style IPAs, has attracted some unwanted attention for a different kind of liquid it produces. The Worcester Telegram reports that sewer officials in Charlton, Massachusetts, where the company opened a 55,000-square-foot facility this past July, have put the brewery on notice after test results suggested its wastewater is too high in pollutants.

Namely, the letter claims its discharge is higher with lead, copper, aluminum, and zinc than the company’s engineers initially forecasted during the planning phases of the new brewery. The letter affords Tree House 15 days to respond. Tree House, which could face fines, did not respond to a request for comment as of press time, but it told the Telegram it hadn’t received the letter as of Friday.

WHY IT MATTERS
Given the vital role water plays in the brewing process and ongoing concerns over drought and climate change, beer makers across the country have taken it upon themselves to fight for water conservation and best practices.

Earlier this year, 33 craft beer heavyweights co-signed a letter protesting the appointment of Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA, arguing he could not “be trusted to protect America’s water resources.” Elsewhere, Stone Brewing garnered considerable press this past March with the limited release of Full Circle Pale Ale, which was made with reclaimed water that had been previously used in toilets, showers, and other unappetizing places. And in Massachusetts, a group of Bay State breweries got together last year to brew beer with water from the Charles River, leveraging the river’s grimy reputation to show that beer made with recycled water could serve as both a safe and sustainable practice.

This story then—that of growing brewery and the effects it can have on its own town’s environment—seems to represent the flipside of that coin. And Tree House is hardly the only company that has run into these types of issues. In fact, craft brewers and multinational conglomerates alike have dealt with wastewater struggles in the past, struggles that can be both resource and time-intensive.

Firestone Walker, for instance, invested more than $1 million in brewery fixes back in 2015 following complaints from neighboring businesses and residents over a foul stench caused by the company’s wastewater ponds not working properly. But the wastewater game isn’t merely one of corrective course—it’s also about preemptive measures. However, even being proactive can be costly. Earlier this spring, Deschutes announced plans to build its own wastewater treatment facility, citing increasing sewer fees as well as decreased demand from farmers that could use a brewery’s waste. The plant, the company said at the time, would save it more than $1 million a year in the long run, though it would also cost more than $11 million to build.

On that note, the Deschutes example further raises the matter of more and more breweries opening destination breweries in smaller towns (localizing trends, looking for cheaper land, and less regulations) that don't have the infrastructure necessary to accommodate such growth.

As Deschutes president Michael LaLonde told Food and Wine earlier this spring as it relates to its facility in Virginia, “It’s part of the puzzle we’re trying to figure out with Roanoke, but it takes time to plan out a brewery the ancillary needs it will have.”

Regardless, for smaller and newer breweries, the lesson to take away from Tree House is an important one: There is much, much more to know about the art, science, and business of brewing than the simple act of making and selling beer. Or, as Bear Republic CEO Richard Norgrove told The Press Democrat in 2013:

“I didn't get into this to be a wastewater expert… But I honestly tell you that after the 20-plus years of my career, I could lecture on sewers.”

—Dave Eisenberg