Why The Accusations Against Popular Brewery Trillium Are So Scandalous [UPDATED]

Update, December 6: Trillium's owners, Esther and J.C. Tetreault, yesterday published a second response to the allegations outlined below. In a post on the brewery's website titled "Always Improving," the owners explained changes to their employee compensation plan and for the first time, responded to accusations regarding their brewing practices.

The post states: "We are raising the hourly rate our retail employees are paid to between $15 and $18 an hour, based on tenure and knowledge of our craft. Those who currently work for us will move to a minimum of between $16.00 and $17.50 per hour, based on tenure. ... We are also finalizing our plans to update all of Team Trillium's bonus program for 2019. We are changing the annual bonus program from a purely tenure-based system to one that also has a merit-based component."

Regarding allegations Trillium brewers dumped tequila into beer and passed it off as "tequila barrel-aged," and that it filled growlers with subpar beer, the post states: "As a practice we do not add spirits to our beer, we do not market beers as barrel-aged if they do not spend time in barrels, and the beer we fill our growlers with is no different than our packaged beer. All of our beer is constantly monitored by our retail team, quality assurance lab, and production team." Read the full post here.

Original story, published December 3: Beer-industry dust-ups come and go, and they generally pass unnoticed by the general public. But the recent accusations against (and rebuttals from) Massachusetts darling Trillium Brewing Company feel different. Even casual beer drinkers have been asking me: Hey, what's going on with that Trillium scandal?

The word "scandal" has been attached to this story from the moment it hit the internet on November 21, and maybe rightly so. The uproar began when someone, calling themselves a former employee of Trillium, wrote a lengthy post on beer forum BeerAdvocate (which was deleted, reposted on Reddit, then restored on BeerAdvocate) accusing the brewery in all manners of shady and even illegal actions—such as paying its workers poorly and lying to customers. The brewery's founders have since responded to some of those accusations, which we'll dissect below.

But before we break those down piece by piece, why has this story generated such strong public interest? Its elements create a perfect villain: the founders of an uber-popular brewery that makes (relatively) expensive beer are accused of behaving, basically, like assholes, and of lying to their customers. It's sparked a debate about issues that largely go undiscussed in craft beer, an industry that Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione once famously called "99-percent asshole-free." Suddenly, consumers are asking questions about labor practices, beer pricing, and what role hype plays—good or bad—in craft beer.

So let's break down the accusations from the BeerAdvocate thread.

1. Trillium pays its workers like crap

The former employee alleges Trillium's owners "have absolutely no respect for the people working for them, all they care about is $$$." The post says Trillium downgraded its retail workers from $8 an hour to $5 an hour when it opened a new location, and that other employees' pay was also cut around this time. The post goes on to say: "[Owners] are well aware of the fact that people want the 'prestige' of working for a top brewery and are willing to be underpaid to build the resume."


How Trillium responded: In a statement on the brewery's website, owners addressed some but not all of the accusations made in the thread. Regarding the issue of pay, the statement reads: "We pay our team in accordance with typical standards in the craft beer industry and with state and federal wage and hour laws. Feedback on our model from our staff has been overwhelmingly positive. ... We opened Fort Point just one month ago and, in that process, some of our tenured retail staff were given a lower rate than they had previously been making. We have since met with those team members and reinstated their original rate." [Editor's note: see further update above]

Why it matters: Compensation in the beer industry is largely undiscussed among consumers (Jeff Alworth's excellent beer blog Beervana recently opened up a conversation about it). Working in beer can seem like a dream job, but some have asked whether the "prestige" of working for a brewery, especially one like Trillium, enables breweries to pay their employees less. It's sparked a larger discussion about pay and benefits in the brewing and restaurant/hospitality industry, as well as whether the "hyping" of certain craft breweries plays a role in it.


2. Brewers dumped tequila in a batch of beer

The former employee also alleges Trillium's brewers dumped tequila into batch of a beer called Mexican Sunrise that the brewery was selling (in frozen slushy form) at its taproom. The post says staff was supposed to lie and tell customers it was a tequila barrel-aged beer, and make up details to support that claim.


How Trillium responded: Trillium's owners did not address this claim in the response statement posted to their website. [Editor's note: see update above]

Why it matters: This practice—pouring liquor into beer—is actually illegal. A cocktail bar could mix liquor and beer in a cocktail, but a commercial brewery cannot add straight liquor to its beers under federal law. (I've heard from breweries who have had trouble with the the Alcohol And Tobacco Tax And Trade Bureau over labelling their cocktail-inspired beers for this reason.) Plus, it would mean that Trillium deliberately lied to customers.

3. Trillium knowingly sold customers sub-par beer

The final accusation made in the BeerAdvocate post is that Trillium knowingly sold customers—via growlers and draft beer—less than top-quality beer: "Trillium growlers are almost exclusively filled with beer from trub kegs. For those that don't know, trub is the hop/yeast particulate that settles on the bottom of the fermenter. All the 'good' beer goes into cans and taproom kegs. The last few kegs of each batch are full of trub and those get allocated to growlers."


How Trillium responded: Per Boston.com, Trillium's owner addressed this in a post in the private Trillium Brewing Fans group on Facebook: "Since we don't filter our beer, it's normal to have some kegs at the end of a packaging run with a small amount of trub from the bottom of the tank (settled out hops, yeast, malt proteins). We give these time to allow the kegs to settle and pour out the trub until the beer is pouring properly. Our lab, QC [quality control] team, and retail teams monitor to ensure that the quality meets the standard of the rest of the main batch and if it doesn't it gets dumped. It would be wasteful to throw good beer out." [Editor's note: see update above]

Why it matters: How you feel about this particular claim comes down to whether you believe Trillium would put out a beer it didn't believe was of the highest quality. (The spirit of the accusation also implies that Trillium could rely on its vaunted reputation in the beer world to do so.) If you don't believe the owner's response, then this is perhaps the most disturbing claim from a customer's perspective, because it violates not just consumer trust but also the very reasons craft beer emerged in the first place. Craft brewers made their case to consumers by claiming to be a premium product, one made by brewers who care deeply about making the best possible beer they can. Other breweries have in the past been accused of tried to doctor up a batch of beer that didn't turn out quite right by barrel-aging it or adding additional flavors after fermentation, but knowingly pouring the gross dregs of the brewing process for customers would be a perhaps even grosser violation of trust.


I don't know what went on behind the scenes at Trillium. I've drank their beers (from cans) in the past and enjoyed them. I have, to my knowledge, never met the owners. I wasn't a fly on the wall for any of this. I can't speak to the veracity of the claims.

Regardless of whether Trillium's owners address more of the accusations leveraged against them, or just try to ride out the storm, the issues being raised transcend just this specific "scandal."

The craft beer industry grew so fast in the early parts of this decade that it seems like some breweries got ahead of themselves. Whether they're facing accusations of improper labor practices, racial discrimination, or lying to consumers, breweries can't afford not to be honest with consumers. That honesty, passion, and commitment to brewing the best possible beer are what inspired drinkers to pay $3 more for a six-pack of pale ale than a six-pack of mass-market lager. If a brewery or the industry as a whole loses that trust, it's almost impossible to regain it.