Last week I found myself in the Hartford, CT area. While there it struck me that I might be fairly close to a newish, highly lauded brewery--Tree House Brewing. Fortunately, I was, as Tree House was less than an hour's drive away. The brewery's hours are rather limited--Wednesday through Saturday, but luckily I was able to find a night when I could go.
If you look up Tree House's products on the Beer Advocate website (www.beeradvocate.com), they're almost ludicrously represented in the site's Top 250 Beers (in the world). At this writing, 15 of the top 250 are Tree House's, including the #1, #8, #11, #12, #14 and #15 spots, and 13 of the top 100. Other than Hill Farmstead (VT), Toppling Goliath (IA), and Trillium (Boston, Mass.) I couldn't see any other brewery which had over 5 separate beers in this "best of" list.
Alas, there's a catch. Like many of the popular, but small breweries, trying their beers is hard to do. Essentially, you have to visit the actual brewery, located in Monson, Mass. (It's possible that some of the local beer stores and bars might get some Tree House offerings, but I couldn't find any, and certainly I've never seen them in any places I've visited, even those with great selections.) I was lucky enough in previous years to get a hold of some of the rare Vermont beers (from The Alchemist, Lawson's, and Hill Farmstead) while working up there, but I haven't been close to Monson, Mass. in quite a long time. (I should explain. I a semi-crazed beer snob, but even I have my limits. I'm not willing to drive like hours to visit a particular brewery/store. Anything over an hour or so one way is too much.)
Similar to Hill Farmstead, Tree House Brewing is located on a farm, way out in the boonies, as they say. There was information on the website (www.treehousebrew.com) imploring customers not to bother their neighbors, and/or park on the neighbors' property, so evidently that's been a problem. I thought I was being smart by arriving half an hour before they opened, but I was wrong. There was a already a line of maybe 200 people snaking out from the building, going out to a field behind the brewery.
The line moved slowly, but steadily. There was a fountain/wading pool and some cornhole (beanbag throwing) games set up for the amusement of small children who were waiting for their parents. I overheard another customer expressing amusement about how some fanatics apparently come from as far away as Ohio to get some Tree House beers. Another overheard conversation was about the psychological component of rating alcohol. A man brought up the studies that have been done where wine experts are fooled by switched labels, or even by white wines that have been secretly dyed red with food coloring, etc. Which is an interesting point. I've often wondered how well I'd do in a blind taste test of a collection of beers. Would I rate "crappy" beers over rare, expensive, "great" beers? I'd like to think I could at least recognize the major beer styles--i.e. I presumably wouldn't think a Miller type lager was a great IPA or anything, but who knows? Maybe someday I'll test myself in a double blind experiment.
Despite my initial fear, the wait wasn't too long. In about 45 minutes I was inside, at the counter. Since I had the choice I went with the cans instead of the growler fills (I'd forgotten my empty growlers, and quite frankly, I don't need to pay for more). I got there on a good day--they had 3 types of beer available. There were two American Double IPA's, and one American Pale Ale. The IPA's were Doppleganger (#41 on the Beer Advocate Top 250), and Haze (#44), while the American Pale Ale was Pride & Purpose. There were strict quotas enforced. Each individual customer was allowed to buy up to 2 Dopplegangers, 2 Hazes, and 8 Pride & Purposes. Pretty much everyone bought the maximum allowed, which went for $43. Since each can was 16 ounces, this equates to 16 twelve ounce beers, and between $3.25 to $4.25 per can. Which is, clearly, very expensive, close to what a pint of beer costs in a bar or restaurant. The can themselves are very simple, befitting the brewery's smallness. The Doppleganger has a blue/black label on a silver can, the Pride & Purpose has a white/gray label on a silver can, and the Haze can was completely purple. All of these labels had a stylized drawing of, of course, a tree house.
But here's my take on them. Using the U.S. scholastic rating system--"A" for excellent, "B" for good, "C" for average, "D" for unsatisfactory but barely passing, "F" for failing, with pluses and minuses as necessary.
1) Tree House Pride & Purpose, American pale ale, 5.1% alcohol: B+. Cloudy. Nice hop bite, pulls back from going overly bitter and unpleasant. Smooth.
2) Tree House Doppleganger, American double IPA, 8.2% alcohol: A. Pleasant odor. Very nice. Spicy. Well balanced. I see what the hype is about. Also hides alcohol well.
3) Tree House Haze, Amercian double IPA, 8.2% alcohol: A. Similar to Doppleganger. Nice and spicy and hoppy. Very drinkable. Also hides alcohol well.
So, as you can see, I think Tree House's superior reputation is justified, at least from the 3 types I had. The "worst" of the bunch, the Pride & Purpose, was still well above average. I certainly don't regret spending the time and money for these. And if/when I'm near the Monson area again (or if they start shipping cans and kegs a bit) I'll eagerly try these again, or any other types.