Pulling in past the Tree House Brewing Company sign and a gravel-y pile of melting snow, I head down into the dusty parking lot. It’s 9:50am, two hours before one of New England’s—and, frankly, the country’s—most talked about beer makers will open. There are three cars ahead of me, the closest a Civic with Jersey plates. As I back in next to it, I peer inside the car to see a guy fully reclined and sleeping. Time passes and people start emerging from their vehicles, eager to stretch their stiff legs as they wait. That’s how Kevin Califano and I get to talking.
Kevin works as a dolly grip on Showtime’s popular show Billions and injured his shoulder while filming the season finale. His family is headed to South Carolina on vacation the following week, so between his upcoming trip and 21 weeks of free time (thanks to his left arm, which is in a sling), he decided to make the four-hour trip to Charlton, MA with one hand wrapped around a coffee and his knee guiding the wheel.
A trip to Tree House can be intimidating if you’re a novice. Parking lot rules and line etiquette aside, there’s always the gamble of what beers will be available and in what allotments. For weeks, Kevin closely tracked the Tree House website, Instagram account, and Twitter feed before pulling the trigger.
“I had been noticing higher allotments, which got me to go,” he says. “But I have never driven this far solely for the purpose of getting or trying beer. I usually get to visit breweries while on family vacations.”
Kevin’s been a craft beer drinker for almost 20 years. He was a big fan of “boat beers” like Bud Light before that. He attended college in Vermont, and his first introduction to craft were classics like Long Trail, Otter Creek, and Magic Hat. But as New England IPAs became increasingly popular in the last few years, his tastes evolved again, beers from Single Cut and Other Half getting him fully hooked. Trips to breweries and taprooms often include his wife and two daughters, ages five and seven. A recent trip included a three-hour stop at Foam Brewers in Burlington, Vermont.
“I’ve dragged my kids around to a lot of breweries,” Kevin says. “People are always really nice.”
Beer geeks have a bit of a love-hate relationship with NE IPAs. The style has helped expand the market for craft beer makers, but the down side is long lines, Instagram posts showing off a haul or an iceman pour, and a predatory beer trading after-market with exorbitant prices. It motivates some to chase every release, and pushes others to quickly write off a style and its advocates. There’s a wide space in between those extremes, one in which Kevin sits blissfully.
There’s innocence to the way he describes these hazy, hoppy beers, air quoting “New England IPA” as if he’s unsure if it’s a real style or merely a trendy phrase like “boat beer.” His drinking tastes are still in the early stages of development, and he’s still definitely impressed that a beer could taste as good as Tree House. Meanwhile, he’s “not completely sold on sours yet.”
He's seen some downsides of the hazy market, too. While working on a movie on Long Island one summer, Kevin visited a bar with Heady Topper priced at $12 per can. When he asked the owner why the high price, he just responded, “That’s what people are willing to pay.” Kevin didn’t go for it. “That’s just fucked up,” he says.
When we finally make it inside Tree House, we’re quickly waved over by various staff to purchase our beer. I lose sight of Kevin, but we reconvene walking out together. I’m carrying my case, Kevin is dragging a dolly behind him. Helping him put the beer in his trunk, I ask him what he thought of the experience.
“The trip was completely worth it," he enthuses. "Such a well-run operation. The brewery is very beautiful and picturesque. I will definitely be back—hopefully soon.”