WESTMINSTER — It’s a snowy day, and the indoor brew yard at Wachusett Brewing Co. hums with conversation as about a dozen customers sip beer served up from a bar built inside the steel frame of a silver Airstream trailer.
The room, which opens to a patio that can be used during warm weather, is new to Wachusett Brewing. It opened in December after the 24-year-old craft brewery cleared out six offices on its first floor, bumped out a wall and gathered workers to install chestnut beams and trim salvaged from a nearby antique dairy barn.
And thanks to a quirk of Massachusetts liquor laws, Wachusett founder and Chief Executive Officer Edward LaFortune III literally had to change Massachusetts liquor laws to open it.
“We needed to become more of a destination, and you can’t be a destination when you can’t be able to sit down and enjoy the beer in an environment that you create,” said Mr. LaFortune, who goes by Ned.
The launch of Wachusett’s brew yard is taking place as Massachusetts is considering changes to its liquor laws, some of which date to the end of Prohibition. Groups of industry and public health professionals met in recent months to funnel ideas to a small team appointed by state Treasurer Deborah Goldberg. A list of recommendations was released in December.
The recommendations in the 288-page report cover everything whether stores could offer loyalty programs to customers (no) to when brewers, wineries and cider makers can break up with their distributors (it’s complicated).
Some people in the alcohol industry are still going through the document to figure out what the proposed changes could mean for them. It isn’t easy, a few said, to consider changing laws that impact consumers, package store owners, brewers and wineries, wholesalers that supply stores and bars, and the medical and police professionals who step in when alcohol consumption leads to addiction or violence.
“They’re complex and interwoven,” said Frank Anzalotti, executive director of the Massachusetts Package Stores Association, which is examining the proposals and expects to issue an opinion on it in February. “I liken them to a piece of fabric. If you sometimes get a snag in a piece of fabric and you pull it, you can unravel it.”
It’s difficult to quantify the alcohol industry’s financial impact on Massachusetts. A total of 154 commercial breweries exist in the state, and at least 20 more are expected to open in 2018, according to the Massachusetts Brewers Guild. Dozens more wineries, distilleries and cider companies operate here.
In addition, the state collected about $80 million in excise taxes on the sale of alcohol in fiscal year 2015.
Yet the landscape is changing. The number of breweries in Massachusetts has expanded dramatically, and the business model for building a brewery has changed, said David M. Fields, a partner in Wormtown Brewery of Worcester. New breweries did not need taprooms just a few years ago, he said, but now they do. Other needs are changing, too.
“Business models that exist today in the brewery world did not exist five years ago, likely, and definitely not eight to 10 years ago,” Mr. Fields said.
For Wachusett Brewing, some of those changes prompted action in the last five years.
A privately held business, Wachusett Brewing employs about 75 workers and operates out of a nondescript brick building off Route 2A. Three friends started the company, which began by distributing its beers itself. The company’s first label featured a drawing of the barn on the farm where Mr. LaFortune grew up.
Wachusett Brewing produced about 70,000 barrels of beer in 2017. The company declined to disclose its annual revenue.
The first time Wachusett Brewing set out to change state liquor law was after it installed a new canning line with excess capacity in 2012. The plan was to package beer for others outside Massachusetts, but the company’s state license would not allow it. Mr. LaFortune said it took four years to change the law so the company could can beer for customers outside the state.
“We lost a lot of opportunity during that time of changing the law,” he said. “Most of those breweries eventually bought some kind of a canning line. Most of them bought small ones. … Last year, we finally did some out-of-state business. “
The second effort to change state law came last year, when Wachusett wanted to open the brew yard. The manufacturing license held by Wachusett Brewing did not allow the company to sell beer on site for consumption.
That was a problem, according to Christian McMahan, Wachusett president. The small brewery cannot afford the advertising that big companies undertake and needs to do something else to reach consumers, he said.
“From a brand standpoint, if you create the right environment and the atmosphere for them to enjoy your product, how do they not leave a bigger fan of you than they were before?” Mr. McMahan said.
State Rep. Kimberly N. Ferguson, R-Holden, co-sponsored legislation to permit the sales, which was signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker and took effect in December.
“I knew that I was dealing with a very responsible business owner that was trying to expand a business in a responsible manner,” said Ms. Ferguson, who described working on the law to make sure it was neither too broad nor prone to loopholes. “Some of the laws that are on the books could be described as antiquated.”
On a recent afternoon, Alan Hanley of Gardner and Ryan Hobbs of Barre played table shuffleboard in the new brew yard while drinking Wachusett beers. Mr. Hanley said visiting the brewery and sampling the beer could influence his future purchasing decisions at liquor stores.
“I’d buy it now,” he said of the Wachusett brand.
The brew yard could have drawn concern that the brewery was competing with Atlas Distributing Inc. of Auburn, the company that distributes Wachusett beers to taverns, restaurants and stores in Central Massachusetts. But Atlas President Joseph Salois said he had no qualms about it and encouraged beer distributors to support the legislation.
“Their hope and intent is to provide an experience for the consumer,” Mr. Salois said. Perhaps “if they’re doing that, they will then follow up at a local liquor store or a tavern or a restaurant.”
Mr. LaFortune may have one more law he wants to change. Visitors to Wachusett Brewing can stop in a small shop off the brewery’s main entrance to purchase a six-pack to take home, but they’re not buying directly from the brewery. That’s prohibited. Instead, Wachusett leases the space to a former employee who operates the shop and has his own license to sell liquor.
“It’s a completely separate license with a separate accounting system, separate fees and a very complicated system for us to sell beer to it,” Mr. LaFortune said.
Although businesses in the liquor industry bump up against state laws and regulations in cases such as that, it remains unclear whether the state’s current re-examination of liquor laws will substantially change things for the industry.
Although state laws could do with some modernization, Massachusetts remains an easier place for breweries to do business than some neighboring states, said Mr. Fields of Wormtown. And breweries have prospered, he said.
“From 2015 to 2018 we go from three Worcester County breweries to 10 Worcester County breweries,” he said. “I believe the laws need to be modernized, but were they actually holding the industry back?”