Once upon a time, four friends liked to play music together. One friend also liked to brew beer in his kitchen. Of course, many craft beer stories start just this way, with the dreams of a passionate home brewer. But the tale of Tree House Brewing has one highly unusual feature.
For most new craft brewers in the U.S., the road from labor of love to going public runs right through the three-tier distribution system. At some point, novice professionals find out that to get their beer to customers at scale, they’re going to need a middleman, and they’re going to need a lot of patience with red tape. All told, they may find it harder than they expected to turn a profit.
Unless, of course, you’re Tree House Brewing Company. In which case, you simply . . . don’t distribute — and find the world beating a path to your door.
A Good Problem to Have
Tree House Brewing moved out of the kitchen in 2011 when Damien Goudreau bought property with a barn—and a tree house–in Brimfield, Massachusetts. Before long, Goudreau’s barn (initially intended for his motorcycles) had become HQ for his friend Nate Lanier’s home brewing operation. With fellow enthusiasts Dean Rohan and Jonathan Weisbach, Lanier and Goudreau soon took the next step and began selling to the public.
As cars started lining up, Goudreau’s neighbors—and the local zoning board–became less amused. In 2013, Tree House relocated to Monson, Mass. (where Goudreau’s in-laws owned a farm), only to outgrow this new home as well. One possible explanation: the quality of Tree House’s beer was already making a splash. Despite its tiny size, Tree House’s now-famous Julius IPA had already made Beer Advocate’s Top 250 list.
Needing more room than the farm’s garage could supply, Tree House built its own new premises nearby, with 9,000 square feet to call its own. But sales continued to surge, and in short order, the company decided to build a far larger facility. In 2017, Tree House opened its current principal brewery in Charlton, Mass. At 55,000 square feet, this new base of operations took Tree House’s brewing capacity from 300 barrels a week to 240 a day.
By 2020, with sales of over 40,000 barrels a year, Tree House had become the largest brewer in Massachusetts outside of Boston. And to the present day, Tree House beer remains a destination experience. While the company now has four additional locations (in Deerfield, Mass.; Sandwich, Mass.; Tewksbury, Mass; and Woodstock, Conn.), beer lovers must still consume or collect all Tree House products on-site.
Beer as Destination
The original decision not to distribute arose almost by default: in Monson, demand from buyers pulling up the driveway more than accounted for the volume that Tree House could produce each week. But this scenario also suited Nate Lanier’s original vision of fresh, local beer as a source of community connection. Over time, as the crowds continued to keep up with production, the in-person concept has become part of the Tree House brand. But as organic as it may be, the success of this approach is hardly accidental.
It goes without saying that great beer is irreplaceable as the draw. Last year, Tree House Brewing led all craft breweries in the United States in 5-star check-ins on Untapped, far outpacing the second place finisher. No fewer than 32 Tree House beers now grace the Beer Advocate Top 250. Nor is Tree House resting on its laurels: according to Untapped, Tree House created more new beers in 2022 than any of its craft competitors.
Also worth noting: Tree House has chosen physical settings that create a positive experience for customers. Its 70-acre hilltop property in Charlton has been described by at least one visitor as “magical.” Its seaside location in Sandwich lets visitors enjoy their beer in the ocean breeze. Its latest acquisition, in Tewksbury, integrates a nine-hole golf course (with holes named after Tree House beers).
Plug and Play Piping
Behind the scenes, scaling up at this pace has had its technical challenges. For example, the task of designing a full-scale, professional piping system proved trickier than expected. The Tree House brewers first chose to use copper piping, but insulating the pipes once installed proved a headache. Condensation would build up between the copper pipes and the insulation, resulting in messy leaks.
When the time came to build the Charlton facility, Tree House changed direction and installed COOL-FIT pre-insulated plastic piping from GF Piping Systems. With insulation pre-installed on the pipes under factory conditions, both the install at the Charlton facility and maintenance thereafter were vastly simplified.
In 2022, when Tree House was planning its third expansion to the Charlton system, the owners didn’t hesitate to continue with COOL-FIT. And in keeping with past experience, COOL-FIT’s modular design and light weight helped the installation go smoothly. “The pre-programmed weld parameters and the barcode scanner made the joint sealing very simple and very reliable,” noted Eric Sweet, President of Northeast Process Systems Inc.
Even more importantly, Tree House has been satisfied with COOL-FIT’s performance once installed. The system is leak-free and invulnerable to corrosion, and the pre-insulated pipes are highly energy-efficient, allowing them to maintain consistent temperatures. This consistency is essential for Tree House’s cooling loops, which circulate chilled glycol to control temperatures during fermentation.
“Any loss of temperature from the chiller to the furthest fermenting vessel is a potential for degraded product,” observed Sweet. “They couldn’t maintain the low temperature on a consistent basis with any other piping system.” Tree House can also run the chiller less overall, creating further energy savings.
Do What You Love
In 2016, Nate Lanier described his goals for Charlton to Boston Magazine:
“The intent of the new brewery is to make our beer better than ever, vastly expand our range of offerings, make our core offerings more readily available, and to create a central gathering place of kinship and camaraderie for beer enthusiasts.”
A lot had to go right to see this vision fulfilled—and fortunately for Tree House and its fans, a lot has. A technical solution supports quality production. New beers continue to be born. And for thousands of customers each week, a visit to Tree House continues to be worth the trip. As both business and community prosper, one thing is certain: this New England field of dreams remains an enterprise to watch.
Katherine Bonamo writes on topics in architecture, engineering, and construction for publications throughout the United States.