Lifting your glass with a different taste: Artisan Beverage Cooperative Tasting Room

The Recorder, April 23, 2017, By Richie Davis. 

GREENFIELD — You can belly up to this bar and wet your lips with a totally different taste.

The tasting room at Artisan Beverage Cooperative’s factory is literally a “meading place,” where the offerings aren’t necessarily familiar, aren’t there to make visitors lightheaded or even quench their thirst.

The decor, with cozy green walls and softly lit furnishings, is an attraction unto itself. The lacquered and inlaid antique bar is surrounded by eight handmade stools fashioned from whiskey barrels right here in town.

But it’s the beverages, like the kombuchas, meads and ginger wines that have been drawing people here since the tasting room opened nearly six months ago. Several specialty items are printed in bright pastel colors on small chalkboard signs over the bar:

“C4 MEAD — with cacao, chicory, cherry and chipotle … 14 percent” alcohol content.

“GOLDEN BEET KOMBUCHA — with tumeric and carrot.”

“CRANBERRY LIBATION — with apple … 9 percent.”

A vase of cut flowers adds to the ambiance, as do the eight lined-up bottles of different varieties of mead — a honey wine that Garth Shaneyfelt began brewing at home in Greenfield after he dropped out of school for neuroscience, having decided he didn’t want to be a doctor.

Instead, in 2007, he launched Green River Ambrosia after meeting with Will Saviti and Jeffrey Canter, who had founded Katalyst Kombucha two years earlier. Kombucha tea is a naturally carbonated “living elixir.” It is made using a culture, which feeds on caffeine, sugar and tannins and creates some of the same detoxifying organic acids that the liver uses to break down toxic substances in the body.

Kombucha, which Saviti had first tasted in Hawaii 15 years ago, comes in five Katalyst Kobucha flavors. With 15,000 cases sold last year around New England and parts of New York, the drink dominates the Artisans Beverage Cooperative that formed in 2013 from the two related businesses.

There are five tasting-glasses mounted on small wooden barrel staves on either end of the tasting room bar. Visitors can try five 1-ounce samples for a nominal price.

“Many people have known about us as a kombucha company, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, I hear you have this crazy kombucha on tap,’ or ‘Oh you also have this mead,’” says Shenyfelt. “Or in the Valley Ginger Libation is super-popular, so people have heard about the tasting room, and they come up and it’s like, ‘Oh, I want to try one of your specialty flavors, and I want to try your mead, too!’ It’s a great way to get people introduced to a whole range of stuff.”

Tasting room manager Ramell Schepp says it’s also a good feedback loop for the business, which sold about 8,500 cases of mead last year and about 2,000 cases of Ginger Libation wines.

Then she hands me a tasting card, which you can use to choose five beverages for your “flight.”

Will it be Whisky Cyzer or Valley Cyzer — those meads in which cider has fermented together with the honey? Or maybe Liquid Sunshine or spiced Winter Warmer? Or perhaps Oaxacan, made with fair-traded Mexican honey, or Barreled Buckwheat? What about this month’s special, C4, of which only 25 barrels have been made?

And then, too, are the ginger libations — a cross between a beer and wine, in original, spicy, citra hopped or cranberry apple.

Although much of the libation ginger is organic ginger from Hawaii and sugar is fair-trade from Paraguay, most of the cooperative’s ingredients are local. The Cranberry-Apple Libation uses apples from Clarkdale and Pine Hill Orchards, and the hops in “hopped” libation and kombucha are from Four Star Farm. The cooperative also uses carrots and ginger from Winter Moot Roots Farm in Hadley and honey from Warm Colors Apiary. Then, of course, there’s Schizandraberry Kombucha, which uses schizandraberries from Chang Farm in Whately.

The tasting room — where you can even sample a “cold brew” of fair-trade coffee with a shot of nitrogen to make a creamy froth on top — is open Fridays from 4 to 7 p.m. and Saturdays from 2 to 6 p.m.

Those are hardly nightcap hours, but they do coincide with the 4 to 7 p.m., Friday and noon to 6 p.m., Saturday hours of Lefty’s Brewery tasting room across the street.

Some of Artisan’s visitors, who come from around the Pioneer Valley and beyond, fashion a tasting tour of brews, including Element in Millers Falls, Lefty’s and the People’s Pint. The cooperative attracts its following through social media, outlets like Yankee Brew News and coupon “fliering” at brew fests and other events around the region.

The cooperative also participates in Pedal 2 Pints cycling tours as well as Pioneer Valley Bike Week in mid-May.

“The idea is not like a bar, like you’re going to hang out there forever,” explains Shaneyfelt.

It’s more of a chance to try out than have a night out. And yet it can be fun, even for people who stop by to fill their growlers and pints and use the visit as a chance to mix kombucha flavors or try this month’s special.

(There are also 30 Kombucha-filling stations around New England, including those at Green Fields Market and River Valley Market.)

“It’s a great way to connect directly with customers and potential customers,” Shaneyfelt says. “We have six or seven distributors working with our different products, and we deal with caterers and festivals, but we have less direct contact, so it’s really great to have people come in here and try stuff, so we get direct feedback, and find that people really like hopped libation, or it’s really big a weekend for selling cyzer. It’s a good way to assess new products.”

For Artisans Beverage Cooperative, which now has 17 workers, six co-op owners and about $1.2 million in annual sales, the tasting room is just a drop of Bliss-Berry or Green Lovin’ in the Kombucha bucket. But it is a way to see that people are truly growing more kombucha-savvy and more like true mead mavins.

And it’s a great way to spread the buzz.

On the Web: