Collaboration Libation

  • Mike Schilling, co-owner of Beerology, talks about brewing Monday at Abandoned Building Brewery.

  • Jordanna Starr and Mike Schilling, owners of Beerology, taste Manhan Trail Pale Ale, Monday at Abandoned Building Brewery. They created the ale with Abandoned’s owner, Matt Tarlecki.

  • Mike Schilling and Jordana Starr, left, who are the owners of Beerology, with Abandoned Building Brewery owner Matt Tarlecki; they collaborated on Manhan Trail Pale Ale.

  • Beerology owners Mike Schilling and Jordana Starr, left, and Abandoned Building Brewery owner Matt Tarlecki collaborated on Manhan Trail Pale Ale (close-up at right). GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Matt Tarlecki, left, owner of Abandoned Building Brewery, taps a cask of Manhan Trail Pale Ale with the help of Mike Schilling, co-owner of Beerology. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Beerology owners Mike Schilling and Jordana Starr, left, with Abandoned Building Brewery owner Matt Tarlecki

  • Manhan Trail Pale Ale

  • Manhan Trail Pale Ale


  • Matt Tarlecki pours a glass of Manhan Trail Pale Ale at Abandoned Building Brewery.

Published: 6/16/2017 9:17:47 AM

Using a large wooden mallet, Matt Tarlecki hammered a spigot into a 10-gallon metal beer cask known as a “firkin” as Jordana Starr and her husband Mike Schilling watched in anticipation. But a moment that could have matched a champagne cork popping instead seemed a bit underwhelming: No beer spewed into the air, and the reaction of those gathered around the cask was equally flat.

“That was one of the more uneventful…,” Tarlecki said, trailing off. “Sometimes it squirts everywhere.” 

Far from appearing disappointed, the three beer experts swapped smiles that fit the fizzy mood at Abandoned Building Brewery in Easthampton: joy over the creation of a new beer and the cooperative spirit among the region’s brewers. Starr and Schilling, who have been a couple since meeting during their freshman year at Tufts University, got to know Tarlecki several years ago through mutual friends in the beer scene here.

“You just become friends with people from going to beer events,” Starr said.

The new brew — dubbed the Manhan Trail Pale Ale — is a collaboration beer, the brainchild of both Abandoned Building, owned by Tarlecki, and the Northampton-based homebrewing supply and educational store Beerology, owned by Starr and Schilling. The beer is a New England pale ale, a variety that has become popular nationwide from its beginnings in the northeast. For those who don’t like bitterly hoppy beers, the creamy texture and slightly fruity flavor offer a refreshing alternative.

Named after the bike path connecting the two locations, the beer is being sold in stores and at Abandoned Building, a cozy space with a coffee-shop vibe that Tarlecki, a civil engineer by trade, designed himself. At Beerology, a homebrewer’s haven, stocked with malts and hops, Starr and Schilling are giving out the beer’s recipe — to the untrained eye, it reads more like instructions for a chemistry experiment — and samples of the creation to people patronizing their store and attending their brewing classes.

The ale’s launch was part of the second annual Western Mass Beer Week — an initiative to promote cooperation among brewers and economic growth in the region’s robust craft-beer industry — which ends this weekend with events including Pedal2Pints, a bicycle tour of the Valley’s breweries.

But long after the week’s events are over, the region’s brew business will carry on as usual. And questions linger: With so many breweries here, is the craft-beer industry a foamy bubble waiting to pop, leaving brewers to scramble for opportunity in a shrinking market? Or is it a resilient sector of the local economy that will continue to expand and define the Pioneer Valley?

With young breweries churning out new beers regularly, it’s tempting to view the craft-beer landscape here as already oversaturated. Abandoned Building is one of three breweries in Easthampton, alone, and the Manhan Trail Pale Ale is one of three recent Abandoned Building collaborations. 

Even with the inevitable competition for limited shelf space and tap lines in the Valley, Starr says collaborations among brewers prove that there’s still plenty of room for the industry to grow while still remaining a tight-knit community.

That’s certainly the opinion of Bart Watson, the chief economist at the Brewers Association, an industry group representing breweries and homebrewers, alike.

“The idea of saturation assumes that demand is static,” he recently told the Gazette, pointing out that the arrival of additional breweries to a small area can actually drum up local demand for craft beer — it’s not a zero-sum game. “What we’re seeing is a still-growing market.” 

Despite the apparent ubiquity of craft beer in the state, Massachusetts currently ranks only 24th nationally in the number of craft breweries per capita, according to 2016 numbers from the Brewers Association. At 2.2 breweries per 100,000 over-21 adults, the state’s craft-beer saturation pales in comparison (no pun intended) to neighboring Vermont, which boasts the nation’s highest breweries per capita at 10.8 per 100,000. 

Watson added that all the breweries in western Massachusetts together produce less beer than Boston Beer Company, the brewer of Samuel Adams and Angry Orchard cider. Boston Beer, in turn, brews only a fraction of the beer that the world’s largest brewer, Anheuser-Busch, produces.

Although the once-breakneck pace of growth in the craft-brew field slowed to 6 percent nationally last year, local microbreweries and brewpubs drove 90 percent of that growth, according to the Brewers Association.

At Abandoned Building, Tarlecki has seen the benefits of that growth. His company has grown every year since they brewed their first batch — named Lola’s Saison — in the spring of 2014. He said that he routinely fields calls from bars, restaurants and retail stores in other parts of Massachusetts hoping to supply his beer to their customers.

“For us, we’re currently only distributing in Massachusetts,” said Tarlecki, who has received requests from businesses in places like Rhode Island and Philadephia to carry his beer. “We’ve declined all those offers.”

“The demand is outstripping our supply right now,” he added.

Beerology is also experiencing steady business. Starr says their Homebrewing 101 class has been consistently popular, and that more people in an area that already values homemade and local products are becoming interested in brewing their own beer, wine, cider and kombucha.

But all of the good vibes and economic growth now don’t mean that there won’t come a day when ruthless competition may very well pit brewer against fellow brewer.

Watson, the economist, mentioned that, where he lives in Boulder County, Colorado, there are some 50 breweries. In a market that saturated, he said, each additional brewery that opens its doors has a negative effect on others.

“I do start to think it’s starting to be one in, one out,” he said.

“We will get there,” Starr said of the Pioneer Valley. “You’ll see the survival of the fittest.” 

More concerning to Schilling than local competition among brewers is the behavior of Anheuser-Busch InBev, which has steadily acquired craft breweries and has been accused of anti-competitive practices like hoarding stores of in-demand South African hops. The company also purchased one of the country’s largest homebrew equipment suppliers, Northern Brewer, putting Beerology in direct competition with the beverage behemoth. 

But for the moment, none of those worries seems to be affecting an industry that continues to flourish in the Pioneer Valley.

Starr said collaborations between breweries are becoming more common and tell the story of a still-collegial industry that is a long way from fighting each other over territory.

“I have great faith in this area,” Schilling said. “We care about what we’re consuming here.”

Starr recalled an anecdote about a beer created when two breweries, in Colorado and California, realized they were both selling a brew under the same name. Instead of suing over the naming rights, they decided to blend their two creations into one — they called it Collaboration not Litigation Ale. 

“There’s the spirit in the beer community, because it’s an art and because it’s a craft, people appreciate other people’s beer,” Starr said. “Everyone is drinking everybody’s beer.” 

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