A Nightcap with Cicerone Extraordinaire, Zach Mack

For this week’s nightcap interview we caught up with Zach Mack – entrepreneur, writer, Certified Cicerone, consultant, and beer educator based in New York City. He also happens to own Alphabet City Beer Co., a craft beer store and bar in New York’s East Village along with writing for Thrillist. Does your growler need a refill too? Grab it, and join us, as we sip and chat with Zach.

NightOwl: What was your first experience with craft beer, and what were you drinking?

Grabbing a beer with Zach MackZach: I went to college in Montreal, so we were allowed to legally shop for and purchase alcohol right at the ripe young age of 18. During my first week up there, I walked into a depanneur [Ed. Note: “convenience store”] with my roommate looking for beer and found Unibroue’s Fin du Monde sitting in the fridge. My friends all were drawn in by the high ABV (9%), but when we got back to our dorm and opened the bottles, I was blown away: Beer can taste like this?! There’s so much flavor! Plums, spice, fruit! From then on, I was able to make use of Montreal’s solid beer scene to advance my interest on the subject, and was able to dive more into the American scene when I moved back stateside right after I graduated.

NightOwl: You are a “Certified Cicerone®.” What is a cicerone, and how does one become certified?

Zach: Certified Cicerones® (the company actually makes us use that ®, which I think is great) are, for lack of a more succinct description, the beer world’s version of a sommelier. Essentially this means you’re trained in all things pertaining to service, including glassware and food pairing, as well as general understanding of different styles and what they’re expected to taste like. It’s a pretty straightforward process! I actually wrote about it, but the TL;DR version is: you sign up to take a test, you study beer styles, production, and blind tasting, including off-flavors, and then if you’re lucky, you pass and get a fancy certificate and pin.

NightOwl: Owning your own bar business is tough. What’s the best advice you ever received?

Zach: “Pick a location that’s as close to your bank and a good hardware store as you possibly can.”

NightOwl: What advice would you share with someone looking to get into it?

Zach: Pick a good business partner who rounds out your skill set and who you trust! Expect to carry ZERO semblance of a normal schedule for the month leading up to and 3 months following your opening, and that no matter how many places you open, you’ll always be learning things during this time. Also, that whole thing about the bank and hardware store is so painfully true.

NightOwl: At ABC Beer Co. you offer over 350 varieties of craft beer in bottles to go, along with 12 constantly rotating taps. What’s your advice on how to best navigate the selection?

Zach: Trust your local beer store! Ask questions and get to know what you like, and more importantly, what you don’t like. Ask the bartender or cashier what they’ve had recently that has knocked their socks off and give it a shot. Don’t tolerate pushiness or attitude!

NightOwl: How does one curate an offering like that?

Zach: It depends on what kind of program you’re going for, but we’re focusing on American craft that’s as local as possible. We’re in the lucky position of people wanting to be on our draft lines and on our shelves, so we get a lot of coveted options sent our way, but it’s also about seasonality and what’s available any given week.

NightOwl: What’s next on tap for you?

Zach: We’re going to be a beer garden out on Governors Island with 8 taps of beer brewed right in New York City from the likes of Other Half, KCBC, Finback, Interboro, and more. We’ll have some refreshing cocktails, great wine, and delicious food from Michelin starred chef Edi Frauneder, owner of Edi and the Wolf, Schilling, and Freud. Oh, and epic views of the harbor.

NightOwl: Is there a beer you haven’t been able to get your hands on? If so, what is it?

Zach: Through the kindness of customers and friends, there are very few “whale” beers that I haven’t been able to get my hands on. I’m a lucky guy! Even the old stand-bys like Heady Topper seem to make their way into my life more often lately. These days, it’s more about craving beers I’ve tried at smaller places on one of my travels that I can’t easily get, or that isn’t made anymore.

At ABC Beer Co. with Zach Mack

NightOwl: As an admitted ramen addict, what are your top three spots, and what are you ordering?

Zach: I could riff on this for hours…My number one is Minca on 5th St. in the East Village for their Minca Sio, which is a chicken and pork broth combo with roasted garlic. This one always misses the big lists for whatever reason and it infuriates me! It’s a tiny hole in the wall spot, so if you can’t get in, you can try their sister restaurant Kambi House up on 14th near the 1st Ave L stop: Same menu and everything!

My second two favorites are Hide Chan up on 52nd St. for their black garlic ramen, which is an umami bomb unlike any other I’ve ever tasted. The third spot is a toss up: If I’m walking through Union Square at lunchtime, I’ll probably try to swing through Ippudo to see if I can score a seat for a bowl of Akamaru Modern, or whatever the special is that month, just to give it a shot, or to Mr. Taka on Allen Street for the spicy miso ramen, which is the best miso ramen I’ve had in NYC.

Besides that, Ramen Lab on Kenmare is the best! Since they rotate the chef/restaurant in charge of ramen every month, it’s hard to cite it as a “favorite bowl,” but you’ll always find something new and exciting being made. Great way to expand your horizons!

NightOwl: What’s your favorite place to grab a beer in the neighborhood?

Zach: I absolutely adore the crew and vibe over at Proletariat, because there’s a very good chance they’re pouring something that even I haven’t been able to taste yet…but they’ll also be down to just shoot the shit over an old favorite. Outside of that, I spend more time at Drop Off Service on Avenue A because the staff is amazing, the vibe is unpretentious in every way, and there simply is nowhere better in the city to get a great beer after 1 AM.

NightOwl: When was the last time you did a keg stand, and what was on tap?

Zach: Three years ago at my friends’ wedding! It was the day after the ceremony and we had to finish a half barrel of Founders Pale Ale before taking back the empty. I didn’t really get to do keg parties in college (they’re hard to come by in Canada, where I went to school), so this was more novelty than nostalgia.

NightOwl: If you could only have one beer for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?

Zach: It’s too hard to answer this question because beer is all about context! Would I love a rich, bourbon barrel aged stout after a killer meal? Absolutely. Do I want an ice cold pilsner as I have my feet dipping into the water on a warm beach? Obviously! The only demand I have is that it’s fresh, made with good intentions, and not a gimmick.

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NightOwlA Nightcap with Cicerone Extraordinaire, Zach Mack

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