“If you care about wine and want to drink better and more confidently, the best thing you can do is cultivate a close relationship with a good wine shop.”
That’s the opening sentence from a recent how-to article by Eric Asimov, wine critic of the New York Times. It’s a thought-provoking opener, but it struck me in a different way than the author intended. Before I could continue to the second sentence, I felt inspired to make a list of the beer stores I have cultivated close relationships with since starting my enlightening journey on the Ale Trail over the past decade. These are beer stores that I deem to be “good” for a variety of reasons, whether it’s possessing an inviting atmosphere or the ability to drink on-site, or a frequent, thoughtful inventory rotation.
I plan to share the compiled list as an ongoing series called Know Your Local Beer Store. Each piece will feature a discussion with the owners, because who better to tell their story?
The series’ first installment features Zach Mack and David Hitchner’s ABC Beer Co.. Located in the East Village, this inviting shop opened in 2012 and serves 12 rotating drafts, all of which are available to drink on-site or take out via growler. There’s also a selection of about 450 bottles and cans and a cooler filled with meats and cheeses.
Edible Manhattan: What inspired you to open a beer store?
Zach Mack: David and I met in a pretty atypical way for most business partners. I was looking for a roommate when I first moved to the city right out of college and was poring through Craigslist. I replied to probably four dozen postings late one night, and David was one of three that actually responded. It turned out we had both gone to the same college and were in the same class with a ton of mutual friends, but we had never met each other. He invited me to move in and became my first official roommate in the city.
This was 2007, and David was in the process of purchasing a restaurant/wine bar called In Vino, as well as opening a wine retail shop on Avenue C. He was just turning 24 as the paperwork on both places was finalized. I, on the other hand, was 22 and hustling for a job as a writer. That’s when the economy did its nosedive and my employment prospects dried up. David and his business partners hired me to work at In Vino to make ends meet while I did freelance work. This was that wacky 2008 to 2009 phase of New York where no one was sure where the economy was headed, least of all me. It opened my eyes up to the idea of working for myself eventually, and gave me the experience of running a small operation focused on friendly, informed service.
I took a desk job in media at some point and began working my way into that world. It didn’t take long for me to grow to hate everything about it. I was home visiting my sister in Boston one weekend when David called me and asked if I wanted to go into business together with a hybrid beer-retail shop and bar. I didn’t think twice about saying yes.
EM: How were your first few months of business?
ZM: The first year was definitely our hardest, but far from the reasons you’d expect. Business-wise we hit the ground running and the place was packed every night, way more than we ever anticipated. I was barely 27 years old the day of our grand opening and to say I was naive about business ownership would be an epic understatement. The first three weeks of being open were both the most physically exhausted and energized by adrenaline I’ve ever felt in my life. David and I were pulling shifts to let the other nap for an hour by the end. It was a solid month before we really got into the stride of bar ownership and sleep schedules could return to normal.
And then, just like that, everything changed. We were five and a half months in when we got completely destroyed by Sandy. Going back the next morning was surreal. Water had filled the basement right to the top and had destroyed everything vital to running the business: our compressors, the walk-in fridge, our draft system, our entire inventory of … everything. It was as if someone had shook the room and hit it full blast with a fire hose for a day. I don’t think I’ll ever forget wading in knee-deep water in my basement, wearing a headlamp and hauling heaps of trash and debris to the sidewalk, all while trying to foster every ounce of optimism I had while also panicking and proclaiming out loud, “Am I fucking dreaming right now?”
It was also because of this that I experienced firsthand the sense of community that solidified me as a devout New Yorker for life. What started out as neighboring businesses helping each other score gas to run generators turned into complete strangers showing up and asking how they could help out. I still well up sometimes thinking about the support that showed up from friends, family, neighbors and anonymous New Yorkers.
Rebounding from the storm was nothing short of hosting a grand reopening. In a slightly fucked-up way, I am grateful to Sandy for teaching me what it’s like to really dig down and feel ownership over something. I had never had to contemplate my livelihood being taken away from me before, and having gone through the turmoil and stress of it all forged a little something new in me. It taught me to never take a good day for granted, and that even bad days could be worse. It’s one of those clichés that also happens to be true.
EM: How do you build your beer menu?
ZM: Choosing the beer we sell has become a different process from that first year we were open. Then, it was all about finding what people wanted from all over the country and carrying the hot brands New York City was lucky enough to have access to. But in the span of a few months, I watched as more breweries popped up nearby upstate and in the five boroughs themselves. We had always been a craft-beer bar focused on domestics. But now it’s easier than ever for me to carry the locals, too—not only just because they’re right over the bridge, but because the beer they’re putting out is objectively fantastic. I feel lucky to have opened in time to be a part of this incredible period of growth of this city’s local-beer culture.
It’s also because of this surge in awareness of good beer locally that I get to play around and pick up some truly geeky, unique stuff—and what even constitutes “geeky” and “unique” these days. When we opened, maybe one in every 100 of our customers had even heard of a gose; today, I have novice beer drinkers coming in and asking for them by name. The explosion in available styles is helping widen the market past hop heads and barrel-aged stout lovers, and those are the kinds of beer drinkers who will stay that way for life. Of course, I’m all for helping people get their hands on and drink “whales.” But a huge part of what we do is turning people onto great beers they didn’t know existed and can open alongside takeout dinner on a random Tuesday night. Informed, friendly service will keep people coming back, especially when you do your homework and get them truly great beer.
EM: How do you price your beer?
ZM: We’re here to serve our neighborhood, first and foremost, so we’ll always have shelf space devoted to tried-and-true beers in the value range. But I also like being able to offer premium stuff for those who are willing to drop more money on their beer purchases, since variety is what keeps people interested. I take a hard stance against price gouging, even in the case of super-rare bottles or kegs we get lucky enough to bring in. We have set formulas for pricing kegs, which makes keeping tap and bottle prices in the range that won’t scare people away a matter of making coherent purchase decisions.
Part of what makes creating a program and buying beer fun is that you have to think like a manager and a customer at the same time. What if I’ve never had a beer I like and I walk into a tap lineup of nothing but $9 pours? What if I’m somewhat initiated and the lines are dominated by things you can get anywhere? The middle ground is constantly shifting, but the variety on price, styles and overall familiarity you offer is what will end up defining you. It’s like DJing a party in a way. You can alienate people if you aim too low with nothing but the top hits, or too high with nothing but obscure Brian Eno.
EM: What type of atmosphere do you strive to offer at ABC?
ZM: The vibe we always shoot for is “extended living room.” We open every day at noon and have food and Ninth Street Espresso, comfy chairs and sofas and a huge communal table that’s great for getting work done or meeting friends. This makes us feel more like a coffee shop. We were always afraid of reaching for too fancy a vibe and making anyone feel uncomfortable just hanging out.
And I think we pull off the vibe because a solid majority of our business is people who live in Alphabet City and visit at least two or three times a week. The fact that we have the retail section up front really helps enable that, too. We sell fresh bread, specialized groceries and a really great selection of meats and cheeses.
EM: As craft beer continues to gain popularity, what are some of the obstacles you face as a local business owner? Are you worried about the increase in competition—meaning, the increase in places offering craft—across the city?
ZM: Honestly I think today’s obstacles feel less like having to compete in the beer industry and more of a “doing business in New York City” problem. Yes, it’s strange having to tell customers there’s a limit on Grimm cans because we only got in two cases because there are more players now, and it can be awkward explaining to customers that we had to stop carrying a brewery because they got acquired by a macro. But the genuine interest in beer keeps driving people in the door, mostly looking to try new things. That’s why, for example, I don’t buy into the fear mongering about how macro beer is quietly amassing an assault on craft beer. Curiosity is driving young people to try new things, and when they discover that Belgian strong ales taste nothing like the Bud Light that has been passed off as beer their entire lives, very few see a reason to revert back. But yeah, most of our obstacles come in the form of city bureaucracy, red tape and the general out-of-control rise in costs of doing business in the city. I sometimes lie awake at night worrying about our rent getting jacked at the end of our lease.
EM: How is your store influenced by the surrounding area, and vice versa?
ZM: I’ve lived in the same neighborhood I do business in since I moved to New York; Alphabet City is all I’ve ever known in my adult life. I stay rooted in the goings-on nearby, listen to what my local regulars have to say, and work to make sure that we’re providing that coveted “extended living room” ambience. The city has made me aware of the fact that I am both a business partner and a neighbor with a responsibility to be respectful and conscious of our actions and decisions. This city has that oft-quoted energy that I tap into; all service-industry operations induce adrenaline rushes, but there’s something about doing it in New York that makes even mundane tasks feel exciting. We’re a city of nine million personalities, which makes every day different, for better or worse, and not just for business owners. It’s soul-crushing and uplifting, exhausting and invigorating, ever-changing and permanent. It’s not like we live here for the cheap rent.