Across from The Alphabet City Beer Company sits a colorful mural depicting children of different ethnic backgrounds and across the bottom in Coca-Cola-esque script is written, “Our Future.”
The phrase resonated with me on a recent chilly and bright Friday afternoon as I stepped inside the dimly-lit entrance of the bar, a hop and a skip from the corner of Avenue C and 6th Street. The entrance contains two large refrigerators filled to the brim with domestic and international beers, a small table displaying homebrewing kits and a bookcase-sized display sporting novelty items like spiced beer jelly. Closer to the actual bar sits a display of fresh bread and a deli-inspired refrigerator filled with cheeses. From there, the space narrows into a lowlit back area creating the illusion of being in a warm, exposed brick cave whose interior is dotted with plush, leather chairs, cloudy mirrors and a massive wooden table straight out of the Medieval Age. Everything reads comfort
Alphabet City Beer Co. is “our future” as far as New York City’s craft beer scene goes. By combining simple meals with a genial staff of beer geeks (not to be confused with beer snobs) and 350 varieties of beer, the bar has quickly become a fixture of the neighborhood and a symbol of its fight to thrive despite all manner of setbacks. I spoke with Zach Mack, the 27-year-old co-owner of Alphabet City and a former freelance writer, over a couple of brews (his coffee, mine a dark ale) about everything from beer epiphanies to Hurricane Sandy and how his bar fits into the bustling New York City beer scene.
When did you realize you didn’t simply like beer but loved it?
I was out West skiing in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I’m sitting down at [the] Snake River Brewing Company, right in Jackson and they have this incredible brew pub and I’m drinking their IPA. I’m thinking, “This is the best IPA I’ve ever had.” I [tried] everything else they had and I was like, “Goddamn, this is incredible beer.” And I realized for the first time: these guys are doing something so right and it was like an epiphany I had at that moment. The idea for this place actually came up then, too.
You opened last spring. How did the first year–traditionally a hard one for new businesses–work out?
[It’s] been fantastic. We had a booming start. I think initially the neighborhood was intrigued. They came in and saw what we looked like and realized we were fun to hang out in. Summer was good and then everything was getting busier and busier until Sandy hit and then we got screwed in the storm.
We lost everything. Avenue C flooded down to 4th Street so everyone was affected in some way. Especially people who use their basements, which is pretty much everyone on this Avenue. We lost all of our equipment. We flooded to the ceiling in the basement. We lost our walk-in fridge. Our tap system. Our hot water heater. Our electrical system. Our entire inventory of beer. Our entire inventory of dry stock. All of our food. We lost our ice machine. You name it. It was all gone.
Luckily we only had six to eight inches of flooding in the shop itself so we scrubbed down and we were able to open the doors pretty quickly after the storm but we were still hurting. We couldn’t pour draft beer, which is a huge draw for people to come in and hang out. We couldn’t replenish our inventory. There were a couple of weeks where we were hurting and [losing] business was a bit of a pain.
How long did it take to get back on your feet? Did you get any help from your neighbors?
When the lights came back on that was our first major step. When the taps got replaced it felt almost normal. Something big had happened and everyone wanted to talk about it so it kept living on in the back of my head. It feels like it was years ago to me now but from a terrible event so much good came. I can’t tell you how thankful David [Hitchner, Mack’s business partner] and I were to have the neighbors that we do. People showed up with trash bags and flashlights to help move stuff and clean. We kept each other’s spirits high. We helped each other pump out basements and I’ve never felt camaraderie like that. Totally speaks to the spirit of New Yorkers.
What is it like operating in Alphabet City, a neighborhood that was once considered seedy?
I’ve lived in Alphabet City since I moved here five and a half years ago and I love this part of town. It’s a great place to be. Especially during Sandy. We really learned how much neighbors here take care of one another. This neighborhood’s got people who’ve lived here well before it became even close to safe and I love that.
What do you love most about beer and beer culture?
[I] used to dabble in wine culture and [it] has this exclusive vibe to it whereas beer culture has this fun, laid-back inclusive vibe. It’s so much more accessible. I will say that I think beer is better than spirits and wine in that it’s more versatile with its styles and offerings. It’s not dependent on geography. You can make the same beer in Denver that you make in Berlin, that you make in Shanghai. You can’t produce Bordeauxs anywhere else but Bordeaux. You can produce beer anywhere in the world. It’s beer, you know? It’s like don’t overthink it. Don’t try too hard.
What’s the best beer you’ve recently tried?
The Hill Farmstead Everett Porter was otherworldly because I love porters. That’s why I love this time of year for beer. The styles I like are readily available. Hill Farmstead Everett is exclusive, which I understand adds to the mystique but it was perfection for a porter. Also, the Ballast Point Sculpin IPA, which I had taken a while to try, was one of the best beers I’ve had since opening this place. I think it’s delicious. It’s a perfectly balanced American IPA.
Is the ABC Beer Co. completely recovered from Sandy and up-and-running again?
I think I was getting ready for our Valentine’s Day party last week when I realized, “Man, I think we’re back to normal.” It just finally happened.
This interview has been edited and condensed.