Friday, August 14, 2015

AN INTERVIEW WITH MARK CIOCCO of KAEDRIN BEER BLOG

When I returned from my year-long hiatus from active beer dork participation a few months ago, I wasn't sure how many of my "old reliable" beer blog go-tos would still be around. You know - the Make Mine Potato, Beer Rover, Don't Drink Beer, Ramblings of a Beer Runner, Kaedrin Beer Blog sorts of folks - among others, of course. Turns out that none of the aforementioned had strayed from the faith the way I had, and one of my all-time favorites, KAEDRIN BEER BLOG, was still actively keeping global beer fiends informed about what to and not to drink several times each week, with nice healthy doses of wit, panache and je ne sais quoi in every post.

I thought it might be a good time to probe the mind of the Pennsylvania-based gentleman behind this blog, one Mark Ciocco, and get his take on the evolution of all things craft beer & beer writing from 2010 to today. If anyone's been on the front lines of bird-dogging breweries and beers and trends and ballooning hype and bubble-bursting, it's Mr. Ciocco. We sent him a few questions, and he kindly sent back these considered responses. 

Beer Samizdat: Probably the most important question to get out of the way: who is Kaedrin? 

Mark Ciocco: Kaedrin is basically a word I made up because it looks and sounds cool. I coined it as a teenager who harbored delusions of becoming a fantasy or science fiction author; I thought "Kaedrin" would be a neat name for a race of aliens or vampires or something. Later, when it came time to crank up a website, I transitioned from the lame "Mark's Homepage" to Kaedrin and bought the domain (which, of course, was available). Since then, I've noticed that there seem to be some other Kaedrins out there (one guy writes video game mods, which is not me even if it sounds like it would be), so maybe I'm not as creative as I thought.

Beer Samizdat: You started the blog up in 2010, and back then you mentioned that you'd loved beer but were relatively new to the obsessive online beer dorkery of which you're now one of our nation's finest exponents. What pushed you into the "beer craze", and what are some things you've learned along the way?

Mark Ciocco: I've always enjoyed beer, but I'd never been much of a barfly and the early aughts weren't exactly the best time for beer either (though I did manage to gain an appreciation for IPAs thanks to Victory's HopDevil, which was reliably available). Plus, living under Pennsylvania's draconian alcohol laws meant that trying a new beer meant buying an entire case.  At some point in the mid-aughts, I realized that neighboring states were much better at selling singles, so I started making trips to Delaware and Maryland to snag a whole variety of stuff (one bottle at a time, amazing!) The obsession built slowly, but once I was hooked, things accelerated quickly. PA has even started coming around, easing the liquor laws and allowing more experimentation. We have bottle shops now, some grocery stores manage a beer selection, and it’s even rumored that Wawa will start carrying beer. Truly amazing.

I've grown to appreciate a ton of styles I never used to enjoy. If you look back at the early days of the blog, even simple things like stouts were throwing me for a loop. Sours were another group of styles that initially confused me. Now? Both are staples of my beer diet. I also started homebrewing, which was eye opening and drove me to soak up a lot of knowledge about beer that I wouldn't otherwise have sought out.

Beer Samizdat: What's changed the most in the beer world you live in between 2010 and today?

Mark Ciocco: More breweries, more people, and schizophrenic availability. There’ve been a ton of new breweries opening in the past few years, and many are coming out of the gates with a mind-blowing lineup (to give two examples from our respective areas: Tired Hands and Sante Adairius both opened with a bang). In concordance, more and more people are soaking up the great beer, so crowds are larger and availability of special beers or limited releases are in question. So while availability in terms of distribution and sheer numbers is always increasing, the truly special stuff requires more hoop jumping than it used to. Back in 2010? I could walk into Total Wine and see a shelf full of Cantillon for cheap (still kicking myself for not partaking back then). A year or two later? No Cantillon available on shelf anywhere, ever. Similar stories for a lot of barrel aged wonders, and so on... The trick now is to either get lucky or  find the good stuff before it has the reputation, which, because there’s so many new breweries, isn’t as hard as it used to be. We’re still in a very good place these days! 

Beer Samizdat: Your reviews verge between beers that were obviously consumed solo and those that were shared with others at highly-structured beer bacchanals. How does a blogger such as yourself recommend that others "taste" beer when they know that there's a review of it to come later - especially when that beer's being consumed in a social situation?

Mark Ciocco: I genuinely try to avoid reviewing stuff in general social situations, as I want to be attentive to my companions. Maybe sneak a picture, but not much else. Now, if it's explicitly a beer centric gathering, we're generally talking about the beer and if at least a few folks are taking pictures and checking into Untappd or something, I don't feel bad tapping in a few notes on my phone. Even then, my notes tend to be much less detailed in those situations! An actual structured tasting is, of course, a different beast. I recently held an Eclipse variants blind(ish) tasting where I printed out scoring sheets for everyone. It was very nerdy, but that was the point. However, even in that situation, I wasn’t taking detailed tasting notes...

In terms of tasting beer, the simple answer is to just pay attention to what you’re drinking. Use your senses, and don’t worry about the absurdly exotic descriptions you’re likely to read in more formal beer writing or from posers at beer review sites. Start with more basic elements. Is it sweet, bitter, spicy, sour, salty, or what? From there you can get more specific if you want, but “fruity” or “citrusy” usually works just as well as “overripe Australian lychee” and it won’t make you sound absurd. On the other hand, after writing a bunch of tasting notes, it can be fun to spice up your language a bit, just be aware that writing about this stuff is an abstract pursuit and coming up with excessively grandiose or exotic descriptions will push you further away from the beer.

Comedian Martin Mull is famous for coining the phrase “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”, and perhaps writing tasting notes for beer is a similar trap. I read something recently from a wine critic who said “the language we have for wine is more of a learned code than it is an accurate description of what we experience as we taste wine.” This is pretty much the case for beer too, and the only way you can learn that code is to drink beer, grapple with how to describe it, and look at how others describe it. Also try examining the context of the beer, the style, the brewery, the process, and so on. Eventually, you’ll learn the code and be able to separate the goofballs from the folks who know what they’re talking about. Or you can just drench your tasting notes in hip hop lyrics and JRPG references; that way no one will know what you’re talking about, but they’ll find it hard to stop reading. Or something.

Beer Samizdat: Another thing that's evolved, for better or for worse, are the forums in which people discuss and compare notes on beer - and yet the beer blog refuses to die. Why do you think that is?

Mark Ciocco: The blog exists on an interesting continuum of writing that isn’t quite possible on forums or social media, but isn’t as rigorous as traditional publishing either. To paraphrase Truman Capote's infamous jab at Jack Kerouac, blogging isn’t writing, it’s typing. And that’s not bad, as Kerouac is pretty cool, it’s just a different approach. It’s like the difference between a concert pianist playing at Carnegie Hall for a packed audience, and that same pianist sitting down at the crappy piano in his local pub on a Saturday night and knocking out a few old standards, improvising a little, taking requests from the crowd, and so on. Mistakes and off notes are forgiven because spontaneity and immediacy are valued in that setting. That’s blogging.  It comes with a personality and depth that’s difficult to establish on a forum or social media, which are more about a group dynamic (not that there’s anything wrong with that). That’s why people still gravitate towards blogs, even if they’re not as popular as they once were. 

Beer Samizdat: Tell us a little bit about these epic beer runs you and your pals take to Vermont from Pennsylvania. Why Vermont, and how have these beer runs changed since you first started taking them?

Mark Ciocco: The initial trip was done solo because I was on vacation in upstate NY and that’s, like, totally closer to Vermont than Pennsylvania. I’d had some Hill Farmstead during one of their rare events in Philly, so that alone justified the trip, but I’d also heard about this beer called Heady Topper and this other brewery called Lawson’s Finest Liquids that seemed worth checking out (and lo, they were!) The initial foray was just a day trip, but recently a couple friends and I went for a few days, hit up some wonderful bars at night (Waterbury was great because the bars were within walking distance of our hotel), and expanded the scope of brewery and store visits. The biggest change has been that there are so many worthy places to visit, and I keep finding new ones every time I go. Recent discoveries include Lost Nation, which is now a must-stop for lunch (seriously amazing food there), and Four Quarters is doing some interesting stuff too. 

Beer Samizdat: Keeping on the geographical theme, what's the Philadelphia area like these days in terms of craft beer, relative to, say, craft beer's growth and spread in other locales? Is Philly holding fast to its Yuengling-guzzling heritage, or is it a city going bonkers for barrel-aged wild ales?

Mark Ciocco: In relative terms, Philly has always been a great beer city, even long before craft beer exploded. Places like Monk’s Cafe really put us on the map, and the relationships that Tom Peters has cultivated still give the town an edge we might not have otherwise. In the past decade or so, the whole city and even the suburbs (where I’m based) have exploded with great beer bars and restaurants. We’re not packed to the gills with brewpubs like Portland or Asheville, but we’ve got a pretty great mix of local breweries, ranging from the old guard (Victory, Troegs, Yards, etc…) to up and coming wonders (Tired Hands, Forest & Main, Neshaminy Creek, Pizza Boy etc…)

In terms of distribution, I’m consistently amazed at what we get here. Sometimes I’ll go to a brewery’s website and see that their distribution footprint is their local market… and Philly. We’re one of the few cities to get Pliny the Younger (or Russian River in general), for instance. Zwanze Day happens here every year. Half Acre can barely keep Chicago supplied, but they still send some beer here from time to time. For whatever reason, we tend to be a popular market to expand to, even when you’re talking about West Coast brewers. I’m pretty excited by the scene here, and it continues to evolve towards better beer. Yuengling is an old standard, and walking into a random bar and asking for a “lager” will still get you a pint of Yuengling most of the time, so I don’t think they’re hurting, even if we really are going bonkers for barrel-aged wild ales! 

Beer Samizdat: Who is Marc Ciocco outside of his beer glass? What do we need to know to help complete our picture of this man and the world he inhabits?

Mark Ciocco: In case you can’t tell, I’m a geek. I watch a lot of movies and read a lot of books, and I tend to gravitate towards trashy genre fare, though I’m not afraid to branch out and give the more high-brow stuff some attention too. I work at a large commerce website, leading a team of Systems Analysts, which is very detail oriented and tedious at times, but I love digging into the details of things, so it all works out. You can probably see that in how I approach just about anything, including beer. I’m a massive introvert, but love to grab a pint with just about anyone, and enjoy engaging with new and interesting ideas...

Beer Samizdat: Finally, a list of your favorite beers - either of all-time or some recent mindblowers - would be very helpful to those of us keeping a shopping list.

Mark Ciocco: I’m terrible at choosing favorites! I love me some barrel aged beers of nearly any kind (wine barrel sours, bourbon barrel stouts and barleywines, etc…). That being said, I’ve been pretty stingy with handing out my highest rating and have been considering the induction of a few all-time classics into those hallowed ranks. The ones that come to mind are Russian River Supplication, Firestone Walker Parabola, Hill Farmstead Abner, Logsdon Seizoen Bretta, and probably a dozen others. Part of my love for these is that I’ll probably get to try them again sometime. Sure, I loved Voodoo’s Pappy Van Winkle Barrel Aged Black Magick, but am I ever going to get the chance to try that again?

Recent highlights include a few Alpine IPAs (another example of a tiny CA brewer who started to expand and immediately sent stuff to Philly), Logsdon Peche 'n Brett, Midnight Sun Arctic Devil, Alchemist Focal Banger, and Firestone Walker Stickee Monkee. I could probably go on for hours here, so for the sake of everyone’s sanity, I’ll leave it at that...

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