The following column was published in the Waterbury (CT) Republican-American on April 11, 2012.
By Will Siss
In the cramped back room of his small home brew store in Willimantic, Paul T. Zocco and seven customers sipped beers and talked about mistakes.
Newbies like the customers love to talk about the time the airlock on their primary fermenter blew up to create a telltale brown splotch on the ceiling. Or the time they forgot to clean their bottle necks and wound up with beer that tasted like socks, not that it didn’t grow on them eventually.
Zocco, the owner of Zok’s and an award-winning brewer, makes recipes that breweries covet and dispenses advice that novices cherish. Each of the home brewers wedged in among the beer and wine kits seemed to have a prized bit of wisdom garnered from the white-haired guru in the corner.
“The best advice he ever gave me was to pay attention more to my fermentation temperature,” said Charlie Gabriele, from Baltic. He’s been brewing for about six years, although he made his first batch in 1964 after getting advice from a man he suspected brewed his own beer during Prohibition.
The thing about Zocco, the men told me, is that he’s heard all the mistakes and diagnoses what you did wrong without hesitation or error.
Zocco rolled out wrapping paper on a waist-high bench and placed the customers’ bottles on them, circling their based in marker and labeling each by the maker and style.
Classical music played faintly in the back room. A Reubenesque woman lounging on a riverbank, surrounded by a slew of empty beer cans, flirted with us from a poster overhead. As the afternoon progressed, more thirsty guys (and one woman) stopped by to contribute their bottles and sip from other’s offerings.
“I asked him why my porter was foaming up,” said Ken Phaiah, an emergency medical technician from Sterling. “Zok’s great. I’m always learning from him, and others.”
Phaiah also got some honest feedback from Zocco on his Oktoberfest: it was too hoppy to be true to style.
Sipping a Berliner weisse, Zocco chatted with me from behind the counter, where he did more handshaking than business.
It was hard to tell if the room was a home brew store or a storage locker for ribbons. Three walls were covered in them practically from floor to ceiling. Starting with a local award 15 years ago for a Belgian tripel, Zocco has specialized in creating just what the judges like.
He should know. As a national Beer Judge Certification Program alumnus, Zocco is intimately familiar with how an Imperial stout should taste or what color range a Doppelbock should fall into, for example.
I asked Zocco why he continued to compete, even after all of the accolades. I should have known what his answer would be: “I want to win. I want to dominate. Plus, it’s good advertising.”
When he’s not winning, he’s diagnosing every homebrew malady there is.
“Nine times out of ten it’s a sanitation problem, which leads to infection, oxidation,” Zocco tossed off casually, as if he’d been asked this question nine times out of ten.
Among his accomplishments, Zocco has crafted recipes for several breweries, including Olde Burnside in East Hartford, Willimantic Brewing and Watch City in Massachusetts. He was quick to point out, however, that the master brewers do tweak his recipes a bit to give them their own touch.
He’s also written a slew of columns for beer publications like Zymurgy, Brew Your Own, Yankee Brew News and Ale Street News.
He still challenges himself, especially with lambics, which he said were the hardest to make. The best ones take three years to ferment, he explained.
Despite its small size, Zok’s has a ton of stuff. Besides the kits and raw ingredients like hops and yeast, it’s got fully constructed, three-tier brewing systems, chillers, 25 kinds of bottles and pretty much anything else you’d need to brew like the pros or – like me – on your stovetop.
The 65-year-old from Andover, after four years in the military, worked as a clinical chemist at a hospital, then worked for a majority of his career in a Veteran’s Administration hospital in Newington.
“Good brewers often have a chemistry or cooking background,” Zocco said, confirming my belief that I’m doomed as a homebrewer.
He did offer words of encouragement to me, as he does to many of his customers. “I tell them how easy it is,” he said. “It’s not rocket science.”
As far as future plans, Zocco said he plans to continue his travels around the world and that he’s working on a book. It’s tentatively titled The Purist, and it’s a work of philosophy.
Before I left, Zocco scolded me for pouring a bit too much of a hefeweizen into my tasting up. “You don’t want to pour too much,” he said. “You’ll get drunk too fast.”
Wow, I thought. Zocco pointed out a mistake I made. I felt like I belonged.
Until next time, sip well.
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