Last week a latch popped on the main mash tun at Marz Community Brewing, sending water, wheat, and oats cascading all over the floor. What was intended to become an IPA overwhelmed the drainage system and “it just halted the day,” says Joe Guzzo. “Anyone who says that brewing is not a glorified janitorial occupation doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”
Guzzo doesn’t make beer at Marz, and he’s not a janitor either, but his job as the Bridgeport brewery’s nonalcoholic brewmaster does involve the occasional mishap. The cleanup interrupted his plan for the day, which involved, in part, some R&D on a small batch of sparkling water that incorporates, among other things, a dose of Japanese oyster powder he picked up on a recent visit to Rare Tea Cellar.
“What’s that taste like?” I wondered well after the spill was contained.
“Huge upfront brine with an incredibly pure oyster flavor,” he texted back. “Funky without being overbearing. Surprisingly approachable.”
In addition to its prodigious malted output, Marz has plunged into the nonalcoholic beverage arena over the last year, canning and bottling shrubs, kombuchas, waters, coffees, and other intoxicating—but alcohol free—beverages, such as a sparkling yerba mate and a delicately floral CBD-spiked seltzer with seven different botanicals that makes your favorite La Croix flavor taste like fizzy hand lotion.
Guzzo, a former EPA geologist, has been behind every one of them. “It was just a fun thing that was happening on the side,” he says. “We enjoy beer, but we also all drink seltzer, and that was just something that was pretty easy to do.” But eventually talk of a bubble in the brewing industry led to a more concerted effort to diversify and make drinks that appeal to the health conscious while being every bit as complex, nuanced, and, often, experimental as the beer.
Guzzo’s mother ran a catering operation in Colorado, where he grew up, and a love for cooking stayed with him long after he graduated from NIU and began conducting air and water tests for the feds on remote field trips across the rust belt.
“I would get kind of homesick just from being on the road,” he says. “It was a huge thing just going into the local specialty food store and perusing for no reason. I didn’t even have a kitchen in my hotel room. Just putting my headphones on and strolling through grocery stores is one of my favorite pastimes.”
He was laid off in 2015, a trickle-down effect of federal budget sequestration, and like most suddenly liberated cooks who want to steer clear of professional kitchens, he started an Instagram account, @not.junk.food, documenting his passion. “It started turning into an educational thing. I have all these friends who love food who didn’t know how to cook for themselves. I was just, ‘Here are all these little tips and tricks that I can share.'”
This led to pop-ups at the quarterly parties he and his roommates threw at the 5,000-square-foot art space where they live, and where he cooked hundreds of servings of lumpia, Chengdu-style dumplings, fried rice, and five-spice tofu larb. Private dinners and remote pop-ups followed and continue.
About two and a half years ago he started bartending at Marz, but also gradually spending more time in the basement working on small-batch, booze-free experiments, applying the scientific method he’d trained for on cold-brew coffees, mango-hibiscus-cardamom shrubs, and raspberry-rhubarb CBD elixirs.
This period also covered his early introductions to the janitorial aspect of zymurgy. “I’ve gotten covered from head to toe in guava,” he says. But “most of the time when I thought something was gonna be absolutely terrible, those are the best things I’ve made.”
Eventually six draft lines in the tap room were dedicated to Guzzo’s most successful concoctions, and they formed the foundation of the cans and bottle they’re releasing today. Marz Mate is a lightly lemony, sparkling expression of the supercaffeinated South American herbal tea yerba mate. Flower Power is a seltzer flavored with chamomile, heather tips, grapefruit, hibiscus, bergamot, gentian, and lemon, charged with 20 milligrams of hemp-derived CBD. Outre Kombucha is a single-origin jade oolong tea fermented for 20 days in 59-gallon new oak barrels. The 12-ounce can of Marz Coffee is a fruit-forward medium-roast bourbon bean sourced from a single El Salvadoran farmer, roasted at Bridgeport Coffee, and impregnated with a five-milliliter shot of nitrogen that expels the oxygen but when shaken produces the kind of smooth body and creamy head you’d enjoy in a good stout. Another coffee, Tokyo Drift, is on deck, dosed with 30 milligrams of CBD and brewed from a bean fermented in its own fruit, yielding funk and bright acidity.
For all of this variety, there’s a common denominator to Guzzo’s palate. He creates everything with an instinctive restraint on sweetness that highlights the interesting flavors he’s working with.
“I think there’s a lot of beverages in the general market that use sweetness as a crutch,” he says. “You can really cover up a lot of things and also just imbalance entire beverages. Not everything you eat and drink should give you instant gratification. I don’t want to sacrifice complexity and depth by overpowering it with something like sugar.”
Sweetness won’t get in the way of the oyster powder either, which he’s infused in a sparkling yuzu-flavored heirloom tomato water that he’s planning to pour along with the rest of Marz’s nonalcoholic offerings and some surprises at this Saturday’s Liquid Dreams Festival, celebrating the brewery’s fifth anniversary.
“I really try to take cooking and the culinary world into the beverage world,” he says. “Anybody can take fruit juice and carbonate it, but not everybody can reimagine what it means to have a tasty nonalcoholic beverage that can be challenging in the way food can be challenging.” v