‘Something for everyone’ at Zed’s Beer in Marlton

“We make approachable craft beer,” says Geoff Bado, founder and brewer at Marlton’s Zed’s Beer. “Too many breweries brew for their beer geek friends and not for beer consumers, and we brew for beer consumers. When I get hit on Untappd, it’s because we haven’t done enough communication of what we do. People say we’re a ‘gateway’ craft brewery…

“…Yeah, we are, and we say that very, very proudly.”

Approachability is obvious in many of Zed’s beers—as many as 24 on tap at one time, with more in cans—ranging from stouts to cream ales to IPAs to white ales to sours to blends, seltzer, radlers and shandies (and more). But perhaps approachability is no more obvious than in the Muôi Tiêu Chanh Vietnamese Style Saison. Which is odd because, unless you’re a native speaker, you might hesitate to approach pronouncing it at the bar.

Bado and his wife and business partner, Lori White, tried a version of the beer at Le Triangle, a gastro-brewery in Paris’ 10th arrondissement, during Paris Beer Week. White speaks French and so they “convinced them we were brewers, we’re not just ugly Americans. We’re ugly American brewers,” Bado says.

They started talking about the flavors, which seemed to change upon each sip, and, slowly, information poured out. The beer—and much of its contents—came from the chef and brewer’s homeland of Vietnam.

“Like any good brewer—I’m the same way with every single brewer I meet—they told me exactly what’s in it, but brewers never share techniques,” Bado says. “So they said the grain bill is pale and there’s a little bit of wheat in there, and then we get salt from home, we get pepper from home. They have a different lime over there, and lemongrass is pretty much everywhere. Once we understood that’s what that was, then we brought that back here and started fooling around and playing with it.”

Zed’s version is brewed with a gallon of fresh lime as well as Motueka hops, which carry an aroma and flavor of tropical lime as well.

But here’s the thing about the Muôi Tiêu Chanh at Zed’s. All the lime is there on the first whiff and sip, backed by an exciting wallop of fresh-ground pepper. Then, on the very next sip, it’s gone. In its stead, vanilla. Farmhouse funk. Then on the third sip, sweet and smooth lemongrass. Put it down for a minute or two, and the lime is back. Then it’s gone. It’s chameleon beer that changes with every sip until the glass is empty. It’s a wild experience, and, critically, though each sip changes flavor, they build on one another for a singular, joyful, delicious experience that both a novice beer drinker and an enthusiast would be wise to seek out. That is, the flavor journey in that glass is approachable.

But, again, that’s the whole point.

“Most of our beers are 5.5% ABV and under,” Bado says. “I like balanced beers. … My West Coast IPA you would’ve had 15 years ago and said, ‘Oh, this is a hop bomb,’ whereas now it’s approachable.“

That approach has been part of Bado’s brewing philosophy from the beginning. Some two decades ago, White got Bado a homebrew kit as a gag Christmas gift. His first batch, like many people’s first foray into brewing, was terrible. So he went into a nearby homebrew shop to figure out what went wrong.

“I ​​went in with this plastic barrel and said, ‘This didn’t work,’” Bado says. “One of the pivotal moments in my life—I had no idea who this guy was—he didn’t make fun of me, he didn’t laugh at me… he said, ‘What were you trying to make?’ He wrote down a recipe off the top of his head. I followed it a T and made passable beer. It wasn’t great, but it was drinkable.”

Within five years, Bado had a fermentation tank, he was barreling, he was entering contests and then judging them. It all culminated in the opening of Zed’s in 2017. While Bado still hosts homebrew groups and is happy to pay it forward with advice to homebrewers and chat indefatigably about beer, the homebrew roots still show up in the lineup of beer at Zed’s—not necessarily in quality, but in approach. And, as it turns out, the groundwork he laid 20 years ago has placed him ahead of market trends.

“Whenever I looked at all my homebrew recipes over 20 years, a good 80% of them were 5.5% ABV and under. Those are the beers I enjoy, those are the beers that I like,” Bado says. “I’ve been in marketing and advertising for 20-plus years, so there was a lot of research that went into things, a lot of research that went into what craft beer is, what it is becoming and where it’s going. 

“Craft beer has to expand, and continuing to market solely to the beer geek is not a sustainable business model.”

The return to center—that is to say, to breweries having a lineup of beer in a variety of styles that aren’t just done for the sake of variety but because they’re, you know, good—has indeed been much publicized, and has been a long time coming. Brewers (from my conversations over the last decade, at least) have always known this, for instance sneaking in mass-market lagers for personal consumption into their walk-ins. Or, marketing their unique, well-made “unpopular” styles of beer with an eye toward a skeptical consumer, and unfortunately, ultimately, sliding it off the lineup when it fails to sell—a popular craft brewery recently slid off their flagship brown ale; what’s so wrong with a well-made, malty, crisp brown ale?

Indeed, consumers have always held massive sway over the contents of brewery lineups, and you see it when trends like sours, goses and seltzers force seismic changes in craft breweries. But by virtue of offering so many classic (Irish red or copper cream, anyone?) and unique (lemon ginger radler and Hungarian-style lager) beer styles, Zed’s is ready for the turns the market takes. And the so-called knock on it being a “gateway” brewery, well the flip side is that it means Zed’s exposes drinkers to different styles of beer, lessening the force of trends and drinker preferences.

“If you come in here, you bring your boyfriend, your mom, your dad, we’re gonna have those malt-forward beers, and then when cousin Tony comes in, he’ll have the IPA or the spritzer,” Bado says. “So there’s something for everyone. If that gets you into craft beer, fantastic, but I do believe that when you look and see nationwide, the turning back to center has already started and that will just continue.”

All of that is not to say that Bado and White are unwilling to roll with the trends or are too dogmatic about approachability that they won’t surprise you with flavor. They’ll have three—but usually no more than three—IPAs on tap because they make up so much of craft beer sales nationwide. And Bado was happy to lean into the seltzer boom, brewing a clean, solid base alcohol (which Bado likens to the minerality of Evian) and layering flavor, and color, atop it. 

Take the Prickly Pear Hibiscus SpritZ hard seltzer. Vibrant pink in color from the addition of copious amounts of hibiscus with a flavor somewhere between floral, watermelon and bubble gum, and none of the off-putting tang of mass-market seltzers, it’s absolute dynamite in a glass. (There’s also great flavor combinations in the vanilla pear cardamom, peach mango orange blossom and pomegranate pink peppercorn varieties.)

Timing also matters at Zed’s. Bado brews seasonal offerings that utilize the fruits of the greater Marlton region—blueberry, cranberry, peach beers that burst with local flavor; even a honey brown using honey from locally raised bees. 

Now, too, is the time the Pink Boots Society, which supports women in brewing, shares a recipe and women brewers across the country make a version of it. White runs the New Jersey chapter, and this year’s brew—a pale ale—will be available at Zed’s and other participating breweries shortly.

And because it’s early March and there’s plenty of great, approachable Irish beers that have for too long gone ignored, Zed’s will have a number of timely offerings. On St. Patty’s Day, you’ll be able to try Zed’s Dry Irish Stout, a Dublin porter, a Kilkenny-style Irish red ale, the Emerald Isle lager made with spirulina for a natural green color, blends of the above and a limited edition Shamrock stout, a blend of dry Irish stout with a house-made chocolate mint syrup. There’ll also be special 19-ounce mugs and flight paddles for sale.

Zed’s Beer. 19 N Maple Ave, Marlton.