To visit one of the most compelling new breweries around, head to Napa’s wine country. Not far off the main drag in St. Helena, home to so many high-profile, big-budget wineries filled with tourists, you’ll find the largely unheralded and usually empty Mad Fritz Brewing.
Open for nearly a year, Mad Fritz is tucked away in an industrial section of town. Out front, there’s nothing more than a small paper sign on the glass door.
Given the superb quality of its barrel-aged beers and the fact that its beer club membership has a waiting list, it may seem surprising that Mad Fritz has no plans to get bigger or even busy. But this tiny operation is poised to make a major statement in California’s craft brew industry.
Mad Fritz is the dream of Nile Zacherle, a highly regarded winemaker with David Arthur Vineyards and Montagna Napa Valley. With the help of his wife, Whitney Fisher, who is also a winemaker, he spent years developing plans to brew first-rate beer with impeccable – and improbable – standards. Mad Fritz is named for the couple’s two children, Madeleine and Fritz.
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Zacherle goes about his work with a passion and an intellectual rigor that shines through the moment he starts talking about wine and beer, both the process of making and the joy of tasting them. Zacherle’s focus is ingredient-driven, including artisan, single-variety malts.
“Mad Fritz is the only brewery that actually tells you where the ingredients come from,” said Zacherle. “How many beers have you had where you look at the label and say, ‘Oh, I know where every one of these ingredients is from?’ You know where the brewery is, but 99.9 percent of the beer you drink, they’re using all the same sourcing. It kind of takes the personality out of the beer.”
Zacherle and Fisher have plenty of smarts to go along with their passion for making wine and beer. He has a degree in fermentation science from UC Davis and, in the 1990s, worked in quality control for Anderson Valley Brewing Co. He switched to winemaking and, after working at wineries in Australia and France, returned to the Napa Valley, where he’s worked in the wine industry since 2000. She earned a degree in molecular biology and American history at Princeton before shifting her focus to her family’s winery, Fisher Vineyards.
Most of Zacherle’s beers are classic styles with various twists and all are aged in barrels, including IPA, porter, imperial rye stout, pale lager and, yes, a blue corn pale ale made with locally grown Cascade hops and malted blue corn. His brewer’s notes for each beer are informative, entertaining and indicative of a brewery doing things its own way.
There is no bustling taproom and Zacherle seems almost averse to such common craft beer terminology as expansion, market share and distribution.
“The business model is to stay small and be on the leading edge of quality,” said Zacherle.
Based on the half-dozen beers I tasted during a recent visit, quality is the operative word. The beers have an elegance, nuance and complexity that sets Mad Fritz apart.
Sadly, you won’t find Mad Fritz in stores. The beer is on draft at only three restaurants, including the Michelin-rated Auberge du Soleil in Rutherford.
The majority of Mad Fritz beer is reserved for its exclusive membership, which is full at the moment and has a waiting list. Visits to the brewery are by appointment only and include a personal tasting with Zacherle, who offers his detailed perspectives and answers questions.
There is a limited supply of beer for sale on-site. Each 22-ounce bottle is $25 and features a porcelain swing top, along with a label showing the bottling date and barrel number. All the beers are suitable for aging. Zacherle recommends they be served in wine glasses or bowl-shaped glassware.
“We’re adding the transparency to the product and that artisan approach you might (associate) with winemaking,” Zacherle said, pouring us a beer. “This isn’t a recipe. If I give you my recipe, I don’t care. The recipe isn’t important – the raw materials are important.”
Those raw materials include everything from the barley to the barrels. “We’re paying more for our barley than most people would even consider. We haul in different waters from different wells (in Napa County) and add that element to the beer. Then we use barrels from the different wineries we work at and add that element as well.”
This brewery has the potential to do magical things, even if Zacherle has no aspirations to conquer the craft beer world. His beer is so good, so different and so interesting that it would be a shame if his approach does not resonate within the industry. Because he’s so willing to share his knowledge, it’s well worth a visit, whether you’re a beer enthusiast or a professional brewer.
Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099, @Blarob.