As a winemaker, Nile Zacherle knows well the vital role ingredients play in the fermentation sciences.
Not just knowing what they are, but where they came from, will dictate how the winemaker approaches them, both in recipe and process, to produce the desired result.
The same is true of brewing, as viewed through Zacherle’s winemaker perspective.
“I think we’ve always known why [Mad Fritz is] brewing what we’re brewing — it’s about showcasing the origin and authenticity of the ingredients and the flavors that come with that…creating origin beer as kind of a sub-niche of craft beer. And to create more of a local culture with raw materials.”
That means controlling those raw materials down to their exact specifications, using locally sourced, organically grown hops and barley, which they actually malt on their very own malting floor at their brewery in St. Helena.
You might think, brewing in Napa Valley with a winemaking background, Zacherle’s facilities would reflect Napa’s opulence, with an expansive brewery floor featuring shiny copper kettles.
Au contrare. The tiny brewery betrays the fairly lofty prices Mad Fritz can command for a bottle.
“We’re a pretty old-school brewery,” says Zacherle. “There’s no cold box. There’s no real refrigeration other than for tanks. It goes to barrel, comes out of barrel, goes to a bright beer tank, [in] just the climate of the space. We don’t even have HVAC, which is a problem during the summer. It stays in the low 70s, but it’s not ideal.”
The facility’s fluctuating temperatures can thus dictate what types of beer can be brewed when.
“Certainly [during the winter] it’s lager time. Everything is great when it’s in barrel when it’s cold. Everything’s dropping into the 50-55º zone in barrel right now, and that’s just beautiful. If I had all the money in the world I’d have a barrel room that I could keep at 55º year round, with humidification, etc. That would be sweet.”
Another unique aspect of Mad Fritz’ process is aging. All beers — all of them — are aged in barrel, anywhere from two weeks for IPAs to up to four months for Belgian styles, although each beer will tell him when its ready.
“The beer has a dimension from the barrel, from the aging, from that extraction process, when it comes to stasis with the barrel itself,” says Zacherle. “The barrel element is subtle yet powerful, adding a unique dimension to the beers’ personality. There are certainly times when you taste a beer from barrel and think ‘This is coming out soon. It’s really hitting!’”
Although Zacherle prefers to leave them in barrel as long as possible, some beers just don’t measure up to expectations.
“There have been beers that have sat too long and just didn’t make the cut and need to be dumped out. This forces introspection of what you are doing and not [wanting to waste] any more time on something that doesn’t have the level of quality we expect in our beers. “
$ + $$ = $$$
So why make such labor-intensive beer, in such a small space, and charge a pretty penny for them?
“Ideally, it’s how to do you make better beer, not how to do cut costs. A lot of people think the inverse of that. ‘How do I make more money? I’ve got to shorten the brews so my labor [costs are] lower. If I can increase brewhouse efficiency, we can save on ingredients.’”
Zacherle avoids this model, which means not having something that could be considered a flagship.
“When you adhere to the most conventional way we as consumers have purchased and consumed our product, we’re like, ‘Well, [this brewery] makes X. I want X. I drink X.’ And they do Y, Z, and that becomes this kind of platform. ‘These are our beers.’ It’s easy for people to adhere to.
“But it also kind of gets boring, too. We have 40 different beers we make, and they’re all in rotation. We don’t sell a lot of doppelbock, but dammit, we’re brewing it. Because it’s just a great beer.”
“Ideally, it’s how to do you make better beer, not how to do cut costs.”Nile Zacherle, Mad Fritz Brewing Co.
Making such unique, ingredient-driven, small-batch beers in such an expensive labor market isn’t exactly kind to his bottom-line, either.
“That’s one of the things that’s different with our business is that, it’s just really expensive to be here,” says Zacherle. “Not only do we charge accordingly because of that, but we charge accordingly for the process and what we do with the raw materials. The zip code doesn’t help.
“Because of that, you have to pay salaries that are twice, three times what other communities might be paying their brewers or sales managers, because it just costs more to live here. And if you want a good sales person you gotta pay, otherwise you’re just not gonna get anybody good.”
“All the beers are named after Aesops Fables,” says Zacherle.
“The fables were something my wife thought of. I thought of [the brewery] name, named after our children, Madilyn and Fritz.
“Sometimes I get so seduced by the image itself, the Francis Barlow artwork. We acquired a 300-year-old printing of this fable book so we could expand the images a little bit more and get better resolution. It’s all public domain, it’s 300-, 400-years old.”
While sometimes it’s just a fable’s image that drives a name, the moral of the story can also say something about the beer itself.
“‘The Wind and Sun’ just really reflected our platform. The moral of the fable is gentle persuasion is more effective than brute force. The Sun slowly warming versus the Wind trying to blow the jacket off of the traveler.
“If you truly love beer, you need to open your mind a little. Experience other beers.”Nile Zacherle
“The beer speaks for itself, the raw materials speak for themselves. The gentle persuasion — complexity can come from simplicity. Those concepts are parallel.”
How about the moral of their Biere de Garde, “The Boy who Cried Wolf?”
“I love the image. But there’s a double-entendre with it. It was supposed to be a golden ale. When it looked basically brown and amber, I was like ‘Hey, something’s up.’
“I texted the maltster. ‘Hey, this is not pale malt. This is a brown malt.’ So I kind of cried wolf a little bit, but there was really a wolf there! So I turned it into a new beer. I’m going to use the same hops, and do everything I normally do. But I’m going to turn it into a Biere de Garde.”
Water is an Ingredient, too
Zacherle was kind enough to pour several beers during my visit. Nothing exhibited what kind of difference even one ingredient can make than a side-by-side tasting of The Donkey and Thistle pale lager. They were identical except for one thing — the water source. One was made with spring water from Angwin, the other from Lewelling Vineyards.
“The Angwin’s the softest spring water in Napa Valley,” Zacherle explains. “Lewelling’s one of the harder waters, and that’s literally a stone’s throw from here. The generalization with harder water is that it accentuates bitterness because it dries out the palate.”
I could immediately tell the difference. The beer made with Angwin water fanned out more evenly across the palate, with a longer finish. The Lewelling beer had a snappier, drier finish that readied the palate for whatever was next.
Zacherle continued. “In the Angwin, you can see how the softer water gives it a teddy-bear-hug. It’s just softer, rounder, easier. It’s like the harder water adds a bit more more edginess to it. A lot of people have said it’s almost like a pale ale, there’s that sharpness to it.”
Beer in Wine Country, or Wine in Beer Country?
Being a winemaker, Zacherle knows how to market for a wine-country audience. Mad Fritz bottles certainly reflect that, with stopper caps and labels that echo high-end Napa wines. Their uniqueness and terroir-driven backstories seem perfectly suited to wine-centric palates.
And world-class restaurants, including the famed French Laundry, have noticed and now feature Mad Fritz on their drink lists.
“I have not met Thomas Keller or consulted with him, I’ve been working with his sommeliers and chefs. I think we’re very much in concert with his approach. When you’re cheffing at that level, you’ve got to be thinking origin, sourcing, farmers. You have to go all the way to the ground and build up.
When you make the beverage lists from some the world’s top restaurants, there’s a danger of projecting an image of being inaccessible, something out of reach for the masses.
Bringing the Taps to the People
To alleviate that, and get Mad Fritz beers into the mouths of more people, Zacherle recently did what most Napa beverage makers do — opened a tasting room. (The brewery was previously open for visits by appointment only.) The Mad Fritz taproom opened just a few blocks away from the brewery in St. Helena in April 2018.
As opposed to most winery tasting palaces, Mad Fritz’ taproom is modest, almost sparse. A few tables are scattered around the smallish space, with mostly barren, cream-colored walls that feature a few printed photos, and of course the Frances Barlow artwork displayed prominently behind the bar. A small table with a turntable and several LPs adds a touch of hipness.
Zacherle explained, “The tap room has allowed us be a little bit more accessible. The by-appointment platform is a bit limiting to folks who just want a beer. You don’t want to turn those people away. They want a beer!”
The taproom is also a way to “show you what origin beer’s about. That’s an opportunity to teach someone about what we’re doing. They may not buy that much beer, but at least they’ve had a really cool experience. I think overall it’s been a good step.”
Offering their 11 taps in three-, five-, and 10-ounce pours allows patrons to customize their experience to try as many or as few beers as they like. Nearly everything is available for purchase, although they do from time to time pour membership-only bottlings.
Don’t bother looking for a chalkboard with the days’ tap selections. All beers are listed on an extensive tasting menu which, like their website and the labels themselves, offer a detailed description of what you’re drinking.
“I don’t really like the chalkboard thing because I don’t think there’s enough information there.” When ordering at a crowded bar, “you have to make a split-second decision and sometimes and you just order an IPA, or get the saison, or the blah-blah-blah. But is there anything else about the beer other than the IBUs and the alcohol that I’m going to get from you? Probably not. That’s kind of a bummer.”
Mad Fritz is looking at doing appointment-only tastings again in the future, hosted by Zacherle, for those seeking a more in-depth experience “so they could get kind of a more deeper dive into the raw materials and their impacts.”
Can’t Ignore the IPAs
Being an iconoclastic beer maker does not mean Zacherle ignores the market completely and just does what he wants. Mad Fritz usually has at least one or two IPAs available, including a gluten-free option.
“If you don’t have one [IPA] you’re not in business. You gotta have hoppy beers. I love hops, I just think there’s so many hoppy beers out there, [tasting here] is like ‘You’re at Mad Fritz! Take a break!’
“If you truly love beer, you need to open your mind a little. Experience other beers. That’s how I think of it. I truly love beer. There’s so many wonderful styles that are out there to enjoy.”