To spread the not-so-crazy idea that truly local beer should be made from locally grown barley and hops, Napa brewer Mad Fritz is preparing to open a small new taproom in downtown St. Helena. Following a “mushy soft opening” in April, visitors can expect 11 taps of very, very local beer at 1282 B Vidovich Lane, just across from the street from the Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch.
If Mad Fritz’s philosophy sounds a lot like the terroir dogma of a couple of Napa vintners, that’s because owners Nile Zacherle and Whitney Fisher are deeply rooted in the local wine world. Fisher is the winemaker at her family’s Fisher Vineyards, and manages 75 planted acres of vineyards in Napa and Sonoma. Zacherle is the head winemaker at David Arthur, but began his career in brewing at Anderson Valley Brewing Company in the ‘90s. They started Mad Fritz, named after their children Madeline and Frederick, in 2012, and by 2014, they were malting, and in some cases growing, their own barley, drying locally grown hops, and brewing Mad Fritz beer in an industrial park right off St. Helena’s main drag. By most beer standards, that is, in fact, somewhat crazy.
That’s because, as it stands now, local beer isn’t so local at all — more just locally brewed, or so Zacherle argues. When small beer companies like his former employer make beer, they’re typically assembling it from commodity ingredients, hops and malt from all over the country or the world. A lot of the time, it’s from the same suppliers used by mega breweries.
“In general, everyone’s maneuvering the same ingredients around differently,” says Zacherle. Their emphasis is on process — not ingredients. “When we started Mad Fritz, our whole thinking was, let’s start with the source.”
A completely single-origin beer, as Zacherle classifies it, with ingredients all from the same county, took about three years of work to achieve. Now he’s brewed three, one for Mendocino, one for Napa, and one for Sonoma. On an almost compulsively transparent label, Mad Fritz Terroir Series Sonoma Ale lists its ingredients down to the water source: Cascade hops (from Capricopia-Occidental/Green Valley of Russian River), Pinnacle 2 Row Barley (Healdsburg-Grown and Malted at their malt house next door to brewery), Kolsch style yeast, and H20 from Fisher winery (the Sonoma side, to be precise).
So far, the brewery has developed a passionate following through a bottle membership program, which boasts 500 members and a serious waitlist. Some Mad Fritz beers can also be found at bars and in Napa restaurants, and tastings at the brewery are available by appointment.
But with a centrally located taproom that customers can just stumble into, Zacherle hopes to convert more drinkers to his philosophy of truly local beer. That could create a feedback loop, fueling more investment in local hop and barley farmers. ”It’s about the communities and where these products come from,” says Zacherle. When it opens, the new taproom will be “somewhat hosted and experiential,” not unlike a wine tasting, with beer flights to taste and vinyl supplying the soundtrack. Patrons will even be able to grab a bite next door from the Bruschetteria Food Truck at the Clif Family winery’s tasting room.