St. Helena’s Mad Fritz appeals to discriminating craft brew tastes

The naming theme for St. Helena's Mad Fritz beer is creatures from Aesop's Fables. (Mad Fritz)


Mad Fritz is not exactly a working-man’s beer.

Brewed in a tiny corner of a small industrial park in St. Helena, bottles are corked with ceramic swing top stoppers, each is hand labeled with the date and lot number.

And it sells for $14–$17 on tap, or $22–$30 per 26.5 ounce bottle.

Mad Fritz can only be purchased through membership or on-site at the brewery with an appointment, or at one of the area’s fancier restaurants including The French Laundry, Auberge Du Soleil, Farmstead/Long Meadow Ranch, and in Sonoma at The Girl and the Fig, and at a swanky establishment in Beverly Hills.

If all of this sounds a little snooty, Mad Fritz owner Nile Zacherle is down-to-earth, and knows his product is not for everyone.

“It’s a beer for foodies and beer and wine connoisseurs, and people who are driven by flavor diversity,” he said.

There are only four or five breweries in Napa – compared to about 25 in Sonoma. Zacherle says he likes being off the beaten path and has no immediate plans for a storefront or taproom. With 22 or so different styles of beer, he and his small team have been brewing for about two years. In 2015 the company produced 112 barrels, and that’s expected to increase to 200 in 2016. The brews include various ales, a dopplebock lager, an imperial rye stout, and a porter

The team includes Zacherle’s wife, Whitney Fisher, who manages 75 acres of vineyards in Napa and Sonoma, and runs operations at the brewery. Mad Fritz is a mix of their two children’s names, Madeleine (Maddie) and Frederick (Fritz).

For Zacherle, who does not receive a salary, yet, it’s a labor of love. He has an extensive background in wine making, including his day job at David Arthur Vineyards, which allows him to maintain freedom to experiment with Mad Fritz.

“That’s helping us keep our feet on the ground, and not pushing us to do anything that’s going to compromise the soul and direction of the company. By growing slowly it allows us to constantly re-evaluate how to make the beer better, and build better relationships with our suppliers,” he said.

For years, Zacherle had been making beer in his garage, and started Mad Fritz with money left in his mother’s will.

“We didn’t make a fancy business plan and we didn’t go to any banks. We started with equipment but didn’t really know where it was going to go. It was just this tiny little system, it wasn’t like we were throwing hundreds of thousands of dollars at this. It’s kind of a shoebox operation,” he said. “But it’s not how much you make it’s what you make. We can’t take what we’re doing and apply it to a large scale brewery. You can’t get that kind of volume of these raw materials.”

The cost of the beer is reflected by the cost of the ingredients. The barley in Mad Fritz, for example, is two to four times what other brewers pay. The barley and wheat that goes into the beer is milled at the Bale Grist Mill, in Calistoga, using a 19th century stone.

Because it’s an expensive beer, Zacherle strives to educate his customers on the importance of the quality of ingredients, the authenticity that goes into the creation of the beer, and also how to enjoy it. The beer’s website includes information about storing the beer, what temperature to drink it at, and what type of glass to drink out of. (“We suggest you serve our beers in wine glasses or bowled glass ware. This will dissipate the carbonation some and allow the beer to breath as the flavors will continue to evolve in the glass and as it warms.”)

Zacherle keeps the brewing process simple to bring out the integrity or the distinctiveness of those raw materials.

“People might call them ‘SMaSH’ beers, or single malt single hops. Hopefully the dominant characters come through,” he said.

The beer is driven by the ingredients more so than by profit or distribution.

“I feel like most beers are driven more by recipe and process and branding. What really differentiates our product is that on the back of every bottle we tell you the origin of each ingredient,” Zacherle said. “It’s looking more at the nuance of beer versus a recipe driven product.”

Currently on tap at the Bistro & Bar and The Restaurant at Auberge Du Soleil, in Rutherford, is Mad Fritz’s Wind and the Sun Belgium Blonde Ale. At $17 for an 8-ounce pour it is the most expensive beer on the menu. It is also the only beer served here in a wine glass, due to the complexity and layers in the beer, said Wine Director Kris Margerum.

“We love the exclusivity. It’s the kind of product we’d hope to have. It’s something people never heard of,” he said. “It plays on the local, hand-crafted concept. The product is always top-notch and is very well received.”

There is some hesitation in the beer world to talk about beer the same way one would about wine, Zacherle says, but “I think the winefication of beer is great. It adds so much of an emphasis on the raw materials that make this product. Let’s talk about the flavors not the numbers.”

Consistency is not something that drives the product either. Zacherle’s process of brewing is trial and error, and letting the character of the beer evolve naturally. If a source of barley is different one day, or the yeast strain is from a different generation or vintage of hops, it will turn the product into a whole different beer. You may not get the same beer twice and that’s okay with him.

“We, as the customer, have gotten used to having expectations of wanting something completely consistent all the time. What’s fun in that? If you want consistent beer, if you want the exact same thing every time, don’t come here. You’re going to get a pretty similar thing, but it may have come from a different barrel,” he said.

Zacherle sources barley from Oregon and the East Coast, and rye from Colorado, though ultimately would like to have all ingredients locally sourced. Ninety percent of the organic hops they use come from Lake County. He is growing barley in Calistoga and encouraging other farmers to grow it as well.

Because the beer is ingredient driven, they are somewhat seasonal, although Zacherle avoids that term.

“I think by categorizing it, it forces us to make decisions that are defined by the market rather than defined by us. Don’t let the market control you. Be the beholder of what you are. Be your own thing versus trying to fit into the herd. Our thing is, we’re going in a different direction. You can either buy our completely overpriced product or you can go to the store and buy another product at a cheaper price. The demand that we have is a function of the quality of the product. If it’s not consistent, so what?” he said, adding, “But the product still has to be darned good.”