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Creating 'liquid art' at St. Helena's Mad Fritz Brewing

  • 4 min to read
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Serving eleven unique Napa Valley beers at the Mad Fritz Brewing tap room in St. Helena

Each batch of Mad Fritz is as unique as the ingredients and the recipes that Nile Zacherle has mastered. Each bottle is labeled with those ingredients, the reference to the ingredient sources, as well as some of the most imaginative art ever to grace a beer label. The label art is connected to different Aesop fables.

Nile Zacherle, co-owner of Mad Fritz Brewing in St. Helena, was in motion once again.

He moved from a small open top stainless tank — almost careening off the small ladder upon which he stood — to a faucet where the water for his mash was being pre-heated to its prescribed temperature. Watching the energy he was exhibiting in the task of starting a mash was an initiation into Zacherle’s enthusiasm for his “liquid art” of brewing.

Mashing is a process of hydrating malted barley or other grain by steeping it in hot water. The hot water activates the malt enzymes in the grain, which in turn converts the grain starches into fermentable sugars. But the temperature of the water seemed to be of particular importance to Zacherle, as too hot could be detrimental.

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Nile Zacherle pushes down the mash at Mad Fritz Brewing in St. Helena

Watching the energy he was exhibiting in the task of starting a mash was an initiation into Zacherle’s enthusiasm for his “liquid art” at Mad Fritz Brewing in St. Helena.

As soon as the temperature was perfect, Zacherle zoomed back to the tanks where he opened the hose and started stirring down the mash as the water rose. It was as though he were multiple people: one at the faucet and the other at the tank, with perhaps a third smelling the mash as its aroma floated up into the room. He would stir the mash down, sniff, and then careen off again to the wall faucet. A moment later he was cupping his hands lovingly into a bin of malted barley, talking about the source of the malted barley. He held up its bag. It was Mecca Grade Estate Malt from Central Oregon.

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Using local sources to make a "Single Origin" beer at Mad Fritz Brewing in the Napa Valley

Wherever possible, Nile Zacherle of Mad Fritz Brewing said he uses local ingredients. For instance, Mad Fritz grows some of its own barley in Calistoga. 

Zacherle said that Mad Fritz Brewing focuses primarily upon creating unique brews by using the precise knowledge of the sources of its ingredients and materials.

For instance, the first thing a brewer needs to know is the general chemistry of brewing water. And so Zacherle uses water sourced from local reservoirs, artesian springs and aquifers in the Napa Valley.

There was a large white vat of this sourced water in one corner of the brew house with the label “David Arthur” posted on its side. Zacherle said it was from the David Arthur Estate at the top of Pritchard Hill on the Eastern side of the valley where he is also the estate’s winemaker. There were other vats with other labels, and a web of hoses leading from them down to the faucet where they would be heated.

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Using locally grown Indian corn at Napa Valley's Mad Fritz beer

Traditionally, malt barley is used to make beer, but Nile Zacherle said he's also working with recipes using malted corn. These dark kernels are sprouted Indian corn, grown locally.

Wherever possible, Zacherle said, he uses local ingredients. For instance, Mad Fritz grows some of its own barley in Calistoga.

In the brewery’s Malting Floor, the grains are germinated and then toasted. The hops the brewery uses have been grown by locals throughout the Napa and Sonoma valleys, and Zacherle showed off a freezer filled with vacuum-packed, sealed plastic bags, each from a different local source.

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At Napa Valley's Mad Fritz Brewing, locally grown hops are stored in freezer bags

Nile Zacherle shows off a freezer filled with vacuum-packed sealed plastic bags of locally grown hops, each from a different local source. The hops are used to flavor Mad Fritz beer.

This focus on the origins of ingredients and materials is one key to understanding Zacherle’s brewing philosophy: That a local beer should be the representation of an entire community’s endeavors. And at Mad Fritz, that includes everything from the water and other ingredients to the physical wine barrels and stainless tanks used in Zacherle’s processes.

Zacherle himself is as unique as the beers he so lovingly creates. He said he started out to be an artist in college at UC Santa Cruz, with a love of plein air painting in watercolor. He said he liked the speed by which watercolors could bring a personal experience with a landscape into clarity. How he got into brewing was somewhat unique as well.

He and his father had already started brewing as a hobby when he was still in high school. “And when I was in college, I was still brewing.” At some point early on he said he realized that his love of brewing beer was taking over, and he quickly transferred to UC Davis. There Zacherle received a Bachelor of Science degree in Fermentation Science in 1997. By that time he had already been through the Master Brewing Program at UCD, and had become an associate member of the Institute of Brewing.

At first he found a job at Anderson Valley Brewing Co. in Boonville. The operation was small and he began to appreciate what was truly “craft” about the operation. “Like brew houses in the past,” he says, “there was a real human element to it.”

He left Anderson Valley for wine making at Navarro Vineyards, and then worked at a number of wineries in the U.S. and abroad. In 2008, he came on as head winemaker at David Arthur. He married another winemaker, Whitney Fisher of Fisher Vineyards.

Clearly, however, beer seemed to be in Zacharle’s blood, and so in 2014 he and Fisher started Mad Fritz Brewing. It was his opportunity toward making beer again on his own terms.

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The Mad Fritz tap room is serving "Single Origin" beers of the Napa Valley

Nile Zacherle, co-owner of Mad Fritz Brewing, offers several glasses of his unique beers in the company's St. Helena tap room.

They found a small space for the brewery in an industrial building off of Lafata and began making what Zacherle likes to call “liquid art”: highly unique and flavorful beers of various styles using trusted single-origin and local-origin ingredients.

Each batch of Mad Fritz is as unique as the ingredients and the recipes that Zacherle has mastered. Each bottle is labeled with those ingredients, the reference to the ingredient sources, as well as some of the most imaginative art ever to grace a beer label. The label art is connected to different Aesop fables.

In May, Zacherle opened a Mad Fritz tap room at 1282B Vidovich Ave. in St. Helena behind Clif Family Winery. It’s a place where Zacherle envisions local folks dropping in, sampling the different beers served, and perhaps hanging out while listening to music.

Of course, the only other thing one might want to know is where the name Mad Fritz came from. It’s not a reference to Zacherle himself — though his energy and enthusiasm for his art of brewing is certainly uproarious. It’s a combination of the names of Zacherle’s and Fisher’s two children: Madeline and Fritz.

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Reporter

Tom Stockwell is currently a staff writer for the St. Helena Star. He is an author of fiction and non-fiction books and has been a working journalist for a variety of technical publications as well as a consultant for numerous wineries in the Napa Valley.