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Good Beer Hunting

Oct 15, 2016

Today we’re going to talk about origin beers.  There’s increasing discussion in niche beer circles about the accuracy of some of our beer vernacular. What constitutes farmhouse ales, for example? Most leading farmhouse beer producers don’t operate a farm at all. Rather, they hold close to some of the prevailing traditions of those styles largely lost to history. And increasingly, farmhouse producers are located in urban environments, pulling extremely far away from their inspiration, but perhaps staying connected to methodology or year profiles that give them a way to talk about a different approach to brewing regardless of the disassociation.  But today we talk to someone who’s working hard to take another part of beer making back to an extreme niche tradition, and that’s Mad Fritz Brewing in Napa Valley. Owned and operated by Nile Zacherele, a professional vintner at David Arthur Vineyards on Pritchard Hill, Mad Fritz is an attempt to take the ingredients of beer back to an origin status, not unlike winemaking where the location, the soil, and the cultivation of the ingredients is both present—and local—to the production of the beverage.  To that end, Nile has convinced some locals farmers to grow barley for him, which he intends to floor-malt himself. He even sources water from local wells and reservoirs. He also barrel-ages or barrel-ferments all his beers, many of them on the paler side, which means they pick up wood character quickly.  I first learned of Nile’s beers when he sent a care-package some months back and I tasted through them with some good friends and colleagues here at the studio. We were curious—and sometimes downright perplexed—by what was happening in the bottle. These were very unusual beers in both concept and execution. Not to mention the details where were we found ourselves becoming engaged—a shift in water profile, a lingering grain quality, wood character that skewed our expectations.  So when I had the chance to visit recently on a short trip around the North Bay, I wasted little time in asking Nile a hundred different questions. Then we went up the hill to the vineyard to taste the grapes, the fermenting juice, and the finished wines that have serviced as a sort of inspiration point for brewing origin beers. And I’m happy to say I’m still curious and perplexed.