By: James Knight
Does a patch of earth in the Napa Valley still have terroir when there are no grapes planted on it? It sure does, says winemaker and brewer Nile Zacherle—at least when it's planted with barley for making beer.
For Zacherle and a few other brewers, the last frontier in craft beer is as surprising as it is bare-bones: malted barley, the very foundation of beer. And they're helping to create a whole new niche industry, in estate craft malting.
In a field of dry grass just off the Silverado Trail, Zacherle crouches to pluck a head of barley off a stalk. He rubs it between his fingers, releasing a few kernels, and chews on the grain. Still pretty good, he says. He just might try a second harvest.
From the road, this four-and-a-half-acre field looks like any other. A portion that was harvested several weeks ago looks roughly mown, and the unharvested barley bends seed heads two feet high. But it's the site of something quite new and rare: Zacherle, who owns Mad Fritz microbrewery with his wife, Whitney Fisher of Fisher Vineyards, plans to make an estate-grown, single-varietal beer.
To malt the barley, a process of partial sprouting and drying that prepares the grain for brewing, Mad Fritz is purchasing a floor malting machine for the tiny St. Helena brewery.
Meanwhile, Zacherle purchases malt from small-scale operations in Colorado, Oregon and Nevada, often dealing with the farmers directly. Even in the fast-growing, experimental world of craft brewing, it's a radically different approach. But Zacherle feels that people will "get it" when tasting his beer. "You taste enough of these beers, and it's just like wine," he says. "It's no different. It's just that nobody thinks about it."
What nobody thinks about is where their grain comes from. Most brewers buy malt from just a few mega-suppliers, called maltsters. They differentiate their beers by secret recipes of roasted malts, hop varieties and other ingredients. But Mad Fritz prints the recipe right on the label. "Because, like wine, it's not about the recipe anymore," Zacherle explains. "It's about the raw materials and where they come from."
Seth Klann grows some of those raw materials in the high desert of Oregon. Klann, who shares the title of owner, farmer and maltster at Mecca Grade Estate Malt with his father, just started malting estate-grown barley in January of this year.
"We're the only craft-malt house that is sourcing all of our grain from ourselves on our farm," Klann says. "It's kind of like an estate vineyard and winery in that sense. And that's what we're modeling it after."
Previously, the Klanns grew wheat on their 1,000-acre farm. Now they grow a variety of barley called Full Pint. Developed by Oregon State University 20 years ago, it's loaded with flavor.
Mecca Grade can't compete with the big maltsters on price. "So we have to offer a really unique product," says Klann, "that focuses on the terroir of Central Oregon."
There's that word again. Indeed, Mad Fritz beers sell for $25 per 780ml bottle. How does Zacherle respond to someone who says that's just a little too precious for beer?
"Well, I think they need to sit down," he says, "and taste these beers."
For more info, visit madfritz.com.