Road Trip: Mad River Brewing is Built On History

Photos © Brian Stechschulte

Empty mills, cement pilings in the waterways and inactive chimneys litter the landscape of Humboldt county. The logging industry used to be the lifeblood of the region, which is evident in the town of Blue Lake. Old buildings line the streets and the eastbound freeway almost tries to bypass the town, instead of going through it. It’s a shame really, because unless you know about Mad River Brewing, it’s easy to miss one of the best breweries in the country.

Don’t believe me? In 2010 they won so many awards at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) that I heard one person remark that they should have had a table on the stage to avoid walking up so many times. They brought home gold, silver and bronze medals for their beer along with Small Brewing Company and Small Brewing Company Brewer of the Year. These are big accomplishments from what I thought was a small brewery in a struggling town. I recently drove all the way up to Blue Lake to find out how much this brewery could blow me away.

I met head brewer Dylan Schatz early in the morning before the pub opened.  A quiet guy with a great smile, Schatz grew up around Blue Lake so I guess it’s only fitting that he looks the part of Paul Bunyan.  He started out on the bottling line in 1999. After working with the brewer and taking a UC Davis course he assumed the duties of head brewer in 2005.  By the way, the bottling line he worked on, which is still in use, goes back to the 1950’s and was owned by Anchor Brewing. Yes, the 50’s, I didn’t screw that up. I’d like to think some of that Anchor spirit rubbed off on him in a good way.

A piece of history, Sierra Nevada’s old brewing equipment.

Speaking of history, Mad River is also using Sierra Nevada’s original mash tun and kettle. It looks like crap from all the welding repairs and paint chips, but this historic piece of equipment is the heart of the Mad River brewery. It’s a 10 barrel system and they have 100 barrel fermenters. As you might expect, they’re brewing like crazy, five batches per day in some instances to supply roughly 29 states and Japan with beer. Maybe it’s because they have to work so damn hard that they keep winning medals.

The pub itself is a must-see. The beautiful bar was made by a company directly across the street that makes bars for places around the world.  Locals fill the place, and where else can you get GABF winning beer for $3.75 a pint.  A pint!  Not a 10oz pour, a pint.  If I had Mad River right down the street from me I’d never leave.

Despite being in Northern California, you might be surprised to know how hard it is to find Mad River beer on tap or in bottles around the Bay Area. The best luck I’ve had is at BevMo! where they usually have their black ale, Serious Madness, and their John Barleycorn Barleywine. Both of those are my favorites. Ask at your local beer store, and if they don’t have it ask them to track it down from a distributor. If not, you can always take a road trip!