The metro DC beer scene has grown tremendously over the past half decade, as chronicled by this very website. New breweries, brewpubs, and beer bars have opened up and beer fans have turned into industry professionals. Among all of this change, however, there has long been an industry stalwart who has anchored this beer scene. This pillar of our community is Bill Madden, Executive Brewer and CEO at Mad Fox Brewing Company. Bill and his business partners (including the similarly well-respected Rick Garvin) opened up the Mad Fox Brewpub on Broad Street in East Falls Church in 2010 (we covered the opening and interviewed Bill shortly thereafter).
After brewing successfully in northern Virginia (with beers hitting some lucky DC bars with increasing frequency as the years went on) for five years, Mad Fox expanded into a Glover Park taproom. Both the Brewpub and the Taproom celebrate their anniversaries (six and one, respectively) next Saturday (July 23). Both parties will feature five rare beer releases (including Batches 100, 300, 500 and Crazy Ivan Imperial Stout, as well as a surprise draft to be announced). Admission is free, so be sure to stop by and check out some of their phenomenal beers at two locations.
Bill’s pedigree was impressive even before he opened Mad Fox, so let’s take a moment to review in case you’re unfamiliar. A graduate of UC-Davis’s storied Master Brewers Program, Bill got his start with Capitol City Brewing Company (then just at the Metro Center location). After designing the Shirlington location and running each of the various Capitol City Brewing Company satellites, he came to be the Executive Brewer for all of them and earning five GABF medals in the process. It was during this time that he found the Capitol City Oktoberfest that takes over Shirlington Village each fall. From there, Bill moved to other brewpubs, including the now-defunct Vintage 50, where he helped to found the annual (and massive) NOVA Brewfest (h/t to Holzbrew for the biographical info). Since opening Mad Fox, Bill has added three more GABF medals to his haul, including a second for his Kolsch, arguably his best known beer next to the Orange Whip IPA, which was perhaps the first homegrown whale in the area.
In advance of the double anniversary next weekend (July 23), I had the chance to ask Bill some questions via email. What follows below is a lightly edited transcript. Congratulations to Bill and the entire Mad Fox team on six great years of success; here’s to many more!
I view you as one of the patriarchs of the area craft beer scene. To what do you attribute your long personal success in the industry and then to what do you attribute Mad Fox's success as a brand/brewery?
Well, thanks, appreciate your view of me as one of the patriarchs very much, but it means I have managed to be around the longest. My personal success in the industry is due in part that I am fortunate enough to have a lovely wife who supports me, along with many good friends both in the industry and out who have been there for this life's beer journey.
For Mad Fox, it is the culmination of my 21 years in the industry along with a supportive team of business partners who have helped guide us through the pitfalls and highs of a business that have lead to our success as a brand and brewery.
You've seen the scene grow and change a lot, even in the last half decade. What have been some of the positives that have come out of all of this change? What mistakes do you see young breweries make, either that you managed to avoid or that you also made and learned from?
The positives have been all the growth and creative energy that has brought about some really great beer. The change has been great in terms of the education of the consumer where the question used to be, “What is your lightest?” Nowadays, folks know they like specific hops or are asking for sours etc.
The mistake I see being made these days is that so many brewers are making beers that are a mashup of too many beer styles that just do not work or confuse the consumer. Everyone is trying so hard to discover the next big thing and they are losing focus on just making great beer, [in my humble opinion].
After being open in Glover Park for a year, is there anything you would have done differently? What are the key differences between operating in DC and Virginia? Do you foresee another outpost in the future?
There are many things I would have done differently in hindsight. One would be to have just accepted the recommendations of the DC inspectors and gotten the place open earlier; two years of construction was very hard on the company. We are still trying to figure out the DC market and have discovered that we need to attract patrons from more than just the neighborhood by creating awareness and frequent, interesting events to attract folks.
The differences between operating in DC versus Virginia are vast in terms of what you can and cannot do just by the differences in the [DC] ABRA versus VABC code. I can do events in DC that would never be permitted by code alone, and I will just leave it at that.
I would like to see another outpost in the future, but I would like to take some time to get the current businesses working at their best first.
Much of Mad Fox's portfolio is generally fairly traditional stylistically. Are you thinking at all about staying fresh when the next generation of breweries is trying to make bigger, hoppier, sour-er beers? Or does that not really concern you? How does the brewing team decide when to buck tradition to make something like a barrel-aged Belgian-style?
This is always a concern, and staying fresh in the market is a challenge. I do not want to get defensive, but if Mad Fox is viewed as being fairly traditional stylistically, then we need to work on changing that.
When we opened six years ago, I got some real criticism for not having more IPAs and big beers, and we in turn developed more of those styles. Heck, we have four IPAs on tap right now. We have a session IPA made with oats in the New England style called State Theater VIPA; Broad Street IPA, a bigger traditional American IPA; Yakima Project IPA, a red IPA made with the new Idaho 7 hops; and our cult fave, Orange Whip IPA.
We did dabble in sours but the bugs to make sours can be a scary challenge so we are looking at kettle souring to keep the control. We are always tasting new products and discussions are constant in the brewery to buck tradition and yes, we have made a barrel-aged Belgian style beer recently in the red wine barrel aged Reynard Black Saison. That beer was well received; we need to make it again.
Much of the Mad Fox food menu takes pride in using local and sustainable products. Does this extend into the brewing side? Any plans for local ingredients or sustainable operations? Any feelings on the quality or availability of locally available inputs?
We do attempt to use as much local or sustainable products for our food service, so long as it makes sense. We are interested in trying to do that in the brewery, and we use local honey for our root beer and local figs for our cask porters in the fall. The local malt scene has not been able to keep up with our needs, and hop growers have disappointed us in the past, but we are still interested in trying to source local. The pumpkins for our Stingy Jack Pumpkin Saison came from Homestead Farms in Poolesville; I loaded up my truck in the field with those.
Do you have any plans to package and distribute?
We utilize a Solicitors License, and that is how you can find our beers at Nats Park and other fine beer establishments in DC. We also have distributor partners in Northern Virginia, with Virginia Eagle, and Richmond, with Hop House, for our draft products. We have bottled in the past but do it by hand, and so that is a true labor of love. We are looking into other avenues to package down the road, we shall see what makes sense.
Looking back on the past six years for Mad Fox, what are some of the highlights/your proudest memories?
Getting Falls Church open was one of the greatest highlights. So much goes into creating a brewpub like Mad Fox. The GABF awards in the first couple of years were great, and then having the Mayor and City Council of Falls Church recognize Mad Fox Brewing Company on our 5th year anniversary is a great memory. Another was being able to spend 10 bucks to purchase my own beer at a baseball game, precious.
What are your feelings about the "craft" segment generally right now? You've been brewing high-quality beers your entire career, and now you have a lot of company in doing so. How are you and your compatriots doing; what could you be doing better?
The competition is getting tough. I am starting to see the cracks of a mature business coming forth with cease and desist notices and signs that some brewers are feeling the effects of there only being so many consumer beer money to go around. The continued growth of the beer industry is not sustainable with only so much shelf space or faucets available.
I got an education in brewing science, and creating quality beer is paramount in our business. There are a number of folks getting into this business that are not taking the time to study what they are doing, and I do not mean going to school necessarily. There are some great self-taught brewers I know. What I am getting at here is there are some folks who have little to no professional experience opening breweries, and they are practicing on their customers until they possibly get it right. This is a concern: too many breweries opening and not enough properly trained brewers.
Predict the future for us. When someone other than me from DCBeer sits down with you for your 10 or 12 year anniversary, what will have changed about Mad Fox and the beer scene? What will have stayed the same?
What I hope for is that Mad Fox will have changed with the market and will be making beer and food that continues to be relevant.
I see a mature market that cannot sustain continued big, alcoholic beers and there will be a desire for more session-able beer with full flavor. I do not see IPAs as a fad, but the hop growers will be providing us with new varietals that will have incredible flavors and aromas, what that will be I could not possibly predict. There will be continued development of new styles and historical beer products along with the Great American Beer Festival doubling the 96 beer style categories they currently have. Cheers!
Thanks again to Bill for taking the time to chat with us. Be sure to visit the anniversary parties on July 23, either at the flagship Brewpub in East Falls Church or the Taproom in Glover Park.