Mad River Brewing Company

By Kirby Bennett

Just southeast of the Redwood National Forest in California is a tiny town nestled amongst the lush green giants called Blue Lake. Driving on Interstate 299, one could easily pass by this tiny Humboldt County town, never knowing that Mad River Brewing Company (MRBC) was there. Do yourself a favor though, and don’t pass through. Take that turn and check out MRBC’s beautiful tasting room with their handcrafted custom bar, award winning beers, and friendly, knowledgeable staff.

In the tiny town of Blue Lake (population of 1,253), MRBC is the town’s second largest employer with 30 employees. MRBC not only drives a lot of tourism to the small town, but according to their Sales and Marketing Coordinator, Tera Spohr, they also have a “growing crowd of locals who are staying in Blue Lake and in turn putting their money right back into [the] community.”

Close California Ties

MRBC’s Brewmaster, Bob Smith, was an avid homebrewer in the late 70s and bought his homebrew supplies from a small supply shop that happened to be run by Ken Grossman, founder of Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. In 1989 Sierra Nevada expanded and sold its original brewing equipment to Bob, which he used to found MRBC. Officially opening in the winter of 1990, MRBC’s flagship beer, Steelhead Extra Pale Ale, was first to hit the market. In their first full year of sales, Mad River sold 1,500 barrels, twice as much as projected, with only 4,000 square feet of space to work with.

Three decades later, and now brewing 16,000 barrels a year, MRBC continues its “commitment of producing fine ales combining the most traditional brewing methods with an environmentally sound approach.” MRBC recycles all paper and metal, and gives spent grain to local farmers for feed. They also use an innovative waste water management method that includes a separation system in which nutrient rich waste is diverted into above ground holding tanks that are pumped into a tanker truck and hauled off by neighborhood dairymen to water the animals. The nutrients found in the water includes yeast from tank bottoms, trub from the kettle and whirlpool, and beer waste from dirty kegs.

MRBC’s Homebrewing Roots

True to its homebrewing roots, MRBC supports the local homebrew community in many ways. Bring in a sterilized Mason jar and they will fill it with some house yeast, or specialty yeast if it’s available, to get your carboy kicking! They also sell hops and grains to local homebrewers, and will even grind the grains if needed. If that weren’t enough, they offer up their tasting room as a meeting place for the local homebrewers guild, and host an AHA Brew Day event where homebrewers bring their equipment and do demonstrations for the public.

MRBC was named Small Brewing Company of the Year at the 2010 Great American Beer Festival (GABF), and has won many awards for their artisan ales. Steelhead Extra Pale Ale has taken two gold medals and one silver at the GABF in the golden/blonde ale category, as well as a bronze at the World Beer Cup. “Mostly we just love beer and enjoy sharing our craft with others,” said Spohr.

Mad River’s Beers

Steelhead Fine Ales
Steelhead Extra Pale Ale
Steelhead Double IPA
Steelhead Porter
Steelhead Extra Stout

Jamaica Brand Ales
Jamaica Red Ale
Jamaica Sunset IPA

John Barleycorn Barleywine
Double Dread Imperial Red Ale
Serious Madness Black Ale
The Mad Belgian Golden Ale

Kirby BennettKirby Bennett’s love of craft beer started in 2002 when she was living in Amsterdam and discovered an amazing bottleshop called De Bierkoning. A long ways now from sipping La Trappe on the canals, she is currently the Craft Beer Program intern for the Brewers Association. She is a Cicerone® Certified Beer Server, holds a BA in English, dabbles in homebrewing, and makes a mean quinoa salad. She hopes to continue her career somewhere in the distribution world, then someday open a sustainable beer bar in whatever city she decides to settle in!