The Beer Nut: California dreamin'

Norman Miller

The Mad River Brewing Company is a welcome reminder that not all the beers coming out of California are big, bold and hoppy.

Sure, this brewery in the small town of Blue Lake has a double India pale ale, but for the most part it relies on subtleties in its beers.

Many of the beers are based more on the English style of brewing with more subtle flavors rather than the often in-your-face, American style.

This is not a complaint about the American-style of brewing in many cases, I prefer it. But, it's good to have a variety.

"The West Coast has really gone off on the hops," said lead brewer Brian Brodkorb. "We're a little bit more toward an English style. We try to cover the range of beers. As a brewery, you try to cover the range as much as you can."

The brewery started in 1987, and its flagship beer is the Steelhead Extra Pale Ale.

Steelhead is a type of trout caught in the Mad River, which is about 400 feet from the brewery. And it's often the employees who are out there fishing.

"The steelheads run by us three or four times a year. Good fishing," Brodkorb said.

The Extra Pale Ale is a British-style of beer, similar to a less hoppy American pale ale.

"It's a little bit milder (than a pale ale)," Brodkorb said.

The Steelhead Scotch Porter is a twist on the tradition, Brodkorb said. It is made with both smoked malt and peat. He said it is particularly popular in the Midwest and the East Coast.

"It has always been a fabulous beer for us," he said. "It's a really good style. It's an in-between style. It's certainly not a stout. It's dark, but it's light (feeling). It's not heavy like a stout. It has a smoky character but not too much.

"We love the heck out of that beer," he continued. "It's one of my favorites."

Another British-style beer is the Steelhead Extra Stout. At 6.6 percent alcohol by volume, this isn't a lightweight stout, but it's not as heavy as a Russian Imperial Stout.

This is one of Mad River's standout beers. It's extremely smooth, has a coffee roastiness that's not overwhelming and has a slight hop background.

"It's fairly dry and it's opaque," said Brodkorb. "You can't see through it. That's really well-balanced. It's not too roasty, not too chalky."

Mad River's best beer is the Steelhead Double IPA.

This is not your typical West Coast double IPA where the hop bitterness and flavor take the leads, while the malt sweetness plays second fiddle, just adding enough balance to make the beer drinkable.

Rather, Mad River's double IPA is all about the malts. The hops are there, but here they share top billing with the sweet bready malts.

The double IPA is 8.6 percent ABV, but you can't taste the alcohol at all.

"It has a very strong malt character and hop balance," said Brodkorb. "The malts make it more palatable, too. You don't burn your palate on the hops. The alcohol is pretty well masked, which makes it very drinkable."

Also available from Mad River is its Jamaica line of beers, the red ale and the Sunset IPA.

The Jamaica line was originally created for a reggae festival.

"The red is a good malty red, but we use West Coast hops, so it has that American feel to it," said Brodkorb. "It has a very nice aroma with the caramel malts."

The Sunset IPA is more of a traditional West Coast IPA, using fruitier hops, he said.

Also, later this year, the brewery's one seasonal beer, John Barleycorn's Barley Wine, will hit the shelves.

"The citrus hops work very well, with a very heavy malt background," Brodkorb said.

The brewery produces about 12,000 barrels of beer a year and hopes to add some beers in the upcoming years.

"We definitely want to do more one-offs," he said. "There are so many beers out there, everybody is looking for something special and unique. It makes it very much worthwhile. We work really hard here."

Mad River just started distributing in Massachusetts. It is currently available at Marlborough Wine & Spirits, West Side Convenience in Marlborough, Kappy's Liquors in Sudbury, Nine East Wine Emporium in Natick, Julio's Liquors in Westborough, Fifth Avenue Liquors in Millis and Austin Liquors in Shrewsbury.

Belgian beer tasting

This Sunday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., Julio's Liquors in Westborough is holding a Belgian Beer Fest.

The event is free, and there will be more than 75 beers available to taste.

Some of the breweries to be represented include De Proef, Malhuer, Maredsous, Des Rocs, Kwak, Piraat and Floreffe.

Norman Miller is a MetroWest Daily News staff writer. For questions, comments, suggestions or recommendations, e-mail or call 508-626-3823. Check out the Beer Nut blog at