Mad Fox Brewing Company knows better than most how bittersweet being a victim of its own success is. The brewpub was the tip of the craft beer spear regionally in 2010, but closed for good in July due to increased competition both in the industry and locally in the City of Falls Church in large part because of the innovation it ushered in.
“Thank God for Bill Madden. He was the pioneer,” Frank Kuhns, owner of Settle Down Easy Brewing Company just outside City limits, said. “If it wasn’t for [Mad Fox owner] Bill [Madden] doing what we did, guys like Caboose [Brewing Company] and the rest of us wouldn’t be able to open up.”
“Yeah, we were pioneers,” Madden told the News-Press separately, and in a more subdued manner. “We were on top of the next craft brew wave, building a brewery before anyone was thinking about it. Most who were around had been for a while, such as Gordon Biersch and Legends Brewing Co. We were one of the only breweries opening up at that time.”
Heading into the 21st century’s second decade, breweries and Virginia were on icy terms. According to the Commonwealth of Virginia, only 40 breweries were in operation by 2012. And few of those were in major metropolitan areas.
It’s what made Mad Fox’s foray into the brewpub model — which was Madden’s specialty after working in Washington, D.C.’s Capitol City Brewing Co., among others, throughout his 25 career — so daring. That bravery was rewarded by customers coming from the far reaches of D.C.’s ecosystem out in Centreville or Reston for weekend visits to Mad Fox.
But 2012 was also the turning point for breweries. Virginia’s passage of SB 604 allowed breweries to serve their own beer on-site as well as sell them at retail locations in closed containers. Prior to that, establishments that brewed their own beer weren’t allowed to serve a pint unless there was a food component involved, according to Madden.
What followed was a 468-percent explosion in breweries statewide from 2012 to 2016, with more than 200 breweries operating throughout Virginia. Other inhibitors to opening breweries started to come down from there.
“Brewery licensing has changed dramatically in the last 20 years,” Brian Reinoehl, a partner at the City’s microbrewery Audacious Aleworks said. “A brewery license used to cost somewhere around five-figures, and then it dropped down to four-figures and now its around $500. The barrier to entry is next to nothing.”
Madden’s own tree of brewers and business people he helped cultivate took advantage of the legal sea changes. Mad Fox brewer Charlie Buettner moved on to become the head brewer at Lorton’s Fair Winds Brewing Company. Randy Barnett, who was one of the original minds behind Mad Fox and a restaurant savant, also moved on to a new opportunity. The flight of talent didn’t hurt Madden in the short-term, but it contributed to the competitive landscape popping up around him.
It’s something that Madden admits he would’ve changed if he had the good fortune of SB 604 passing in the brewpub’s planning phase.
The farm-to-table concept employed at Mad Fox struggled to keep pace with demand for food truck eating at breweries. Patrons also want the romance of being “in production mode,” according to Kuhns, and Mad Fox’s polished aesthetic likely had customers look elsewhere for their brewery fix. Couple those factors with an explosion of unique dining options in Falls Church — Madden noted six new restaurants opened up within City limits last year alone, not to mention direct competitors in Audacious Aleworks and Settle Down Easy — and suddenly Mad Fox’s business model was looking more likely to become a financial albatross than a nifty, but necessary, disguise for a brewery.
An interaction with a regular at Mad Fox in early 2019 confirmed to Madden the state of his brewpub.
“‘What a great time to be in Falls Church. There are so many choices in restaurants. When you guys opened, there was only this much; now I can go to a new restaurant every night,’” Madden recounted the customer saying, before adding himself. “It’s hard to take that in as a business owner because you put your heart and soul into this, but I saw what was happening in the industry and the City.”
Madden’s move now is to do some consulting work for fellow brewers, continuing the fraternal tradition in the business’ culture (for the right price). And even an insider like him has no knowledge of who may be interested in the Mad Fox space, though he suggests that Delaware’s Iron Hill Brewing & Restaurant would fit the mold. He’s just hopeful that the good experiences customers and employees had at Mad Fox will be remembered fondly, too.
But Mad Fox’s influence already lives on outside of its old space on West Broad St. Audacious’ partner Mike Frizzell commented that it’s hard to know if they contribute to a craft beer culture because they’re just living it — to him, people simply love craft beer in Falls Church. Chances are Mad Fox played a big role in that.