What makes a bar the best? Is it the biggest or smallest? A place for special occasions or a neighborhood hang? Mad Fox Brewing Co. doesn’t make you choose. The gorgeous, illuminated brewpub is often filled with families with children and young folks alike. Conversations hum all the way up to the high ceiling. The décor is wood and brass, and the menu, aside from some upscale entrees, is driven by the American bar-snack tradition. Pizzas come à la Napoli or New York, house-made soft pretzels pull apart just right, and the fried snacks—fries, onion rings, green tomatoes, and the mighty fried pickle—are hefty and al dente, transcending their role as a delivery system for dipping sauces.
The vast menu of classics, like the pub’s inviting feel, seems to promise something for everyone, and in these generic trappings a skeptic might see a would-be chain restaurant. But the embrace of comfortable pub culture shows that even today’s checkered-tablecloth, crap-on-the-wall chain restaurant draws on an American tradition worth celebrating. Mad Fox just does it right, with quality, seasonal ingredients and attention to detail. The pork belly basks in the oven for 12 hours before rolling in a coat of molasses and honey. The pickles (seriously, try the pickles) remain fat and juicy in their structurally sound sarcophagus of batter. There is indeed something for everyone.
Of course, in my world, “everyone” has to enjoy a good beer. Which brings us to the raison d’etre of Mad Fox: It brews some of the best beers you’ll find, locally or afar. Brewmaster Bill Madden, a local star who has manned tanks since 1996—first at Capitol City Brewing Co., then at Vintage 50 in Leesburg—has a very hard time making bad beer. He churns through style after style with aplomb, pouring pitch-perfect English bitters, Belgian goldens, stouts, porters, and pale ales, and a fleet of IPAs that each have a unique hop profile. His wheelhouse is the British tradition; Mad Fox’s buttery bitters and caramel-tinged mild ales take a strong man’s restraint to sip slowly. His golden Head Knocker is a light, honeyed take on the barleywine style (meaning it rings in at only 8 or 9 percent alcohol by volume). And every fall, longtime devotees flock to drink the award-winning Wee Heavy, Madden’s viscous scotch ale with a black-coffee tint and molasses palate.
If you’re drinking beer at the source, you’d be amiss not to drink it on cask. Six hand pumps crown the center of the pub’s long bar, making sure you don’t miss the point. But if Mad Fox only pours from three casks at a time, why six? Each cask has a backup, resting in refrigeration until it can be tapped. This is critical because delicate cask beer, which is served without any artificial carbonation (ever pump a keg? That’s what draft beer is like), should sit undisturbed for hours before tapping, allowing the yeast to settle at the bottom and ensuring that every pint “drops bright.” You don’t even realize the effort that goes into each glass—and that epitomizes the quiet, smooth way things are done at Mad Fox. They let you focus on the beer at hand.