The Rise and Fall of New Albion Brewing Led the Way for the American Craft Beer Revolution
This is an era when brewers are celebrated for innovative recipes and advancement in the field of beer, or simply for being themselves. In fact, many of the men and women behind the large and respected craft breweries are as familiar—in beer circles—as family members, or at least drinking buddies.
Eavesdrop at conventions and festivals and you’ll hear names like Sam (Dogfish Head Craft Brewery), Jim (Boston Beer Co.) and Garrett (The Brooklyn Brewery) dropped at regular intervals on every topic from a new style of beer to a recent television commercial.
Very few people, however, know Jack.
Looking at the shelves of most beer stores these days, it can be easy to forget that a little over 30 years ago there were few retail options aside from the offerings of large breweries that survived Prohibition. That was until John “Jack” McAuliffe came along and opened New Albion Brewing in Sonoma, California in 1976.
What he did was extraordinary for the time but frustratingly short lived. Before New Albion went belly up, however, McAuliffe was able to inspire other brewers to follow his lead and, in the process, create breweries that have become household names.
Among them is Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. of Chico, California, which is honoring McAuliffe’s contribution to American craft beer by releasing a barley wine bearing his name later this summer as part of their 30th anniversary series.
McAuliffe and Sierra Nevada founder Ken Grossman got together in late May for a brew day at the 100-barrel copper kettle brewery adjacent to Sierra Nevada’s brewpub in Chico.
“In my opinion, Jack started the most important failed brewery,” said Maureen Ogle, a historian and author of Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer. “He demonstrated that the new brewing model could work and despite the fact that it didn’t last long and failed spectacularly, his influence played a significant role for the first successful batch of microbrewers.”
McAuliffe has kept a low profile since leaving the brewing industry nearly 30 years ago, but recently has been speaking up about his role in history.
In a series of telephone conversations and emails along with a detailed conversation at Sierra Nevada, McAuliffe shared his story with John Holl and CraftBeer.com.
The Man Who Started a Revolution
Jack McAuliffe was born in Caracas, Venezuela, the son of a FBI agent stationed at the American embassy in South America during World War II.
The family later moved to Washington, D.C. and then several more times before McAuliffe signed up for the Navy and was sent to Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay for technical school. He was transferred to the U.S.S. Simon Lake, which went to Scotland in the late 1960s to service the submarines in Squadron 14.
Though he had his first beer as a teenager, it was in Scotland that McAuliffe first discovered quality beer. He was immediately taken with the diverse styles, deep flavor profiles and even the way beer was made.
When he returned home to the States, McAuliffe went to school on the G.I. Bill, he studied physics and began a career in engineering. He moved to Sonoma when a friend asked him to help with the construction of a house. When that project was completed three years later, McAuliffe was rooted in Sonoma and put his engineering mind and skills to work on building a brewery.
It was a continuing of his homebrewing, says McAuliffe, “just bigger equipment.”
He salvaged what he could from scrap yards. To find old dairy equipment was a plus, but most was built by hand. Though plentiful today, at that point in the mid-1970s small barrel brewing equipment simply was not available.
McAuliffe assembled his piecemeal gravity flow brewery in a former agriculture warehouse and lived in a loft above the brewery floor.
The name, New Albion, is rooted in British history. In the late 1500s, Sir Francis Drake was exploring the west coast of North America on his ship, the Golden Hinde, and landed on what is believed to now be northern California. He claimed the land for England in the 1500s and named it Nova Albion.
According to McAuliffe, 300 years after Drake landed, “an Englishman established the Albion Brewery at what is now known as the Hunter’s Point area of San Francisco because of an abundant spring at the location.” The last time he visited, McAuliffe said, the site was being used to produce bottled spring water.
“History is important in the brewing industry,” said McAuliffe. “But, if you don’t have a history you can just make one up.”
So New Albion Brewing was born. The brewery labels displayed the Golden Hinde departing the now San Francisco Bay area with the Golden Gate in the distance and Drake’s Bay off the starboard quarter in what is now Marin County.
“We made English style ale, porter and stout,” said McAuliffe. “The New Albion Brewing Company, get it? Name, logo and history, bang!”
New Albion was incorporated in October 1976 and brewing began the following year. McAuliffe hit the ground running and even started a trend that would be copied down the road with various ingredients: on special bottles of his pale ale, he inserted a whole hot pepper.
“It just hotted up the beer and was well received,” recalled McAuliffe. “No one had done that before.”
Well, no one had done what McAuliffe was doing at that moment for quite some time in American history. The public at large would be hard pressed to identify hops on sight and there was little common knowledge of how beer was made.
Yet the beers produced by McAuliffe’s tiny California brewery were well received and regularly brought visitors and beer enthusiasts to his door.
Among the pilgrims was a man who owned a homebrew supply store in Chico, California who wanted to learn more about what Jack McAuliffe was doing.
Looking at the brewery for the first time, Ken Grossman realized that it wasn’t “too much more sophisticated than my homebrewing equipment. I just saw a large homebrew set.”
Unlike brewery tours of today, Grossman recalled that McAuliffe did not offer free samples, charging visitors for the beer they drank.
“I don’t remember the visit,” said McAuliffe with a slight chuckle after hearing Grossman recall his trip to New Albion.
Among the other notable visitors was Michael Lewis, professor of brewing at the University of California Davis, who, up until the time McAuliffe opened his brewery, prepared his students for careers with large brewery operations like Anheuser-Busch.
The professor regularly brought his students by for visits, tours and tastings. What Lewis saw with McAuliffe “certainly changed my view of what the industry could be. I saw a new direction for the industry and a new direction for my program.”
These days, Lewis said, what he does in education is substantially devoted to craft brewing, rather than larger breweries.
“Jack was the beginning of that,” says Lewis.
Like so many other startup breweries that would come after him, however, McAuliffe was forced to close in late 1982, because he could not obtain financial backing. The country hit a rough economic patch in the late 1970s and early 1980s. When McAuliffe would walk into banks, business plan in hand, lenders would look at him funny.
“They just didn’t understand what I was doing, they couldn’t comprehend the idea of a small brewery,” he said. “It was like I arrived from Mars and I was speaking Martian.”
A New Life for an Old Brew
When McAuliffe shuttered New Albion, he transferred his equipment to Mendocino Brewing Company, then a fledgling brewpub 70 miles to the north of Sonoma. McAuliffe went along with his homebuilt tanks to set them up and even spent some time working at the brewery, but eventually left, saying later that it was difficult “to go from being captain to a deckhand.”
So, McAuliffe left brewing altogether, moving to the Bay area in California to work on control systems integration. He would eventually move to Nevada and later Texas.
Don Barkley, who first worked for McAuliffe at New Albion and then spent the majority of his career at Mendocino Brewing, had occasionally brewed New Albion beers for special events, but most—even the most diehard of craft beer drinkers—have never had the privilege of tasting a Jack McAuliffe beer. Until now.
When Grossman called McAuliffe late last year and asked him to visit Chico and brew a beer as part of Sierra Nevada’s 30th anniversary series, a number of styles and recipes were discussed. Eventually, Jack brought up the idea of reviving the Old Toe Sucker.
According to legend, back in the late 1970s the folks of New Albion and Anchor brewing would gather on the weekend closest to the summer solstice for what could loosely be called a “festival.”
“We had constant entertainment,” recalls McAuliffe “and all the food you could eat and all the beer you could drink. We cooked a 140 pound luau pig as the main course, and a lot of people brought potluck items.”
To mark the occasion, New Albion created what McAuliffe calls “a right good snortin’ barleywine” and set up two kegs for all to enjoy.
Mix the hot California summer sun and a heavy, higher-alcohol brew and strange things are bound to happen. One brewery employee—fingers are usually pointed across the table at each other at this point in the story between McAuliffe and Barkley—had his want of barleywine and was observed on hands and knees moving down a row of young women with opened toed shoes and sucking the dainty digits.
The beer became an instant hit and a summer classic, and earned the name Old Toe Sucker.
The summer soirées ended when New Albion closed, but the batch brewed in late May at Sierra Nevada is about as close a recipe as McAuliffe and Barkley could put together from memory.
According to Sierra Nevada spokesman Bill Manley, the beer known as Jack and Ken’s Ale contains two-row Pale, Crystal and roasted barley malts, Northern Brewer, Cascade, Cluster and Brewers Gold hops and the house ale yeast.
McAuliffe arrived the morning of the brew day wearing jeans and a short-sleeved blue oxford shirt. As he shared his story with a video crew hired by Sierra Nevada to document the brew day, McAuliffe sipped on a Kellerweis, an American style Hefeweizen, often nodding in approval after each sip.
The actual brewing was a largely ceremonial affair. After a morning of interviews, McAuliffe and Grossman walked into the brew house, each took a handle of a large white plastic pail filled with Brewers Gold hops and tipped the vegetation into a large copper brew kettle. Sierra Nevada’s capable brewing staff handed the majority of the actual brewing. After a sampling of the wort, which McAuliffe declared “very good,” they headed into the brewpub for lunch.Sierra Nevada paired with other craft-brewing luminaries, including Fritz Maytag of Anchor Brewing, Brewers Association President Charlie Papazian and respected beer writer Fred Eckhardt, to produce the Sierra 30 line. It will culminate later this fall with the release of an ale that combines oak-aged Bigfoot, Celebration Ale and Pale Ale. The brewery will also donate up to $10,000 to the charity of the guest brewer’s choosing. For his part, McAuliffe chose Texas Public Radio.
Sierra Nevada will produce about 1,000 barrels of the barleywine (compare that with the 450 annual barrels produced by New Albion in its heyday) to be on shelves-packaged in 750ml cage and cork bottles by mid-July, a few weeks after this year’s summer solstice.
True beer aficionados and historians alike will want to stock up on as many bottles as they can, since this is a beer that will likely age well. Save them for future summer solstices with friends, but wear closed-toed shoes.
McAuliffe says he is not an introspective person. When asked—in several different ways—if he thought about his place in history, or how the simple act of turning his extraordinary mechanical mind and love of homebrewing ignited a brewing renaissance, he just shrugs.
It’s not that he is dismissive of titles like “pioneer” – these days he just doesn’t dwell on his role in the craft beer movement.
Others, however, are more than happy to sing his praises.
“What Jack did was a bold move,” says Papazian. “People like heroes and he is one of them.”
During lunch at Sierra Nevada, McAuliffe asked a number of employees how long they had worked with the brewery. Most had been there for several years, no one had complaints and McAuliffe seemed pleased that Grossman, who drew inspiration from New Albion, had done so well and treated his employees with dignity.
Rarely does McAuliffe get bogged down with emotion. In fact, he barely changed his stoic expression when brewery representatives showed him the proposed label for the barleywine that will carry his name.
No, the only time he cracked a wide smile on that day in late May was when Grossman brought out original New Albion bottles—labels still intact. As he held the dusty brown longneck bottles, he seemed to go off into memory for a moment, coming back a little happier than he was before.
“I think that for a long time he tried to forget about it,” says Ogle. “It’s quite clear that it bothered him that no one seemed to know what role he played in [brewing history]. It’s been very gratifying to see the public acknowledgement. I think this has been a very happy time for him.”
A frequent contributor to the New York Times, John Holl travels the country chronicling American craft beer and the culture of drinking. A journalist since 1996, he has worked for the Star-Ledger of Newark, The Indianapolis Star and regularly writes for a number of magazines, newspapers and web sites.
Holl lives in New Jersey and is co-author of a soon-to-be published book on Indiana breweries. He may be reached at email@example.com or via Twitter @John_Holl.
Last Updated: June 9, 2010