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New Albion is New Again: North Bay's Seminal Microbrewery

New Albion Brewery was about 30 years ahead of its time, but brewmaster and visionary Jack McAuliffe is claiming his place in the spotlight at the Great American Beer Festival.

Although the brewing of non-distilled grain beverages, what we might call beer, is thousands of years old — possibly simultaneous with agriculture itself — the so-called craft beer movement in the U.S. is far younger. In fact, many say it started in mid-1970s, in a little town north of San Francisco called Sonoma.

Don't believe it? Sonoma-based New Albion is widely acknowledged as the first United States microbrewery of the modern era, which started when President Jimmy Carter signed a bill that loosened up laws on homemade alcoholic beverages.

Though the story is obviously complex, it's an interesting slice of North Bay history that is about to become even more well-known. Next week, at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver — the country's top annual beer event — the Boston Beer Co., maker or the Samuel Adams line, is launching a "rebrewed" New Albion Ale, a recreation of the seminal craft beer that Jack McAuliffe brewed in Sonoma from 1976-1982.

The beer will be served at special events during GABF, and become available nationwide beginning in January. New Albion Ale will be available in six packs with a suggested retail price of $7.99. All profits, according to Jim Koch, brewer and co-founder of Samuel Adams, will go directly to Jack McAuliffe.

McAuliffe grew up in from Fairfax County, Va., as the son of an FBI agent. He was a former Navy submarine mechanic who became a home-brew hobbyist following his service. As an engineering student at Cal State Hayward in the early 1970s, he visited Fritz Maytag's Anchor Brewing Co. in San Francisco.

"I thought, man, I know how to make beer, I can do this," he said in a rare interview published in All About Beer magazine in September 2011.

Though he had originally intended to open Barbary Coast Brewing in San Francisco, the city proved too expensive a proposition; he moved to Sonoma and rented a warehouse down on 8th St. East, gutted it, converted winemaking equipment and Pepsi-Cola tanks to a brewer's purpose, and held a grand opening in the summer of 1977.

Why Sonoma? "Because I lived there!" McAulifee told the interviewer for All About Beer, Julie Johnson. "But also, at that time," he added, "there was Alice Waters and her California cuisine restaurant. The wineries were starting to bloom, and commercial artisanal cheese-makers like the Marin French Cheese Co. By happenstance, I was in the right place."

Among the small but rapid community of beer fanatics, New Albion was an huge success. Among the visitors who came as if on pilgrimage to Sonoma, were Don Barkley (Mendocino Brewing Company), Ken Grossman (Sierra Nevada), and others who got the craft beer fever.

But in the marketplace, New Albion couldn't survive: its limited production (450 barrels annually) and distribution came up against the projected expenses of expansion, and even after optioning an old Victorian in Sonoma for a thousand-gallon brewery, McAuliffe couldn't get the financing, though he approached bank after bank. New Albion went bankrupt in 1982.

For years, he was a legend — oft cited, rarely seen.  Though he worked for a while at Mendocino Brewing Company, which had taken over his equipment, he soon moved back to the Bay Area, then to the Las Vegas area, then to San Antonio.

But just recently he's begun to regain some visibility, as when he attended the 2011 Craft Brewers Conference in San Francisco, and with the launch of a McAuliffe barleywine from Sierra Nevada later that year (as noted in Craft Beer.com), and the upcoming debut — or relaunch — of New Albion Ale at GABF.

After that CBC conference, McAuliffe and Jay Brooks, a Cotati beer writer and judge at next week's GABF, had lunch at Russian River Brewery in Healdsburg, where the original New Albion Brewery sign hangs over the bar. McAuliffe, with one arm still immobilized from a 2009 auto accident, climbed a ladder with a pen clenched between his teeth and autographed the sign.

"Jack's a really interesting character," said Brooks, who spent a few years living in Novato until he recently relocated to Cotati.

The next day McAuliffe, Brooks and Russian River's Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo went back to Sonoma to visit the original 8th St. East warehouses where New Albion was brewed 35 years earlier. See Brooks' videos with this article.

"Jack did something that more people could identify with," said Brooks, comparing New Albion to the revival of San Francisco's Anchor Brewery in 1969. Fritz Maytag was independently wealthy and took over a working brewery with a 70-year history.

"What Jack did was in many ways  more important, because the path he chose was something more people could follow," Brooks said.

Not only notable beer people such as Don Barkley, Ken Grossman, and Vinnie Cilurzo,  but Richard Norgrove (Bear Republic in Healdsburg), Brendan Moylan (Moylan's in Novato and Marin Brewing in Larkspur), Tony Magee (Petaluma's Lagunitas), Jeff Horvitz (Iron Springs in Fairfax), and most if not all of the 1,940 craft breweries who operated in the U.S. last year.

According to Boston Beer's Jim Koch, in a press release, New Albion Ale — brewed from the original pale ale recipe, with Koch and McAuliffe both taking part in the brewing — sounds pretty good.

New Albion Ale is a deep, golden beer brewed with American Cascade hops and a 2-row malt blend.  The Cascade hops, sourced from the Pacific Northwest, create a moderate hop bitterness and lingering citrus and floral notes, balanced by the upfront cereal character and sweet finish from the malt.

Sounds like a brew whose time has come. Again.

Jack R. October 12, 2012 at 12:15 PM
A nod should go to David Hummer, Stick Ware, and Al Nelson who founded Boulder Brewing Company in 1979 [renamed as Boulder Beer Co. in 1980]. BBC is the oldest surviving craft brewery and an component of the Boulder and national craft beer industry; 28,5k barrels of beer sold 2011
Timothy Knauer December 04, 2012 at 10:26 PM
Jack's most important contribution to craft brewing was probably that he managed, after a year of effort, to obtain a license to operate a new brewery, the first such since prohibition. No one wanted to be responsible for issuing something that hadn't been done for over fifty years. Jack wouldn't take no for an answer. Tim Knauer (Sonoma resident, 1973-1983)

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