Written by Jay R. Brooks for the Bay Area News Group and mercurynews.com
When you look at the pioneers of the craft beer movement, many trailblazing men and women spring to mind. But this weekend marks an important anniversary: Former Navy engineer Jack McAuliffe incorporated his New Albion Brewery, the first modern microbrewery, in Sonoma on Oct. 8, 1976.
I’ve written about McAuliffe before, but his brewery marks one of two major milestones in the short history of craft beer in America. The other, of course, was Fritz Maytag’s purchase of San Francisco’s only remaining pre-Prohibition brewery — Anchor Brewery, which dates back to 1896.
Brewery from scratch
McAuliffe was the first person to not only build a brewery from scratch but do it almost entirely by himself from scavenged equipment. He scoured salvage yards for scrap metal, old dairy tanks and anything he could use to build New Albion. In those days, there were no domestic brewing equipment companies. You made do with whatever you could find.
McAuliffe’s homemade brewery was a tiny one-barrel system — and the first nanobrewery, a newly popular term for breweries making very small batches.
The path that Maytag took was different from that of the early microbreweries, but Anchor inspired the many aspiring new beer makers who visited, including Ken Grossman, who went on to found Sierra Nevada Brewing, and, of course, McAuliffe.
But that difference, I believe, was McAuliffe’s biggest contribution.
He demonstrated that you could build a brewery on the cheap, with limited resources but enormous amounts of gumption, determination and hard work. Following New Albion’s example, Grossman took night welding classes so he could build Sierra Nevada’s first brewhouse.
Jack is back
Until recently, McAuliffe had become an elusive figure in the brewing community. Disheartened by New Albion’s untimely closing in 1982, he returned to engineering, refusing to stay involved in the fledgling beer industry. After several years, no one even knew where McAuliffe was.
Enter Maureen Ogle, a historian and writer from Iowa who in 2005 was researching a book on the history of beer in America. Ogle finally found McAuliffe in Las Vegas, and highlighted his beer-making experiences, and New Albion Brewing’s history and legacy in “Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer” (Mariner Books, 2007).
But McAuliffe refrained from the limelight, even when the 2007 Craft Brewers Conference honored him. McAuliffe’s assistant brewer, Don Barkley, received the award on his behalf.
It’s often said that history is written by the winners. Until recently, few people knew New Albion’s story, which is unsurprising given that the short-lived company distributed beer only around the Bay Area. Barkley bought the equipment after the brewery closed down and, along with some investors, founded Mendocino Brewing Co.
It took Sierra Nevada’s 30th anniversary to finally coax McAuliffe back into the public eye. Grossman persuaded McAuliffe to come to Chico last year and brew a commemorative collaboration beer, a black barley wine known as “Jack & Ken’s Ale.”
The Craft Brewers Conference was held in San Francisco in March, and for the first time in more than 25 years, McAuliffe attended a beer event. He received a standing ovation.
The following week, I was fortunate enough to sit down for lunch and a few beers with McAuliffe at Santa Rosa’s Russian River Brewing. McAuliffe regaled us with stories from New Albion’s early days. Despite losing the use of an arm in a car accident two years ago, he climbed a tall ladder behind the bar to sign the original New Albion Brewery sign that resides on the brewpub wall.
The next day, we drove up to the original brewery site in Sonoma, a small, nondescript, corrugated steel warehouse where New Albion’s brewery first made pale ale, amber ale and a porter, along with the occasional special release.
It looks almost the same as it once did, McAuliffe said, as he walked around the building, pointing out where the brewing equipment once stood and the loft where he slept.
McAuliffe lives in San Antonio, Texas, these days, with his sister. He attends meetings of a local home-brew club and helps out the next generation of brewers.
I don’t know if those young home-brewers even know who he is, or his place in the history of craft beer in America. But now you do. So this Saturday, raise a glass and drink a toast to one of the pioneers of craft beer. Thank you, Jack. This one’s for you.