On October 8, 1976, an ex–Navy mechanic-turned-contractor filed incorporation papers with the state of California for what he called the New Albion Brewing Co. It was the first new brewery in the United States since the end of Prohibition in 1933, and it marked the true advent of what we know today as craft beer and all that comes with it.
The trim, short-haired, blue-eyed Jack McAuliffe’s route to that incorporation 40 years ago was both circuitous and straightforward. He had picked up a taste for decent beer years before while stationed in Scotland, working on the U.S. Navy’s Polaris nuclear submarines. He realized one day that the beer he enjoyed in Europe would not be readily available once he shipped Stateside.
There, beer and brewing had rapidly become homogenized. Where a generation ago there had been dozens of breweries — and two generations ago there had been hundreds — now there were fewer than 100, and the number was shrinking fast. Bob Weinberg, perhaps the most respected brewing industry analyst at the time, predicted one or two American breweries by the 21st century.
What’s more, the beer produced by this dwindling number of breweries was invariably watery and weak, both in alcohol and taste. In Europe, the birthplace of most beer styles, beers could be rich and bracing, delicate and effervescent — all sorts of things most American-made beer was not.
McAuliffe wondered how he might mimic European complexity once he was thousands of miles away. The idea struck him like a thunderbolt: He’d homebrew.
He bought a homebrewing kit and guide from a Boots drug store in Glasgow and a plastic trash can to act as fermentation vessel, and got down to making a rudimentary beer that turned out good enough to impress not only his fellow servicemen but also some of the Scottish locals.
McAuliffe took his new hobby back to Northern California, where he settled after the Navy. It was during a tour of the Anchor Brewing Co. in San Francisco that McAuliffe had an epiphany.
Anchor was a tiny brewery making beer from more traditional ingredients with more traditional methods. No adjuncts or additives like the bigger guys — just barley, hops, yeast and water. Fritz Maytag, the home-appliance heir who had rescued Anchor from closure in 1965, made sure of it. His Anchor was a conscious throwback to that time before Prohibition when beer was often a local foodstuff intimately familiar to its consumers — not some mass-produced, widely shipped alcoholic fizz.
McAuliffe realized he might take his homebrewing that much further and re-create what Anchor was doing. McAuliffe couldn’t afford an existing brewery, even a struggling, small one (and there weren’t necessarily any available, anyway). But he realized he could build one, so he did.
McAuliffe, who had apprenticed as a welder before joining the Navy as a mechanic, rented half of a fruit warehouse in Sonoma County, just north of San Francisco. He studied up on commercial brewing at the University of California, Davis, which then, as now, boasted the nation’s top curriculum and research library in brewing science.
He obtained a brewery license from the state — though, because it had been so long since anyone had opened a brewery in California, officials often labeled New Albion a “winery” on forms, which unspooled that much more red tape to cut.
And he searched for secondhand dairy equipment to rig a brewhouse so that gravity powered the brewing process. (He also fabricated an apartment above the brewhouse, where he lived, spider-like.) McAuliffe, along with two business partners, Jane Zimmerman and Suzie Stern, also milled their own grains and bottled the finished product by hand.
That output reached a barrel and a half at a time, or roughly 495 12-ounce bottles. That volume was a raindrop in the ocean of American beer production, which was on its way to a 1983 peak of 195 million barrels, with a handful of breweries producing most of it (think Anheuser-Busch and Miller). Plus, McAuliffe & Co. had to self-distribute, often in Suzie Stern’s old Dodge van.
New Albion’s fate, then, seemed sealed from the start: A rudimentary setup with which it would be impossible to scale up production; infinitesimal output; distribution into an indifferent marketplace that bigger players dominated; and, finally, an inability to land fresh funds for that scaling-up.
Commercial banks did not understand what McAuliffe was trying to do — “You’re taking on Augie Busch and all of his friends?” — and investors could not be found. McAuliffe folded New Albion in 1983.
The grand attempt had lasted all of six years.
But during that half-decade-plus-one, New Albion had had visitors. It had coverage, too — mild fame, even. The New York Times’ wine critic, Frank Prial, had cause to explain to his readers, “Like true Champagne, New Albion’s final fermentation literally takes place in the bottle.” Singer-songwriter James Taylor dropped by. Someone once mailed a letter to New Albion addressed, simply, “The Brewery, Northern California,” and it had made it.
What really assured that we’d still be talking about New Albion 40 years later is that people like Ken Grossman also dropped by. Grossman toured New Albion while he and then-friend Paul Camusi were mulling a small brewery of their own. They would call it Sierra Nevada but weren’t sure if it would take. Seeing McAuliffe’s homebrewing kit writ large convinced Grossman his own plan was at least viable, if not a slam dunk.
Michael Lewis, a British-trained academic at UC Davis who pioneered brewing research in the U.S., would take classes to New Albion for tours that McAuliffe led personally. The vestiges of New Albion migrated after its closure to a new brewpub in Mendocino County, where McAuliffe himself worked for a while before dropping out of the business, unwilling to be a mate on someone else’s ship.
The historian Maureen Ogle pulled McAuliffe from obscurity in her 2007 book, and he now resides comfortably in the realm of craft beer rock stardom. Boston Beer Co. even resurrected New Albion’s original pale ale recipe in late 2012 for national distribution (McAuliffe reportedly made $200,000 initially). The beer is still made under contract through a brewery in Cleveland.
New Albion remains a chocolate-box-perfect inspiration for a startup brewery in the United States, the common ancestor of the thousands that have followed — whether they realize it or not — and of the beer culture they’ve created.
This column originally appeared at Food Republic.