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New Albion is New Again: Sonoma's Seminal Micro-Brewery

Sonoma's 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 GABF

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? Check out Wikipedia: "New Albion is acknowledged as the first United States microbrewery of the modern era, as well as a heavy influence on the subsequent microbrewery and craft beer movements of the late 20th century. "

Though the story is obviously more complex than that, it's an interesting slice of Sonoma 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. (Samuel Adams) 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 of 2013. 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 founder of Samuel Adams, will go directly to Jack McAuliffe.

McAuliffe, who grew up in from Fairfax County, VA, son of an FBI agent, was a and former Navy submarine  mechanic who became a home beer 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,"  according to 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 (not the same Julie Johnson who is a reporter for the Press Democrat).

"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, who had taken over his equipment, he soon moved back to the Bay Area, then to the Las Vegas area, then San Antonio, Texas.

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 barley wine 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 - 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.

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."

Not only people like 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), Michael Altman (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.

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