A Craft Beer Pioneer Gets a Second Chance

Jack McAuliffe’s New Albion Ale venture was a flop in the ’70s. Not this time | “There will probably be more checks. ... We’re trying to fix a karmic imbalance”

Devin Leonard

There wasn’t much in the beer aisle back in the ’70s when Jack McAuliffe went to the local supermarket — just the usual Budweiser, Miller, Coors, Falstaff, and maybe some Pabst Blue Ribbon. The limited selection didn’t seem to bother the typical American drinker. But it wasn’t enough to suit McAuliffe.

A former submarine electrical technician in the U.S. Navy, McAuliffe fell in love with full-bodied ales and stouts while serving in Scotland. He started brewing his own when he returned home to San Francisco. His friends thought they were pretty good. “I said to myself, ‘Man, what I need to do is build a brewery and start selling this stuff. I can get rich doing this,’ ” he recalls. In 1976, McAuliffe opened New Albion Brewing in Sonoma, Calif., one of the earliest American craft breweries.

It was a radical notion at the time. Today there are 2,360 craft breweries in the U.S., many of them started by entrepreneurial home-brewers like McAuliffe. The Brewers Association, the craft beer industry’s trade group, says its members sold $10 billion worth of beer in 2012. An entire ancillary industry now provides everything from organic hops to fermentation tanks to specially tailored financial consultation.

None of this existed when McAuliffe started New Albion. He remembers talking to brewery suppliers who struggled to suppress their mirth when he told them his plans for his tiny operation: “They said, ‘You’re going to do what?’ ” These, after all, were people accustomed to doing business with corporations like Anheuser-Busch. McAuliffe ended up welding together his artisanal brewery out of used dairy equipment and Pepsi-Cola syrup drums.

McAuliffe made what is considered to be the first modern American pale ale. “I invented that,” he boasts. He also produced a porter, a stout, and a draft ale. He sold them all quickly. But McAuliffe was a better brewer than a businessman. He started out too small. Then he spent all of the brewery’s cash on an expansion plan only to discover that no investor would finance something as fanciful as a microbrewery. In 1982, New Albion filed for bankruptcy, and McAuliffe turned his back on the beer business. “It wasn’t the best experience of my life,” he says. He left California and spent the next three decades designing industrial control systems for sewage treatment facilities and factories that produced aluminum car wheels.

Still, McAuliffe inspired other amateurs with high opinions of their home-brews to turn pro. The result was a revolution in American brewing. Author Maureen Ogle calls New Albion “the most important failed brewery in the industry’s history” in her book Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer. “McAuliffe provided penniless entrepreneurs and ambitious home-brewers with a model of how to build a small, functional, affordable brewhouse.”

Other aspiring craft brewers learned from McAuliffe’s mistakes. One of them was Jim Koch, founder of Boston Beer, who calls New Albion’s demise “a cautionary tale.” He realized he needed to quickly produce a lot more beer if his company was to survive and prosper. Early on, Koch also contracted with a Pittsburgh beermaker to make Samuel Adams Boston Lager, his flagship product, rather than building his own brewery right away. Boston Beer eventually became the country’s largest craft brewer, with 54 different styles of beer. “I made mistakes,” Koch says, “but I didn’t make the same ones Jack made.”

Three years ago, Koch got a call from one of his sales representatives. She had run into an odd character who claimed to have been the first microbrewer in America. The sales rep thought he was a little daft, Koch recalls. The guy’s name was Jack McAuliffe. “Holy s---,” Koch said. “He’s not a crazy guy. He was the original.”

“Really? How come I never heard of him?”

“Well, he went broke,” Koch said. “But that doesn’t take anything away from his accomplishment.”

Koch contacted McAuliffe, told him he’d purchased the trademark to New Albion some years before, and asked if McAuliffe was interested in reviving New Albion Ale with Boston Beer’s help. “The idea was we would give him all the profits,” Koch says. “Hopefully that would make the rest of his life a little better because a lot of us have done very well following in his footsteps.”

Replicating the original brew was possible because the University of California at Davis fermentation science program had preserved some of the yeast originally used in the ale in a cold storage facility. All Koch and McAuliffe had to do was resuscitate the yeast, add ingredients like hops and malt, and New Albion Ale would be reborn. Surely there would be demand for one of the original craft beers now that offbeat brews were trendy.

McAuliffe wasn’t interested. It bugged him that other craft brewers had come along after his flameout and become millionaires. “He was angry for a lot of years,” says John Holl, a beverage journalist and author of the forthcoming The American Craft Beer Cookbook: 150 Recipes From Your Favorite Brewpubs and Breweries, who befriended McAuliffe. “He really held a grudge against the industry.” McAuliffe says he wasn’t sure if Koch’s offer was serious. However, Koch kept nudging, and McAuliffe eventually relented. He appreciated that some of the industry’s biggest names, such as Koch and Sierra Nevada Brewing’s Ken Grossman, were finally giving him credit for his contribution to the craft beer movement. He also needed the money.

In July, McAuliffe traveled to Boston to produce the first batch of New Albion Ale in 30 years. Typically a fan of his own recipes, he was satisfied with the results. “I thought it would sell pretty good,” he says. Once again, McAuliffe was prescient. In January, Boston Beer shipped about 6,000 barrels of New Albion Ale, more than its namesake brewery had made in its entire existence. No sales figures are available yet. But McAuliffe has made $200,000 so far. “There will probably be more checks on top of this,” Koch says. “We’re trying to fix a karmic imbalance.”

Once Boston Beer has sold its entire batch, it will be up to McAuliffe to carry on. Koch turned over the New Albion trademark to the pioneer, who can do whatever he wants with it as long as he doesn’t sell it to a large brewer like Anheuser-Busch InBev. McAuliffe is grateful, but he has no plans to return to beermaking. “I’m transferring all of that to my daughter Renée who lives in Cleveland,” he says. “She’s got the ball.”

Renée DeLuca didn’t respond to several e-mailed requests for comment, but she clearly shares her father’s love of beer. She has a blog called The Brewer’s Daughter, which she’s been using to promote New Albion and to publicly ponder what to do next with the brand. She recently wrote that her childhood dreams included being a veterinarian, or a teacher, or a disc jockey. “But beer?” DeLuca blogged. “I couldn’t have pictured it. And now I embrace it. Fully. Whole-heartedly. Thanks to Jack, and Jim Koch, too.”

Her dad sounds more excited about the house he’s building for himself in Arkansas with a metalworking shop. At 68, he says he has better things to do than go on publicity tours and be fawned over by beer geeks at conventions. “The PR stuff was never my favorite part of running a brewery,” he scoffs. “I belong in the back with a red rag and a 3/4-inch wrench in my back pocket, fixing machinery.”

The bottom line New Albion Ale, a storied early craft beer, has been resurrected. Its current run of 6,000 barrels is more than its total sales in the 1970s.

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