with Jack McAuliffe
Founder of New Albion Brewing Co.
In 1976, an ex-Navy man named Jack McAuliffe founded America’s first modern microbrewery, New Albion Brewing Co. in Sonoma, CA. In an era when American brewing was dominated by a few large facilities brewing versions of light lager, McAuliffe hand-built his brewery from the ground up, and brewed full-flavored bottle-conditioned ales in the English tradition. Although his brewery closed after five years, brought down by financial problems, McAuliffe’s pioneering efforts demonstrated that a small, low-cost brewery could be viable, and that American beer lovers were ready for more complex flavors.
Shortly after New Albion closed, McAuliffe vanished from the beer scene, a figure of some mystery to those who succeeded him. Then, this past spring, he attended the 2011 Craft Brewers Conference in San Francisco, in what he called “just a momentary appearance.” The industry he helped to launch had grown to support a 4,000 person sold-out annual meeting and trade show.
You recently enjoyed a fair amount of celebrity in San Francisco at the Brewer’s Conference. What was that like?
Actually, I didn’t enjoy it. I never have. I don’t like crowds and that sort of thing. It’s just not my cup of tea.
What questions did you take from the CBC audience?
Everyone wanted to know, ‘Why did you start in Sonoma, California?’ It’s really easy, dummy. That’s where I lived! What do you think I’m going to do? Start a brewery in East I Don’t Know Where?
So this could have started anywhere. It just happened that Northern California was the place where it all began.
But also, at that time, there was Alice Waters and her California cuisine restaurant. The wineries were starting to bloom, and commercial artisanal cheesemakers like the Marin French Cheese Co. By happenstance, I was in the right place.
Can you remember when you suddenly thought you would build a small commercial brewery? No one had done that before.
Probably when I returned to the San Francisco Bay Area and went to the city college there―Cal State Hayward. I went down for a tour of Anchor Brewing Co., and I thought, man, I know how to make beer, I can do this―just the same thing Ken [Grossman] said to himself four or five years later when he saw what I was doing.
You’ve seen remarkable changes in the beer world. Nowadays, people can walk through a trade show and simply place orders for all the things you had to build by hand.
I’m overwhelmed there’s an industry like this. That’s what amazes me the most. Sierra Nevada’s the sixth largest brewery in the United States. I was up there for the 30th anniversary, thanking Ken for flying me out and putting me up, and Ken said “It was you that made all this possible.”
How did you know how to construct a brewery?
I was a homebrewer, as we say. Of course, I was reading all about the biochemistry and microbiology. I’m interested in heating things up and cooling them down quickly―mechanical engineering stuff. I designed a gravity flow brewhouse. You don’t have to use any pumps; you let gravity do the work. At the top was the hot water back, then it went down to the mash tun, and then to the brew kettle and the hot wort receiver, over to the cellar. I like that sort of stuff.
Did you have a chance in Europe to visit any small breweries?
No, I should have but I just didn’t. But you can learn the darnedest things in books.
Where did you get the equipment?
The stainless steel tanks were from Pepsi Cola. When they shifted to bulk transport of the syrup in a tanker truck, they had all these 55-gallon drums, and they just put them on the junk market. I must have purchased 15 of them, stainless steel food-grade containers that I just had to modify to suit my purpose.
Where did you sell your first beer?
There was a place in Marin County, high-end wine and beers. They came up to visit, and they were very excited about this. They wanted to be first on the list when we got ready to go to market. I’ve forgotten the name.
So there was a lot of buzz about this new beer.
No, it wasn’t a buzz at that time. It was an almost inaudible hiss.