When the New Albion Brewing Co. — considered the first microbrewery in the U.S. — went out of business in 1982, pioneering owner and brewer Jack McAuliffe slid into obscurity.
And that was fine with him.
As the industry he helped launch flourished and attempted to honor him as one of the most important figures in craft brewing history, McAuliffe remained reclusive, uncomfortable with any public attention.
But now, he is back in the bright brewing spotlight with the release of New Albion Ale, his original pale ale recipe made in collaboration with and at the behest of Boston Beer Co. founder and McAuliffe fan Jim Koch.
And he’s picking up accolades wherever he goes. One beer blogger called him the "Total Goddamn Hero of Craft Beer."
McAuliffe, now 67, will be in the Cleveland area next week at three separate events, promoting New Albion Ale and chatting with the craft beer drinkers who idolize him — the man who opened, and built with his own hands, the country’s first microbrewery in 1976 in Sonoma, Calif.
His visit, which also carries the news that there could be a New Albion brewpub opening in Northeast Ohio in the future, comes with some trepidation. While he understands the fanboy interest, he doesn’t enjoy it.
“It’s not my thing,” he said matter-of-factly during a phone interview from his Arkansas home. “I belong in the back with wrenches and that sort of stuff.”
Whether best described as humble, shy or just a curmudgeon, McAuliffe deserves the praise and attention that make him so uneasy, industry leaders said. He paved the way for microbrewers across the country and helped give birth to a whole new industry.
“Jack showed that someone who had only two dimes to their name can actually build a brewery,” said Maureen Ogle, a historian and author of the book Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer. “And he also made every mistake that you could possibly make and found every pitfall imaginable, and so many people learned from his mistakes. In the first generation of microbrewers, he had an extraordinary influence.”
At the time, the American landscape was dominated by massive breweries pumping out nationwide or regional lagers. There were no microbreweries.
McAuliffe, who was an engineer, built his own brewhouse. He also opted for more flavorful ales instead of lagers. Those are his two greatest contributions, Ogle said.
“Jack created the model for making a new kind of brewery,” she said. “That turned out to be so powerful in the long run. It’s amazing to look back at that.”
McAuliffe, a former Navy technician, is amazed as well.
“What would happen never occurred to me,” he said.
Mainly because no one understood his vision back then.
“When I [would] talk to people about what I was doing, especially looking for money and supplies, they’d say, ‘You’re going to do what?’ ” he said. “They had no idea what I was talking about. None. It was just so beyond any of their thought processes that something like this could happen. Their only reference was to Miller Brewing Co. and Anheuser-Busch.”
He started New Albion Brewing because he wanted to offer a beer other than the light lagers available at the time. And he picked Sonoma “because that’s where I lived.”
In the mid 1970s, there were fewer than 100 breweries in the U.S. Today, there are more than 2,300.
“When you talk about craft beer, it started with him,” said John Lane, a partner with the Bedford Heights-based Winking Lizard Tavern chain, which will host McAuliffe at its two Lizardville locations. “He was the guy who came out in the forefront and really got it all going in this country, especially on the West Coast.”
When New Albion went out of business because it couldn’t turn a profit, McAuliffe returned to engineering and stayed out sight.
“No one had heard a peep out of him,” Ogle said.
In the meantime, Koch had purchased the New Albion trademark so no one else would snatch it up and hoped one day to return it. Thanks to Koch’s efforts, the Brewers Association honored McAuliffe in 2007 for his contributions to the industry.
But in true McAuliffe fashion, he didn’t attend the event.
A few years later, McAuliffe was at a homebrewing club meeting in San Antonio, Texas, where he lived, and ran into a Boston Beer worker who McAuliffe says recognized him “from the history books” and immediately contacted Koch.
“Jack was brewing craft beer when nothing was easy,” Koch said. “Nobody made small scale brewing equipment. Nobody wanted to invest. Retailers and distributors didn’t want your beer. Drinkers couldn’t understand why the beer didn’t taste ‘normal.’ I remember those days. It was so much harder than today.
“When New Albion first opened, it was the only brewery started by a homebrewer. Jack built all of the equipment by hand, taught himself the ins and outs of brewing. At its height, the brewery produced about 450 barrels annually. New Albion inspired countless homebrewers to follow in Jack’s footsteps.”
Ogle credited Sierra Nevada founder Ken Grossman, who was influenced to open his brewery because of New Albion, for helping coax McAuliffe out of his shell. The two collaborated on Jack and Ken’s Black Barleywine Ale in 2010 and did media appearances together.
“It finally hit Jack that people honestly did care about what he did,” Ogle said.
Koch finally met McAuliffe in person at the 2011 Great American Beer Festival and convinced him to collaborate on New Albion Ale. They stayed true to the early recipe, even getting the original yeast used that had been stored at the University of California at Davis.
The taste is as close to the original as science and skill would allow, McAuliffe said.
Koch described New Albion Ale as “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.”
Koch volunteered to give McAuliffe the proceeds from the sales.
“He said, ‘You basically created hundreds of thousands of jobs and a new industry and you made a lot of money for people and you made some of us quite wealthy. What I want to do is do a one-time release on it and give you all the profits,’ ” McAuliffe said.
In turn, McAuliffe has plans for that money.
He is giving it to his daughter, Renee DeLuca, who lives in the Cleveland area, so she can revive the New Albion brand.
DeLuca, who writes a beer blog called The Brewer’s Daughter, plans to continue selling New Albion Ale and also bring back the New Albion porter and stout recipes on contract with Boston Beer.
The long-term plan is to open a New Albion brewpub in the Cleveland area.
DeLuca, who had been given up for adoption and reconnected with McAuliffe about a dozen years ago, said she’s proud of the brewing scene in Northeast Ohio. She plans to take her father around next week to show off the community and convince him that New Albion would find a home here.
“He’d really like to see New Albion continue,” she said.
Thirsty Dog Brewing Co. co-owner John Najeway said it’s an inspiring story if DeLuca is able to revive the New Albion name, especially by opening a brewpub in the Cleveland area. It’s sort of how Koch brewed his great-great-grandfather’s recipe and turned it into Samuel Adams Boston Lager, he said.
“I hope that craft beer drinkers and craft brewers remember where we came from,” Najeway said.
McAuliffe is learning to become more comfortable with the attention.
Last week, he and Koch debuted New Albion Ale together at Russian River Brewing Co. in California.
He will appear for a special tasting at the Greenhouse Tavern in Cleveland from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday. He also will appear from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday at the Lizardville in Rocky River, and 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at the Lizardville in Bedford Heights. Those visits are free and open to the public.
McAuliffe will make a few more promotional appearances around the country, including Indianapolis and Des Moines, before retreating back to his home in Arkansas.
Ogle is thrilled that McAuliffe is getting the recognition.
“It’s a classic American story,” she said. “Guy has an idea. Guy acts on idea. Guy’s idea goes haywire and fails. He fades into obscurity and all of a sudden, late in his life, whammo. How cool is that?”