These days we take American craft beers and microbrews for granted. They're everywhere. Even at places other than baseball parks, I have been known to sip a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Samuel Adams Boston Lager or Pyramid Hefeweizen with dinner when the wine offerings don't wow me.
The choices we have today started with an idiosyncratic microbrewery in Sonoma County, a malty drop amidst a sea of wine.
The inexorable rise in hand-crafted wines (not beers) was just picking up the pace when I started in 1977 as food-and-wine editor of the San Francisco Examiner. It would be years before distinctive, flavorful, character-driven beers, which can be as fascinating as wine, would start to draw attention.
The hot new thing in the beer world 35 years ago was light beer. Big brewers resolutely aimed for weak flavors and were systematically gobbling up the few remaining small regional breweries. Getting a fresh glass of characterful beer imported from Europe was a rare treat. The only craft brewery of any note was San Francisco's Anchor, maker of Anchor Steam. Anchor itself had only recently emerged from obscurity, and years of poor brewing. The new owner, Fritz Maytag, also owned the York Creek Vineyard in Napa Valley.
About then I stumbled across a bottle of New Albion Ale, a cloudy, defiantly bitter brew. I liked it. I tracked it to Sonoma, in the heart of California wine country, where a former optical engineer named Jack McAuliffe had launched the first new small brewery in America since Prohibition. A former Navy machinist, he literally welded it together from spare parts, repurposed equipment and old Coca-Cola syrup drums for aging barrels. I wrote a long feature story for my Examiner food section, describing McAuliffe's efforts to make rich and distinctive beers: the flagship bottle-conditioned ale, a stout, a porter, and the occasional barleywine.
No one knew it at the time, but this was the birth of the craft beer revolution, and I was among the earliest food and wine writers to write about it. Audacity of Hops (Chicago Review Press, $20), a new and excellent history of craft beers in America by Tom Acitelli, brought back those memories. I was especially pleased to see McAuliffe get his due as the trailblazer he was.
I did a web search for New Albion and discovered that Boston Beer Company, which brews Samuel Adams Boston Lager, one of the most successful craft beers ever, had acquired the New Albion trademark some years ago. In 2012, recognizing the debt they owe McAuliffe, the owners of Boston Beer made the first bottles of New Albion Ale in 30 years, with Jack supervising the recipe and getting all the profits. That one batch contained more beer than New Albion had turned out in its entire six-year existence. It went on sale in January 2013 and sold out by July.
Generously, Boston Beer founder Jim Koch signed over future rights to New Albion to McAuliffe, who had given up on the beer business. He now lives in Arkansas.
"It's been a journey, getting him to realize how much the craft beer world realized it owed him," said his daughter, Renée DeLuca, a former broadcast journalist who lives near Cleveland and writes a blog about beer called the Brewer's Daughter. When I could not find a copy of my old story on him, I e-mailed her to see if by chance her dad's old files might have it. (The Examiner was sold some years ago, its archives now available only on microfilm at libraries.)
"Jack didn't save a thing, of course," she wrote back, "but I have articles dating back to the '70s and '80s that were in my grandfather's collection." The .pdf she sent, my story dated Oct. 18, 1978, outlined my visit to Sonoma to spend the day with McAuliffe and his business partner, Suzy Stern. One quote jumped out at me. Noting his proximity to all those grapevines, he made this observation: "Beer is an urban product. Wine is agricultural, and there's an art to winemaking. Brewing is technological. Engineers make beer; poets make wine."
The following year, wine writer Frank Prial dropped by to write an enthusiastic piece for the New York Times. New Albion got coverage in national magazines. But it was too early in the game. Craft beer, with its strong, often bitter flavors, still puzzled most American beer drinkers, accustomed to swigging weaker stuff. By 1982, the financial realities of being a lone pioneer finally caught up with him.
The craft beer revolution, however, was under way. A new venture, Hopland Brewing (now the Mendocino Brewing Company) bought McAuliffe's old brewing equipment and hired him (and his assistant brewer) to make the beer.
To bring things full circle, McAuliffe's daughter is close to a deal with Mendocino Brewing to make New Albion Ale and resuscitate the brand. Now in his 60s, having lost the use of one arm in an automobile accident and uninterested in getting back to brewing, Jack had passed along the rights to Renée.
"I offered it to Jim Koch at Boston first," she said as we sipped American-brewed hefeweizen and Belgian white ale at the Monk's Kettle, a serious beer bar in San Francisco. "But he said no." Doing this in Mendocino, she said, brings things around full circle.
Nowadays there are hundreds of craft beers on the shelves and on tap. Even the big companies are bottling beers that play off interest in craft beers, with brands such as Blue Moon (made by Coors), Shock Top (InBev) and Budweiser American Ale, an echo of the big vintners' response to the explosion in boutique wineries. That's a lot for little New Albion to compete with, but at least there are a few of us who can't wait to sample some.