By Greg Kitsock
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, August 24, 2010; 1:49 PM
Jack McAuliffe is one of the most significant figures in United States brewing history.
He's also one of the most elusive.
As a young Navy technician servicing Uncle Sam's nuclear sub fleet, McAuliffe found himself stationed in Scotland, where he developed a taste for the indigenous ales. When he returned to America, he couldn't find any equivalent beer, so in 1976 he used his engineering skills to fabricate his own brewery out of cast-off dairy and soft drink equipment.
New Albion Brewing Co. in Sonoma, Calif., was the country's first modern microbrewery built from the ground up, a harbinger of the craft beer revolution to come.
McAuliffe marketed an ale, a porter and a stout that attracted national attention, including an article in the July 9, 1978, Washington Post. But he found it impossible to make a living turning out dribs and drabs in his 45-gallon brew house. McAuliffe drew up blueprints for a larger brewery with a pub attached, but the United States was slogging through a recession and bankers weren't interested in lending him the money he needed to build. New Albion folded in 1982; McAuliffe left the beer business and never looked back.
By that time, however, he had inspired about a dozen other entrepreneurs to cobble together their own breweries. Among them was Ken Grossman, founder of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in Chico, Calif., which is on a pace to make 750,000 barrels this year.
To celebrate 30 years of brewing, Grossman coaxed McAuliffe (now in his 60s and living in San Antonio) out of retirement to collaborate on a limited-edition anniversary brew.
Brew day was May 25. "I hadn't seen him in 25 years at least," Grossman said about McAuliffe, who he said had been in an automobile accident the previous year and had lost the use of one arm. "Mainly he supervised and sampled."
Jack and Ken's Black Barleywine Ale recently debuted in 25.4-ounce corked bottles. A deep mahogany color with a ruby glint, the heady brew has a sweet, almost sugary taste up front, giving way to a bittersweet chocolate flavor mid-palate and a hoppy, slightly floral finish.
Although it measures a formidable 10 percent alcohol by volume, the anniversary beer avoids the hot, solventlike taste that mars many young barleywines. It should age gracefully, as live yeast in the bottle chew up the remaining sugar molecules to yield a drier, more complex beer over time.
McAuliffe had yet to sample the finished beer when Grossman put me in touch with him last week. (It was the first time I had spoken with him in my 30 years of writing about beer.) McAuliffe explained that Jack and Ken's Black Barleywine was "an approximation from memory" of a strong beer he served at New Albion's summer solstice parties.
The son of an FBI agent, McAuliffe moved quite a bit in his youth, spending some time in Fairfax County. He was too young to drink at the time. But years later, he recalled, "some joint called the Ratskeller" sent a refrigerated truck cross-country to pick up a load of his beer. (He meant the Brickskeller, of course.)
McAuliffe remembered working long brew days at New Albion that lasted from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. Before he could make beer, he had to truck in water from a spring about five miles away. After the latest brew was bubbling away in the fermenter, there was still packaging to be done (once a week with an antique bottler) and driving wooden cases of filled bottles to the distributor.
At least the commute was easy. McAuliffe lived in a loft inside the corrugated steel shack that housed his equipment.
These days, McAuliffe belongs to a San Antonio home-brew club called Los Cervezados. He doesn't make beer anymore, but he serves as the "technical guy" for members seeking advice.
Every once in a while, he admitted, he fields a question from an amateur brewer who hopes to turn pro on a budget.
"Your skill set is extremely important," he stresses. Ideally, it should encompass disciplines as varied as metallurgy and accounting. "You have to be interested in microbiology, to know your way around a laboratory. You have to know how a sewer system works."
McAuliffe exhibited no regrets about being the Moses of craft brewing, leading others to a promised land that he never got to enter himself. "It's amazing what's happened. The United Sates has become a first-class brewing nation."
But he's keenly aware of his place in history: "I showed people you could start a brewery without a vast fortune."