A lot of Americans complain about their country's beer, but not many of them ever do anything about it. Jack McAuliffe, however, is a man who really likes his beer. He had been exposed to British beer, and he thought there should be a similar alternative to what he likes to call this country's "national disgrace." And so today, Jack McAuliffe is America's one and only commercial brewer of the totally natural, additive-free style of drink that the British proudly call "real ale."

McAuliffe runs the New Albion Brewing Company in the small town of Sonoma (population 5,000), about 40 miles north of San Francisco. And when a visitor to the brewery asks him to describe what his ale and stouts have that most American beer lack, he replies that it's more a question of what his beer doesn't have:

"American beer all tastes the same, because they all try to make it as cheaply as possible. Our beer consists of malt, hops, water and yeast. There are no enzymes, which the big companies use to speed the process of mashing and aging, or to ensure longer shelf life. There are no adjuncts - such as corn grits, corn flakes or corn syrups - which are often used as a cheaper source of starch than malt. There are no broad-spectrum antibiotics, which they put in the fermenters to stop bacteria. Thereare no heading agents or foam stabilizers to create an artificial head on your glass of beer. It's the proteins that produce the head in real beer, but these are filtered out in most commercial beer for cosmetic reasons: they make the beer hazy. And there's no carbon dioxide added. The beer is naturally fermented in the bottle."

McAuliffe traces his interest in brewing beer back to 1966, when he was 21 years old and stationed with the U.S. Navy in Holyloch, Scotland. "That's when I was first exposed to real beers," he recalls. "I drank their ales, porters and stouts. I'd always like beer, so I decided I had to find out how it was made."

Home brewing had been legalized in the United Kingdom by the Tax Bill of 1963, and McAuliffe eagerly joined in the new British hobby, bringing it home with him when he returned to pursue a career as an optical engineer near San Francisco. His quest for real beer in this country gradually turned into an obsession; and since home brewing was and still is illegal in the U.S. (although the law is rarely enforced), McAuliffe was eventually inspired to start his own legitimate operation.

After several years of arranging financing, choosing a site and building or otherwise foraging equipment, he received a brewer's license from the government in the spring of last year. Finally, in October, New Albion's first shipments began appearing in local stores, the bottles bearing distinctive labels graced with a drawing of Sir Francis Drake's ship The Golden Hinde in full sail - for, as every self-respecting schoolchild in this state knows. New Albion is the name the celebrated British pirate gave to California during his visit here in 1579.

The New Albion brewery, of course, is not exactly sending shivers of competitive fear down the spines of the country's beer moguls. In fact, it's far and away the smallest registered brewery in the land, working its way up to a rate of production of about 400 barrels per year - compared, for instance, to the 30 million or so that Budweiser churns out in the same amount of time. What's more, New Albion is still plagued with occasional problems in individual brews: recently, a shipment was recalled from stores when the contents either exploded the tops off bottles or turned out to be flat.

But in its first eight months, at least, America's own "real ale" has met with remarkable success. From the first week New Albion beers were available, the brewery has been unable to meet demand, selling every single bottle every single week despite the fact that the rate of production has already been doubled. And some time this summer, McAuliffe will begin distributing kegs to local bars for the first time. As with the bottled product, the keg beer will be fermented in the container, making it America's only non-carbonated draft beer.

Remarkably, New Albion's success to date has been almost entirely due to word-of-mouth reports, with only a few newspaper articles to publicize the brewery. Indeed, unlike most owners of small businesses, Mcauliffe actually dodges publicity, maintaining a standoffish stance to reporters, and plans no advertising. "We really don't have to," he explains. "If you make good beer - if you put money into the ingredients of your beer - you don't have to pay for advertising. It's when you get into the mass market that you can't tell your beer from the others except by the difference in advertising. It's just like cosmetics, or bread, in the big mass market. That's why we don't advertise; small, high-quality food places don't have to."

If the demand continues to expand as it has done, McAuliffe's ambitions extend as far as the enormous Los Angeles market, 400 miles to the south. But he harbors no pretensions that New Albion will become a nationally distributed beer. "I can only get so big," he says. "What I want to do is have my fingers in all the pies, and the brewery's only going to get as large as I can control everything."

Does New Albion's success presage a new era for American drinkers, a future studded with distinctive local ales scattered around the U.S. as they are scattered around Great Britain? McAuliffe isn't optimistic. He says he has heard from a number of other people soliciting advice on how to start their own real-beer operations, but he doubts that many will get very far. "You know," he explains, "you have to either have a great deal of money - an unbounded amount of capital - or you have to be able to weld and do water chemistry, and build the place and go get money and write business plans and do design, mechanical analysis, structural analysis and all that stuff . . . and then run the brewery. There aren't too many of them out there like that.

"You have to be totally committed. The only thing you think about is beer and brewing. You work 10 hours a day, eight days a week. That's the way it is."